Founded as the Society of Female Artists, this unique group has held an annual exhibition in London of the work of women artists ever since 1857. In the process, it has introduced many famous names to the world of fine art appreciation, and their works to well-known art galleries and public places. In the mid-nineteenth century, women were not considered to be serious contributors to the field of art and had great difficulty in obtaining a public showing. At the first exhibition, 149 women showed 358 works, some hiding their true identities for fear of social recrimination. The art world was dominated by the Royal Academy RA which, at its foundation in 1768, had two women among the founders but had no other women academicians for over 150 years when, in 1922, Annie Swynnerton S.W.A (a member since 1889) was elected as an Associate.
The Society attracted some of the most noted artists of the time; when Lady Elizabeth Butler's The Roll Call was displayed at the Royal Academy in 1874, even Ruskin, with his peculiar views of femininity, revised his opinion that no woman could paint. The S.F.A was involved in education for women artists, effectively excluded by the mores of the time from professional training. Even for those who did gain a place at art school, the model in the women's class would be decorously draped on grounds of propriety. With increasing access to professional training came higher standards or the Society's exhibitions and a name change (in 1869) to the Society of Lady Artists. Appropriately, in the last year of the century, the mid-Victorian persona was discarded and the twentieth century was embraced by the Society with the new name: The Society of Women Artists. The Society has enjoyed Royal patronage since 1865.
The Society has had many famous artists among its members. Dame Laura KNIGHT, the first woman Royal Academician for over 160 years, was elected President of the S.W.A in 1932. The world-famous illustrator Mabel Lucy ATWELL was a member. Current members include Daphne Todd OBE, the first woman President of the Royal Portrait Society (SPP); well-known portraitist June Mendoza OBE; the late Suzanne Lucas, Past President of both the Society of Botanical Artists and the Royal Miniature Society, who in 1980 was elected as the first woman president of a Royal Society; and Philomena Davis, elected first woman President of the Royal Society of British Sculptors in 1990. The current President is Barbara Penketh Simpson.
Many S.W.A members are also members of other well-established societies such as the Royal Society of British Artists (RBA), the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour (RI), the Pastel Society (PAS) and the Society of Equestrian Artists (SEA). More recently, the Society has taken steps to preserve its heritage. The Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum's Archive of Art and Design has custody of the archives, which give great insight into the fortunes and struggles of the Society and will be preserved for future generations. The Society of Women Artists Exhibitors 1855 to 1996, already in reprint, is a four-volume dictionary of all the exhibitors collated from old catalogues. Only the Royal Academy and the Scottish Royal Academy produce such records.