The Royal Academy of Arts is a cornerstone of London’s contemporary art culture, both for its reputation as a gallery and for its intimate and highly regarded post graduate programme: the Royal Academy Schools. Based in central London, within their parent institution, the Schools consists of a single establishment of approximately 50 students. As the oldest art school in Britain, it is hard to deny their important, yet peculiar, place amongst London’s wide range of postgraduate fine art programmes.

This peculiarity is in part due to their non-affiliated nature. The RA Schools are not classified as a Master’s Course per se, and as such are not validated, and completely independent from the state. This outsider situation allows the Schools to diverge from classic education programming in many ways: the teaching lasts for 3 years, there is a complete absence of tuition fees (a small bursary is even provided to help students sustain outside financial pressure), and the curriculum is devoid of any of the state-determined learning outcomes that we have all learned to live with.

Due to the combination of an extremely selective process, a reputation for educating successful artists, and the characteristics enunciated before, it is hard to deny that the RA Schools is one of the most high-profile postgraduate art courses on offer in the country, and one with immense popularity. To explore these inner workings in greater depth, we discussed with both staff and ex-students what makes the Schools tick.


Lewis Hammond’s studio

Do you think there is something that sets the RA Schools apart from other art schools in the UK? If yes, what?

Richard Wilson RA: Yes, definitely three things:

a)   The schools are independent and therefore self governing and self financing. This means that should you secure a place on the only three year course in the UK, there are no fees to pay

b)   Bursaries are available to students to fund work.

c)   Students are placed in the heart of the capital, and are integrated at the centre of the Royal Academy building with its staggering exhibition spaces and Royal Academicians.


Lewis Hammond’s studio

Ushered into the hallowed halls of the RA Schools, we arrive minutes after a large group of prospective candidates leave the building following an open day. Inside, the studio walls and floors are plastered with the work of current students: tentative early paintings, unfinished sculptures, pages of inspiration and ideas, fresh canvases stretched with anticipation for the year ahead.

We are here to talk to Eliza Bonham Carter, Head of the RA Schools, about what makes the course here so unique, and, at a time when arts education is fragile and expensive, what makes it so necessary. As the cost of education has recently risen threefold, the opportunity to study contemporary art free of the burden of student debt is sought after by many students, especially given the spiralling costs of life in London.

The Royal Academy Schools is different from other art schools, because you study there for three years and you don’t pay tuition fees. – Julie Born Schwartz

We asked Eliza the obvious question, how is this self-financing system possible? “We can do it because back in 1768 this group of artists came up with the most incredible business plan. I mean my god, they would have won “The Apprentice”, it is just so clever. They would have an art school that was free and that was paid for by an annual exhibition, which is the Summer Exhibition.” But can a single show cover the cost of running an entire art school? “No, it’s more complicated than that now. We raise currently about four fifths of our income through fundraising activities, and the Academy always underwrites what we don’t raise. That is where the Summer Exhibition still plays a vital role.”

The rise of institutions such as Open School East attest to the current need for alternative art schools models. Across the country, and indeed the world, academics are exploring new ways of teaching in the face of increasingly restrictive curriculums. Independence from the state seems to be the only option if one wants to put forward a free education. The self-financing has a triple impact on the RA Schools: it enable students who can’t or won’t consider a 9000 pound a year education to consider the Schools; it means you can allocate more of your time to education than to work – as Eliza remarks, “It means that students can be working here more instead of earning money, and this is very good for the work”; and it also permits the Schools to dictate their own curriculum.

Jonathan Kelly’s studio, work in progress

Something that really struck me was that there was no grading/marking system – At the beginning you’re nervous and seeking some kind of affirmation that you are on the right track or doing ‘OK’, but that quickly goes away, and I believe that that lends itself to a much healthier approach to making and thinking about art. – Alice Theobald

The programme of the RA Schools encourages a blend of the traditional and the contemporary, with printing and editing suites alongside ancient casts. Professors are attached to topics ranging from anatomy to computer vision, illuminating further the symbiotic relationship between traditional and contemporary topics. Additionally, traditional unit-based marking systems are superseded by “end of year reviews” and “constant evaluation of work.” However, a week in the RA schools doesn’t seem so far from an accredited masters course: guest lectures – here organised by 2nd year students; tutorial with tutors or visiting staff; and working in the studio with your peers. It is perhaps there that the small size of the student body is beneficial – with around 50 students overall, the workshops seem far from crowded.


