To mark its 120th anniversary this year, each month the British Academy will look back on a different decade in its history by delving into its extensive archive of historical sources. This retrospective leads up to the publication of a booklet on the first 120 years of the Academy.
The British Academy’s new Secretary, Mortimer Wheeler, was determined to improve its administration, its finances, and its role in supporting research. In 1950, the Treasury accepted with some relief the suggestion that the Academy should step in to become the channel through which the British international research ‘Schools and Institutes’ received government funds.
A further opportunity to raise the profile of the British Academy was presented by the celebration of its 50th anniversary in 1952. The Academy’s Council was excited by ‘the possibility of utilizing the occasion for the introduction of a new and outstanding distinguished Honorary Fellow’. The person they had in mind was the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. In fact there had already been two unsuccessful attempts to elect Churchill as an ‘Ordinary’ Fellow, for his scholarly work as a writer of history – first in 1938, when the Academy’s Council decided not to recommend him for election, and then in 1939 (after Council had been urged to re-think), when it was Churchill’s turn to say no, regretting that ‘in the present circumstances’ he would be ‘too fully occupied’ to be able to accept. Council’s hopes that the Prime Minister would now adorn its golden jubilee dinner were frustrated when Churchill said that ‘the pressure of my public duties’ prevented him from attending, but he did accept the Honorary Fellowship.
Wheeler sought to refresh the British Academy’s programmes of events and publications. New endowments added new lecture series, in archaeology, poetry, and law. Monographs published included a field survey of Offa’s Dyke and a definitive study of Corregio’s Drawings. And new long-term publishing series were embarked upon, including one to catalogue the early coinage of Britain and Ireland.
But it was in this decade that the British Academy took a significant step forward as a funder of research. In 1954 the Pilgrim Trust approached the Academy about the possibility of establishing a fund from which grants could be paid to scholars ‘in the field of the Humanities and the Arts’. As a pilot to test the viability of such a funding scheme, the Trust gave the Academy £2000 a year for three years for the purpose of ‘helping individual scholars to carry to a conclusion work of high value to scholarship which otherwise could never be concluded or might not be concluded for a long time’. At the end of the trial, the Academy was able to report that 41 academics, early career researchers as well as more senior scholars, had been supported, and the Pilgrim Trust responded by renewing its funding for another three years.
These grants had been modest, but they had indicated the need for – and the value of – such research funding. To prove the point to government, in 1958 the British Academy secured £6000 from the Rockefeller Foundation to conduct a systematic review of the provision for research in the humanities and social sciences in the UK.
Additional related content:
The British Academy: The First Fifty Years, by Frederic Kenyon FBA, published in 1952 to mark the Academy’s golden jubilee
Art at the British Academy
Professor Dawn Adès FBA, Chair of the British Academy’s Art Committee, discusses the works of art that adorn the Academy’s home in Carlton House Terrace.
Winston Churchill was elected an Honorary Fellow of the British Academy in 1952. He is included in a group portrait of eight of the Academy’s Honorary Fellows, which has been commissioned by the Academy from the Scottish artist Calum Colvin RSA. The work is being created in Calum’s signature style of ‘constructed photography’ – that is, assembled tableaux of objects, which are then painted and photographed. Other Fellows portrayed will include the philosophers Bertrand Russell and Mary Warnock, the artist Henry Moore, and Baroness Brenda Hale, the former President of the Supreme Court. This will be the latest addition to the British Academy’s collection of art.
When the British Academy moved to Carlton House Terrace in 1998, it was clear that the small art collection it brought with it from its previous premises was not going to be adequate to the task of filling the walls of the large rooms of its new home. The Art Committee was formed to address this. The collection it has put together now contains over a hundred works, ranging in date from the early eighteenth century to the present, and across a variety of media, including figurative and non-figurative paintings, prints, photography, textiles and ceramics. Works are acquired through purchases, commissions, donations and bequests, and loans further enhance the collection.
There are pieces that are in keeping with the period and style of the building, including a large portrait (on loan from the National Portrait Gallery) of Edward VII who granted the British Academy its Royal Charter in 1902. But there is a particular focus on works by leading modern and contemporary British artists. A highlight is the significant collection of works from well-known artists of the St Ives School, including Barbara Hepworth, Terry Frost, Roger Hilton and Wilhemina Barns Graham; these have largely come from the generous bequest by the sociologist Ray Pahl FBA, who was a keen collector.
Commissions have also been possible thanks to fundraising campaigns. A jewel in the crown has been Patrick Hughes’s intriguing A Study of the Studiolo. And in the run up to its centenary in 2002, the British Academy commissioned two other group portraits – of its living Presidents (by Stuart Pearson Wright), and of all its female Vice-Presidents (by John Goto).
This page was created to mark 12 Decades of the British Academy.