By Anthony J. Lester, AICA, FRBA, Hon.RMS, FRSA
First published in Pure Gold: 50 Years of the FBA
During the 1950s the Royal Society of British Artists began haemorrhaging money on the repair and upkeep of their gallery space at 6½ Suffolk Street and, as was the case with the galleries of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours on Piccadilly, the lease was nearing its end.
These two impressive buildings were where the majority of the leading art societies of the period mounted their annual exhibitions — the two galleries were, in effect, the very life-blood of hundreds of artists.
The FBA’s aspiration was to create a single home and exhibition space in central London, where these and other leading art societies would come together under one administrative umbrella whilst retaining their independence.
This was a formidable undertaking. Under the direction of its first Secretary-General, Maurice Bernard Bradshaw OBE, the Federation was incorporated in February 1961 and established as a charitable company at the same time.
Initially, the Federation operated from the RBA’s galleries in Suffolk Street, but in 1971 a new office space was secured at 17 Carlton House Terrace, providing an exhibition venue for all the member societies in the long podium of John Nash’s elegant 1827 Regency Terrace. The Mall Galleries were officially opened by Her Majesty The Queen on 25 February 1971.
Invitation to the opening of Mall Galleries
The birth of several of the art societies now under the auspices of the FBA was as a result of the dictatorial Royal Academy (RA), housed in nearby Piccadilly.
Since its foundation in 1768, the Royal Academy has both seduced and exasperated artists. It is inevitable that such a formidable institution will ruffle feathers; however, in many respects, this has been extremely constructive — the Academy’s sometimes bombastic thinking has been directly responsible for some artists uniting to establish their own worthy organisations.
During their distinguished history, each of the current eight exhibiting art societies have had their own highs and lows and, with an eclectic mix of characters forming each membership, there have been many stories of internal disputes.
The oldest of all the societies is the Royal Society of British Artists (RBA). The Society’s history goes back to 21 May 1823 when a group of painters gathered at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. They were disenchanted by the RA’s restrictions on the Academician membership — at the time, under 50. The new mavericks formed the Society of British Artists with a manifesto that did not restrict membership.
Shortly after the inaugural meeting, over £1,000 had been raised — an adequate sum to engage the most fashionable architect of the day, John Nash.
At a site in Suffolk Street, just a short stroll down The Strand from the RA’s building, the Society’s new, capacious and elegant gallery was constructed. On 13 April 1824 a grand dinner took place at the new gallery and one of the distinguished guests, the Duke of Sussex, pronounced that the Royal Academy, far from feeling any jealousy towards the new society, should “look upon it with satisfaction and pride, because it had in some manner emanated from itself”.
That said, the then RA President, Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), could see no reason for another art society.
However, with the successful miniaturist and portrait painter, Thomas Heaphy (1775-1835) at the helm as President, the Society of British Artists opened its first exhibition in 1824. Bedecked with innumerable canvases — it took fifteen days to hang the show — the event was reported as ‘dead game elbowed picturesque renderings of banditti and gypsies, whilst the adventures of mischievous juveniles and the antics of cat and kitten were sure of an appreciative audience’.
And so it was — sales totalled £4,000. The Times (19 April 1824) wrote at length about the show and was pleased to see a ‘very considerable number of historical compositions.’
Growing prosperity in industrial 19th century England witnessed one of the most burgeoning periods the art market has ever seen — artists who were deemed the crème de la crème, were engulfed in adulation.
Some indication of the booming market can be gleaned from Charles Baxter’s (1809-1879) Tranquillity, which at the society’s 1869 exhibition was priced at £63.
At the time, this sum would have paid for the annual rent of a reasonably substantial London house. As the century progressed, art prices unremittingly increased.
This was all good news for the RBA and its rise to preeminence was further enhanced in 1847 when it was incorporated by Royal Charter and a constituted Royal Charter in 1887. However, by the 1880s the Society had become somewhat blasé and tired in its presentation.
The charismatic James McNeill Whistler said that it had lapsed into “a sort of crèche for the Royal Academy”. This was certainly being reflected in exhibition sales — in 1885 they were half what they had been the previous year. Salvation came in December 1886 when Whistler took up office as President.
Very pro-active, he told the membership “Old fashioned pictures had ceased to become saleable wares”.
He was equally irritated by the exhibition’s presentation —”We want clean spaces around our pictures. We want them to be seen, The British Artists must cease to be a shop”. The first year of his Presidentship witnessed just 500 pictures hung, as opposed to 800 the previous year.
