RA Collection: Archive
Incorporated Society of Artists of Great Britain, papers
Extent & medium
Previous reference codes
650, SA/1 - SA/46
The Society of Artists grew out of the increasing trend in England in the 1750s toward mutual cooperation between artists. A "General Meeting of all Artists" was held at the Turk's Head Tavern on Gerrard Street in London on 12 November 1759 [SA/1] "to consider of a proposal for the honour and Advancement of the Arts". The meeting decided that "once every year at a day in the second Week of April at a Place that shall be appointed by a Committee for carrying this Design into Execution to be chosen Annually, Every Painter, Sculptor, Architect, Engraver, Chaser, Seal-Cutter & Medallist may exhibit their several Performances." Each artist was to pay half a crown to fund the exhibition, an amount was to be set aside for charitable purposes, and visitors were to be charged one shilling each. The artists proceeded to elect a sixteen-strong Exhibition Committee drawn from the various branches of art, including Richard Dalton, Nathaniel Hone, Joshua Reynolds, William Chambers, and several other future Royal Academicians. At its first meeting on 1 December 1759, the Committee chose Francis Hayman as Chairman and Francis Milner Newton as Secretary. The first exhibition was held in 1760 at the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce [the Society of Arts]. In 1761, following interference from the Committee of the Society of Arts, a majority who had exhibited in 1760 broke off the connection. Reynolds and James Paine were deputed to find a convenient alternative exhibition room, and the choice fell upon Spring Gardens, Charing Cross. The first exhibition had been held by the "present artists": the Society of Artists of Great Britain therefore dates from 1761. In December 1761, the Exhibition Committee chose George Lambert as Chairman. The Committee concentrated power in its hands in a series of administrative changes eventually passed at the general meeting of 15 December 1761, the general effect of which was to allow the Committee to regulate debate at meetings, select executive officers, form policy, and replace vacant seats on the Committee without consultation [SA/1]. An auction of works by "artists of ability" who had failed to obtain proper prices at the 1762 exhibition was held on 23 February 1763, and resulted in a loss to the Society of Artists of over £122. Also in 1763, the Society initiated moves toward inrollment, or the legal recognition of its activities, particularly in relation to finance. A draft charter was drawn up by Lambert, Newton and Paine (minutes of Committee meeting, 10 August 1764 [SA/2]), and at the elections of October 1764, Lambert was created first President, Hayman became Vice-President, and Dalton was elected Treasurer, with Newton continuing as Secretary. At the beginning of 1765, the Society successfully obtained a royal charter and became known officially as the Incorporated Society of Artists of Great Britain. However, the term "Incorporated" was only irregularly used thereafter. Incorporation created 24 Directors, who were to be elected annually on St Luke's Day. The President, Vice-President, Treasurer, Secretary and Directors were all to be either painters, sculptors, architects or engravers by profession, and all Fellows were to swear a solemn oath of loyalty to the Society (draft text, minutes of Directors' meeting, 19 February 1765 [SA/10]). Lambert died after only four days as President in January 1765. Hayman was promoted in his place and Edward Penny became the new Vice-President. The management of the Society became increasingly difficult after 1765 because of opposition from the rank and file members. There were three principal grievances: financial management, the election of Directors, and the hanging of exhibitions. William Thomson and Christopher Seaton were early leaders of the opposition. The Howdalian Society, which met at Munday's coffeehouse at Maiden Lane, and included Thomas Jones, James Gandon, John Hamilton Mortimer and other young artists, also became a focus for discontent. There was suspicion of the control exercised by the Directors over the Hanging Committee, with Francis Cotes in particular being accused of abusing his powers. This led in October 1767 to a call at a fringe meeting for a byelaw to reform the Society's electoral system, in order to undermine the Directors' monopoly of power. With one or two exceptions, the Directors appointed in 1765 had remained in office. On this occasion, the Directors successfully rebuffed proposals that they should retire by rotation, but further opposition was mounted, notably by Richard Paton and James Paine (who had resigned as a Director in July 1768). Paine was perhaps stimulated by professional rivalry with the newly appointed Treasurer, William Chambers. In 1768 a special exhibition was held in honour of the King of Denmark. The exhibition was exclusive and open for two days only. However, it was alleged in The Conduct (1771) that Chambers had bent the regulations to obtain twelve tickets for his friends. According to The Conduct the affair was another source of indignation in the Society. A motion was passed at the general meeting of 6 September 1768 calling for no more than sixteen Directors to be re-elected for the coming year [SA/3]. In the ensuing election, Hayman was ousted from the presidency and replaced by John Joshua Kirby, and Richard Paton became the new Vice President. Chambers and Newton clung to office, but a number of opposition members, including Humphry, William Marlow, Mortimer and Paine became Directors. The