On May 21st 1823 at Lincoln's Inn Fields, London, a group of painters met to form the 'Society of British Artists' whose manifesto declared " was not to rival existing societies since every member was to be at liberty to assist and support any other society".
In an age before the heroic worship of movie stars ,rock legends and footballers, 19th century England saw one of the greatest flowerings of artistic talent the world has ever witnessed. The cream of these artists were the megastars of their day, feted by the aristocracy and royalty, avidly collected by the new industrialists and much in demand for high society commissions. The elite amongst this division were sometimes granted membership of The Royal Academy RA whose rules only allowed for the admission of a restricted number of Royal Academicians at any one time. This complement was to be made up of sculptors, printmakers and architects as well as painters. The total number amounted to less than 50. While many more would become Associates of the Academy ARA, the fact that the number of professional artists plying their trade in 19th century London could be measured in tens of thousands meant that there was a real need for an alternative to the Academy's restricted membership, which effectively necessitated the death or resignation of an incumbent to afford the election of a new member.
Shortly after the initial meeting, over £1000 had been raised and the fashionable Regency architect, John Nash, was engaged to create the Society's new galleries in Suffolk Street, just a short stroll down The Strand from the Academy's home in Somerset House.
Sir Thomas Lawrence, the Academy's President at the time, said that he saw no need for the new Society but added that "the attitude of the new body to the elder remained deference itself ". Initial concerns that the Society would be unable to attract a sufficient body of work to fill the capacious new galleries proved unfounded and sales from the first exhibition in 1824 totalled £4000, with John Martin's 'The Seventh Page' selling for 500 guineas. Reports from the exhibition stated that "innumerable canvases of 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".
Under the first President, Thomas Heaphy, the Society started with just 27 members plus a complement of five Honorary Members. Indeed, it took until 1876 for their numbers to reach 50. The Society allowed women honorary membership and the opportunity to display their work without financial commitment, eventually allowing full membership for ladies (plus the privilege of paying for their position) in 1902.
One of the aspirations of the founding members was to set up a school to rival those of the Academy. These laudable ambitions floundered due to the considerable sums of money spent on litigation and repairs to the Suffolk Street Galleries' roof. Nash had constructed the roof with supporting ironwork 'on a novel principle '. However, the roof began to collapse not long after the galleries were opened and continued to cause the Society problems even after Nash's death in 1835. Although it was granted a Charter in 1846, it was not until Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee year of 1887 that the Society won the right to the prefix 'Royal', due in no small part to the efforts of its President, James Abbot McNeil WHISTLER.
Whistler was very pro-active in the regeneration of the Society, which by the late Victorian era had started to become stale. James Laver in his biography wrote " There was no more election of painters for the sake of their subscriptions, no more overcrowding of the walls with mediocre paintings, no more willingness to accept the scourings of the Royal Academy".
The rooms were redecorated, a velarium was introduced to temper the light and the pictures were all spaced out according to Whistlerian principles. To the horror of the Sabbatarian members, the new President introduced Sunday tea parties with charming girls in frocks to match the decorations handing round bread and butter. Society, ever on the alert for a new amusement, flocked to Suffolk Street to show off its new gowns and chat to Oscar Wilde and the President himself. Not only was the now ROYAL Society of British Artists the talk of the town in London, but under Whistler's conspicuous leadership, it began to be recognised abroad with the result that both Monet and Alfred Stevens were persuaded to become honorary members.
Whistler resigned the year after Royal acceptance following a tempestuous final meeting, claiming that the artists had left with him and only the 'Royal British' remained. The years that followed saw the RBA attract numerous painters, watercolourists and sculptors of note, including Walter Richard SICKERT, LS Lowry, Henry MOORE, Peter Greenham, Sir Roger De Grey, Carel Weight and Colin Hayes.
In 1970 the RBA transferred its assets to become the main contributor to the new Federation of British Artists at the Mall Galleries, London, just a stone's throw from Suffolk Street, south of Pall Mall. The opening of the new premises took place in February 1971 with the Society's 254th exhibition, which was described as 'Dazzling' by the 'Illustrated London News'.