Whistler’s ‘clean sweep‘ did not end there — “What you call British art is not art at all — but produce for the market” — avant-garde art, by the likes of Claude Monet (1840-1928), were introduced. London’s elite flocked to the gallery. However, all this radical change proved too much for many of the members and in 1887, Whistler was ‘pushed out', replaced as President by Sir Wyke Bayliss (1835-1906), who reinstated the RBA back on traditional lines.
The early years of the RA had also been a thorn in the side of watercolourists. The term ‘painter’ implied that the artists worked in oil, and a watercolour ‘drawing’ was never described as a painting. Although the Academy did relent and exhibited watercolours, they were invariable banished to the small exhibition rooms and hung high up, making viewing almost impossible.
In 1804 the Society of Painters in Water Colours (now the RWS) was founded but they were a ‘closed’ show — only elected associates and members could exhibit.
There was considerable malaise amongst the hundreds of watercolourists left out in the cold. The inception of another art organisation was required and under the Presidency of Joseph Powell (1780-1834) the New Society of Painters in Water Colours opened its inaugural exhibition on 14 April 1832 at The Gallery, 16 Old Bond Street.
With 330 works on display, The Times commented, ‘It contains many works of merit, and is upon the whole very creditable as a first attempt’.
The next significant event for the Society started to unfold during 1881. The Committee approached the ‘Old’ Society with an ambitious proposal to amalgamate both organisations and to build a new gallery in the heart of London.
However, the fusion of the two groups did not come to fruition. Ironically, a decade or so ago, HM The Queen suggested to the Presidents of the RI and RWS that the two rival societies should become one brotherhood.
Rumbles of horror echoed through both camps; however, the poisonous rivalry of the past is fading fast and in 2009 the two mounted a successful joint exhibition called High Watermark.
Returning to history, the RI went ahead with the building project and with typical Victorian pomp and ceremony their magnificent new gallery, situated at 195 Piccadilly, was opened on 27 April 1883. Shortly after the opening, Queen Victoria conferred upon the Institute the title ‘Royal’.
It is thought-provoking that at this period it was the norm to display over 1,000 watercolours at the Institute’s annual exhibitions.
Towards the end of the 19th century there was a proliferation of art societies and perhaps it was a logical development to have a society devoted to oil painters.
And so, in 1883 the Institute of Oil Painters was founded and in 1909 King Edward VII granted it Royal status (ROI).
Since then the Institute has attracted as exhibitors some eminent painters, including Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema RA (1836-1912), Walter Sickert (1860-1942), Henry La Thangue (1859-1929), Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) and Christopher R W Nevinson (1889-1946).
As in the early part of the 19th century, the 1880s witnessed a growing band of artists reacting against the RA’s puritanical manner.
At the time the Academy’s President was the academic conformist, Sir Frederick, later Lord Leighton (1830-1896), who had no time for the French painters who were developing a fresh and vivacious way of depicting the world around them.
As is well documented, bands of forward-thinking British artists crossed the Channel to be inspired. It was some of these leading figures – including Frederick Brown (1851-1941), Robert Weir Allan (1852-1942) and Philip Wilson Steer (1860-1942), all three of whom studied at the Académie Julian in Paris – who helped create the New English Art Club (NEAC).
The Club’s aspirations are perfectly summed up by founder member William James Laidley (1846-1912), who wrote in his book The Origin and First Two Years of the New English Art Club:
‘Now, the New English Art Club, speaking in a general sort of way, was the outcome of a movement or feeling expressed at divers little meetings held in Paris and London between the years 1880 and 1886, with a view to protesting against the narrowness of the Royal Academy and to obtaining fuller recognition for the work of English artist who had studied art in France. The idea at the outset was simply to supply a want and start an exhibiting society.’
Having attracted a membership of 50, the NEAC’s inaugural show opened on 12 April 1886 at the Marlborough Gallery in Pall Mall.
Among the 58 oils and two sculptures, were John Singer Sargent’s (1856-1925) Mrs Barnard, a Study and Destiny, an important oil by Thomas Cooper Gotch (1854-1931), which is now in the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.
Although The Times questioned why another exhibition was necessary when there ‘are so many’, the press, on the whole, found favour with the hanging.
That is more than can be said for Frederick Leighton, who haughtily declared “The second year will try these men and the third probably disband them.” His predictions, of course, proved completely hollow.
While the NEAC rapidly became an important showcase for painters who desired freedom of expression unfettered by conventionality, it also soon developed into something of a gladiators‘ arena.
Artists associated with Newlyn, including Stanhope Forbes (1857-1947), together with artists linked with the Glasgow School, became increasingly disenchanted with other members‘ remarks, that their canvases were outmoded.