Jonathan Kelly’s studio, work in progress

The Royal Academy Schools watches and responds to artists’ needs as opposed to upholding the government’s corporatised agenda. So yes, it’s entirely unique and getting more so, as it maintains its course. – Matthew Darbyshire

Another major factor in the RA Schools’ ongoing success as an alternative art schooling environment is its relationship with the Royal Academy itself, and in particular the presence of the Royal Academicians. Tacita Dean, Anish Kapoor, Antony Gormley, Wolfgang Tillmans are all among their number. But what exactly makes a Royal Academician? And what is their role at the schools? The Academicians are a selection of artists elected to the Royal Academy by their peers, and some of them are involved in the Schools as professors. “Wherever a professorship is art based, it’s always filled by an Academician. The professors are, if you like, the cherry on the top of the cake, so they don’t deliver the meat and bread, they are slightly different from the professors at some other universities who are maybe there four or five days a week,” Eliza explains.

This unique opportunity extends well beyond the teaching environment, with students often taking up assistant jobs with Academicians during and after study. “I think over a year you would have opportunities to meet and interact with all of the professors, although some might just come in for tutorials and some might come in for a lecture.”

And if sharing ideas with internationally renowned artists isn’t enough, then you can always just spend time within the Royal Academy Collection for inspiration, as Eliza indicates: “being able to stand in front of a Manet, and then walk downstairs and get in your studio, that is incredible.”


Jonathan Kelly’s studio, work in progress

When I went to the RA it wasn’t considered cool, but an alternative choice. Most studied at the usual institutions, but they were never an option, as far as I was concerned. – Tim Ellis

So, is this the utopia of artistic education that we so desperately need? The truth is that this model is not transferrable, and certainly not in any kind of large scale. Self-funding through an annual show is not a repeatable feat, and only a handful of schools potentially have the combination of such a prestigious history and the backing of patrons and external funds to fall back on. As Eliza says, “the difficulty is that that business plan only works once. It requires someone with a lot of money to stump up a building. Buildings are the real difficulty.”

It is also politically puzzling that independence from the state is what gives this school the liberties most students seem to seek. And even if the future for arts education may lie outside the confines of traditional institutions, it is unclear if any of these can flourish without massive private investment. However, in the meantime, we can console ourselves with the fact that the Royal Academy Schools exists in a time of great uncertainty, even if they only help a select few every year.


Kira Freije in her studio

I think that not being an ‘accredited’ course in some ways allows for a more fluid and responsive course structure, which I found very supportive and encouraged me to take risks and experiment. – Adham Faramawy

If what you have read so far seems like the art education you are looking for, and you would want to become one of the new crop of successful applicants, how can you set yourself apart? “There is something very specific we are looking to avoid,” Eliza says. “Someone who wants a free studio on Piccadilly for a few years.” Well, isn’t that everyone? “Yes, but we want to avoid people who are really quite satisfied with where they are.” She stresses that the ideal applicant excites the panel (which includes one final year student), but also shows they are engaged with “critical discourse” and have a “hunger to interrogate and progress the work.”

On this note, we leave Eliza to prepare for the next set of applications (the deadline for which is December 1st). As we leave we pass through more unfinished student work and into the Royal Academy itself, where vast swathes of the public are walking in and out of the new Ai WeiWei exhibition. Fine inspiration indeed.

Words by Alexandre Saden and Ben Walker

Photography by Oliver Vanes for 1 Granary

Featured image: Eliza Bonham Carter in Robin Seir’s studio (work in progress in background)

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