The Secret to a Good Life – A project by Bob and Roberta Smith, Royal Academy of Arts, September 2018

IMG_2818The transformed RA building which now connects the Burlington House and Burlington Gardens sites is worth a visit any time of the year. The newly opened spaces connect visitors not only to art but the past and future of a huge range of artists. As part of their 250th anniversary celebrations the RA has opened a free exhibition by Bob and Roberta Smith RA (a.k.a. Patrick Brill) entitled ‘ The Secret to a Good Life’.

Guests milling about in the vaults that connect the two RA buildings

Anniversaries are a good time for self reflection and the Bob and Roberta Smith project explores the sometimes strained relationships between women artists and the Royal Academy in particular with a focus on Deirdre Borlase (1925-2018) (Brill’s mother). 


While the exhibition traces Borlase’s story, Bob and Roberta Smith also examines his mother’s influence on his own career as an artist and where that all began. The works included in the show explain how she inspired him to draw and express himself through art. It followers her career and marriage to Frederick Brill (also an artist) and highlights the role of a woman in the art world. Perhaps a not unsurprising story of how Borlase felt she needed to submit work under her surname and omit her first name to get the same recognition as the men.


Sadly Borlase very recent passing means this exhibition takes on a poignancy and emotional impact that I was not expecting. When Borlase was ill her son asked her what the secret to a good life was and she replied a good pencil. There are messages here about the choices we make in life, how we raise children, how we support and offer chances for individuals and groups to express themselves.

Bob and Roberta Smith shares his inspiration to guests

Visiting the day before my children returned to school it it made me think what a good life will be for them, how schools can often stifle creativity and the room to find an individual voice. The fact that one of the main exhibits is painted on a selection of doors only emphasized this for me. The doors that offer us our way in the world, the doors that close and shift our paths to new destinations.


I am always fascinated by the stories behind artists who ‘make it’. What inspired them, how were they encouraged, how did opportunities come for them. Access has to be paramount, not just to material and resources and teachers but access to ideas and imagination and the freedom to choose your own path.



The Secret to a Good Life – A Project by Bob and Roberta Smith RA is free to visit and runs at the Royal Academy of Arts from 4th Sept 2018 – 3 Feb 2019. For more information and opening times please see the website –

You can also read an obituary of Deirdre Borlase here –


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