In 1891 twenty four artists, frustrated by the closed-shop attitude of the Royal Academy, joined together to form a society devoted exclusively to the art and development of portrait painting. To ensure that the Society would figure in 'the foremost rank of art societies of the day' the most distinguished portraitists of the time; Sir John Everett Millais, George Frederick Watts and James McNeill WHISTLER, were soon elected to membership. Just twenty years later, at a dinner to launch the Coronation Exhibition, James Jebusa Shannon, the third President of the Society, announced that "His Majesty the King has been graciously pleased to command that the Society which has now attained its twenty first year, shall be known in future as the 'Royal Society of Portrait Painters'."
The Annual exhibitions, held in a variety of venues (including the Royal Academy during the war years) attracted the best of high society. Eminent portrait painters continued to be elected, including such luminaries as Sir Hubert Herkomer, Sir George CLAUSEN, Sir William Nicholson, Augustus JOHN and Dame Laura KNIGHT. Refreshingly, women were admitted from the start. In more recent times the portrait as an art form came to be scorned by some, but popular support for the work of the Society remained undiminished. The tradition of commissioning portraits of people as a mark of esteem and affection to hand down to future generations was not to be vanquished by mere fashion. In 1984 Queen Elizabeth II bestowed Her Patronage upon the Society. By the late 1980's the Society had become both a registered company and a registered charity, and was beginning to attract the generosity of sponsors in furthering its charitable aims. In 1991 the Society celebrated its centenary with an historical exhibition of works by past members loaned by the major art collections of the country. The Royal Society of Portrait Painters continues to seek to promote excellence in portrait painting in all its forms, regardless of style or popularity.