Walter Richard Sickert (1860-1942), who started showing with the NEAC in 1886 and rapidly took an active part in its policy and committee work, was one of the main critics, even voicing his venomous feelings in the New York Herald of which he was London Editor.
Little wonder that in 1890 the Newlyn members resigned en masse, followed a year later by the Glaswegians.
Not know for his placidity, Whistler also had a confrontation with the Club. In 1888 he showed his etching Grand Place, Brussels at the NEAC and the following year even served on the selection jury. However, after that he became disillusioned and later furious with the Club for hanging a watercolour by the amateur painter, Sir William Eden (1849-1915).
Moving from its generative period into the 20th century, the Society’s art appeared rather orthodox. Commenting on the 1912 exhibition The Connoisseur wrote that there were no pioneers in the group and ‘There was scarcely a work which would have offended a Royal Academy hanging committee by its heterodoxy, and some of the best pictures were contributed by members who have been in the ranks of the elect of Burlington House.’
Given the NEAC’s early aversions to the Academy’s restrictive attitude, this is an ironic observation. In fact, throughout the 20th century many Academicians, such as Augustus John and Stanley Spencer, were elected to the NEAC.
It was during the 1940s and 1950s that the RA and the NEAC were at their closest point, with many artists deeming the Club as a ‘staging post’ to RA membership. Today, the RA is a very different animal and the NEAC is proving to be the bastion of figurative art.
The 1890s brought the founding of two more distinguished societies that are now under the FBA umbrella — the Society of Portrait Painters (RP), founded in 1891, and the Pastel Society (PS) established in 1898.
Again, the Royal Academy was the culprit — a group of portrait artists had become so frustrated at the Academy’s closed-shop attitude that they decided to create their own society exclusively to the art and development of portraiture. With an impressive membership, including Sir John Everett Millais, George Frederick Watts and James McNeill Whistler, the society blossomed (although the first exhibition made nearly a £200 loss and for several years the Society’s finances remained precarious) and in 1911 it was granted its Royal Charter.
Holding annual exhibitions at various venues, including the Royal Academy during the war years, the RP has had an impressive list of Presidents — Sir William Open, Augustus John and Sir James Gunn being but three.
Given that pastel has had such a long and distinguished history and has been used by many of the world’s greatest artists, it is perhaps surprising that the medium did not have its own society until so late in the 19th century.
By the time of the Society’s inaugural exhibition, which opened on 4 February 1899, there was a committee of nineteen, including Sir William Blake Richmond RA (1842-1921), the Norwegian landscape painter Fritz Thaulow (1846-1906), the Frenchman Eugène Carrière (1849-1906) and the illustrator Walter Crane (1845-1915). There was an equally impressive membership, among them the Pre-Raphaelite William Holman Hunt (1827-1910).
Our final two societies both focus on specific subject themes. Although formed in 1939, the Society of Marine Painters, later known as the Royal Society of Marine Artists (RSMA) – the title ‘Royal’ was granted by H M The Queen in 1966 – initially, because of World War II, could only exhibit their work as part of the United Society of Artists (founded 1921) exhibition at Burlington House. However, in 1946 the Society was able to mount its first independent exhibition. Staged at the Guildhall, The Times (15 November 1946) reported that: ‘Works by Mr Norman Wilkinson, Mr C Pears, Mr Claude Muncaster and Mr Charles Cundall will give some idea of the artistic standard and aims of the society.’
Founded in 1964, the youngest of the societies is the Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA). In November 1960 a group of twenty-eight bird artists mounted the first Exhibition by Contemporary Bird Painters. It proved a success, which encouraged a group of like-minded artists to establish a society dedicated to the depiction of wildlife. The President was the celebrated ornithologist, Peter Scott (1909-1989) and among the other leading lights were Eric Ennion (1900-1981) and R B Talbot Kelly (1896-1971). Today, the Society has a high reputation for displaying both traditional works and examples of a more avant-garde style.
Jointly, the eight exhibiting societies represent over 1,000 years of artistic heritage and if the Hesketh Hubbard Art Society (London’s largest life drawing group, also ‘federated’) is included, the years amount to even more. They have survived wars, numerous recessions, dramatic changes in fashion and the occasional, inevitable, skirmish amongst members. Today, each society is regarded as a highly significant flagship for the art forms they champion. Let’s raise our glasses, brushes and palettes to the societies and the Federation of British Artists.
Ⓒ Anthony J Lester AICA Hon RMS FRSA