Royal Academy's feast for the eyes

IAN COLLINS At the latest Royal Academy summer show Ian Collins is surprised by a tasty selection.


Blimey. I've just emerged from a preview of a Royal Academy summer exhibition minus my usual headache and pangs of hunger.

Maybe it's because this year's summer pudding of a show - the 238th serving in an unbroken line back to 1768 - has a lot more fruit and an added dollop of real cream.

Whereas normally I sip and nibble in odd corners of visual interest before hurrying to the next gallery - while always looking forward to the exit - in the exhibition opening to the public on Monday, April 13, I was happy to linger. There's sterling stuff here from start to finish.

I also enjoyed the optical illusion that there were far fewer things to see and to be upset by. In fact, a bumper tally of more than 1,300 paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photos and architectural models has been chosen from over 9,000 artworks submitted.

You'll be able to follow the selection process in three fly-on-the-wall BBC2 documentaries coming soon. But as the presenter is that flouncy Lolly Lloly-Bolly thingy who mucks up people's houses, I won't be retrieving my telly from the skip

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This annual blending of the great and the not-so-good may be missing David Hockney (said to be fuming over the RA's anti-smoking rules), and a Peter Blake furious over a staff sacking, but the extended tributes to late academicians Eduardo Paolozzi and Patrick Caulfield are truly moving.

As a sculptor and print-maker steeped in Pop Art, Paolozzi had strong working links with Suffolk. I loved the vibrancy of the 1965 screenprint illustrated here, As Is When: Wittgenstein The Soldier.

It is as mysterious a work as the writings of the Cambridge-based philosopher. After his death, pupil Gene Ennals, later the wife of Norwich North MP David, took a heap of his jottings and burned small piles at points all over Europe as the will directed. But I digress…

The 2006 show begins with a shout from Damien Hirst - a huge, partly flayed bronze of a pregnant woman reminding me of a preying mantis - and ends with a whimper from Tracey Emin (whose art remains fascinatingly feeble).

The real shock in the section for exhibitionist stars of the Saatchi Sensation show, a blot on the memory from 1997, is that Turner Prize-winner Grayson Perry is a brilliant potter. If only he didn't hide his talent with a transvestite turn smacking of cheap publicity tricks.

With last year's best-work-in-show prize going to Norfolk's Colin Self - who should be a Royal Academician by now, but instead isn't even exhibiting - my choice for a worthy successor would be one of several vast royal portrait collages by David Mach.

Mach has snipped hundreds of postcards of the Queen, and turned that familiar face into a calendar girl or the Mona Lisa. In Heirs and Graces Prince William is transformed into that kitsch Green Lady.

These are the most impressive, thought-provoking portraits of HM since the glorious work of Annigoni, and the best of her grandson ever - and the welcome element of comedy invites us to ponder the nature of iconography and celebrity.

I always cheer canvases by Lowestoft-raised Jeffery Camp, the English Chagall. In the new sample lovers toppling over cliffs are joined in their passionate plunges into oblivion by the last of London's Routemaster buses.

And Walberswick's William Bowyer celebrates his 80th birthday with another strong and vivid series of oil scenes from watery Southwold and Chiswick.

As always, East Anglia's select little RA band is chiefly crammed into the Small Weston Room, where some works are hard (or impossible) to see. But I spied: three more flower pieces by John Morley, contrasting the light of Suffolk and Prague; two tiny oils of tabletop assemblies by Enid Clarke of Carbrooke, near Thetford; deft oils by Norwich's Dierdre Daines and Keith Johnson; and a view of Venice by Valerie Orchard of Boughton, near King's Lynn.

Veteran RA exhibitor Geoffrey Burrows here offers a typically down-to-earth and pleasing view of bungalows beyond his Spixworth garden.

What looked to be an even better Burrows oil of a burned-out bonfire - hung horribly high - should have been shown alongside the similar scene in thread by Halesworth's Ann Ward.

Norwich artist Josephine Brett is represented with a sturdy and lively drawing of the cliffs at Cromer, close to the Sheringham base of one of the wildmen of contemporary architect-ure, Will Alsop. His latest summer show exhibits - a small model and a vast collage - continue to advance the idea of wacky and wonderful buildings turning into abstract art.

As usual almost everything in the summer show is for sale, at prices from £100 to £80,000.

The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition (0870 848 8484; runs from April 13 until August 20. Open Saturday to Thursday 10-6 and Friday 10-10. Admission £7, concessions £2-£6. Tube: Green Park.

t BBC2's behind-the-scenes series, presented by Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, begins on June 20 at 8pm.

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