first meeting of the new directorate was held on 4 November [SA/10], and the decision to debate the proposed byelaw at its next meeting quickly led to the collective resignation as Directors of Chambers, Moser, Newton, Penny, Sandby, West, Wilson and Wilton [SA/34/22 and SA/36/48], quickly followed by Nathaniel Dance [SA/34/25]. Reynolds turned down the offer of a directorship on 25 November. On 29 November Paine secured election as Secretary in place of Newton, and soon succeeded in creating the post of Assistant Secretary for his close associate Benjamin Ralph. Together, Paine and Ralph formed a covert opposition to Kirby. In December came the momentous announcement of the establishment of a new exhibiting body under royal patronage: the Royal Academy, which was to consist of just 40 artists, including all the former Directors of the Society of Artists who had resigned in opposition to the byelaw. These now moved on to the Council of the new RA and supplied all its executive posts. The response of the Society of Artists was to agree a petition to the King at the general meeting of 6 December 1768, which was supported at the Directors' meeting of 10 December [SA/3, SA/10]. Thereafter, Kirby pursued a conciliatory and moderate policy toward the Royal Academy, an approach which failed to find favour with many on the radical wing of the Society of Artists, whose attitude was elucidated in extreme form by the savage attacks on the RA made by "Fresnoy" in the Wilkesite Middlesex Journal. Fresnoy has been plausibly identified [by Whitley] as the Society's chaplain, the the Rev. James Wills. On 18 July 1769, the Fellows, who had lost the equipment of the old St Martin's Lane Academy to the new RA, passed a resolution to establish a class for life drawing [general meeting, SA/3]. The academy was governed by a Committee of four Directors and three Fellows, all elected annually on St Luke's Day [minutes of Directors' meetings of 12 September 1769, SA/10] and by the end of the year boasted salaried professors of Anatomy and Chemistry. By the end of 1769, the Society had begun to slide into financial trouble, as a result of declining exhibition receipts and the cost of expansion into the field of artistic training. This led to an erosion of Kirby's power as President and his eventual replacement by James Paine, in June 1770. Paine pursued a much more aggressive policy toward the RA, and one way in which this found expression was in the anonymous pamphlet entitled The Conduct of the Royal Academicians while Members of the Incorporated Society of Artists of Great Britain, published by the Society in June 1771. The pamphlet was the work of a Committee of Directors elected on 18 June 1770 [SA/10] with the assistance of the Assistant Secretary William Thomson. Another aspect of Paine's new approach was the decision to erect the Society's own exhibition room on a piece of land adjacent to the Strand. The first exhibition was held there in 1772. However, the Society continued to lose prominent members to the RA, and Paine's leadership came under attack for being as tyrannical as the pre-RA directorate. Paine was eventually replaced as President by George Stubbs in 1772. Thereafter the Society of Artists began to decline, its problems compounded by a financial crisis caused by the cost of building the new exhibition room, and the building itself was sold off to pay creditors in 1776. Only meagre draft minutes of the Society survive from 1773, and these cease almost altogether from 1783: if the drafts were ever formally written up into orderly books, the books have not survived. The Society, by now virtually moribund, held only one exhibition in the years 1781 to 1789, before a final, late revival with exhibitions in 1790 and 1791, the latter of these held at the original venue of Spring Gardens.
The papers were donated to the RA in 1836 by Robert Pollard, who claimed to be the last surviving member of the Society of Artists. Pollard had received them from Charles Taylor, who had in turn inherited them from his father, Isaac Taylor, the last Secretary (died 1807). See 'The Papers of the Society of Artists of Great Britain', Walpole Society 6 (1917-18), p. 114. The papers consisted of the charter of the Society of Artists "and other documents remaining" (Council minutes, 20 October - 5 November 1836). Further reference is made to the charter and to the Society's roll of members in a note by H. F. Finberg of the Walpole Society, dated March 1916 [SA/45/10]. However, the charter itself has disappeared, and survives only as a printed copy made in 1767: Copy of the Royal Charter and Statutes of the Society of Artists of Great Britain (London 1767) [SA/47].
John Hamilton grouped the papers into bundles in 1774 [SA/43/7]. Not all the items referred to by Hamilton are present today with the papers. An HMC NRA finding aid to the papers was prepared in 1971. The existing arrangement and reference codes have been retained throughout.
The Conduct of the Royal Academicians while Members of the Incorporated Society of Artists of Great Britain, viz. From the Year 1760, to their Expulsion in the Year 1769, With some Part of the Transactions Since. London, 1771. Hargraves, Matthew Peter. '"Candidates for Fame": The Society of Artists of Great Britain, c. 1760-1791'. Diss. University of London, 2003. 'The Papers of the Society of Artists of Great Britain'. Walpole Society 6 (1917-18): pp. 113-130. Strange, Robert. An Inquiry into the Rise and Establishment of the Royal Academy of Arts. London, 1775. Whitley, William T. Artists and Their Friends in England 1700-1799. 2 vols. London: The Medici Society, 1928.