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Reference group
Society of Artists of Great Britain (act. 1760–1791) was a London-based association of painters, sculptors, architects, and engravers dedicated to mounting annual public exhibitions of modern art. Its formation was the result of more than a decade of debate among the capital's artists over how to bring their work before the public eye. A consensus was finally reached at an open meeting in the Turk's Head tavern, Soho, on 12 November 1759. The assembled artists agreed to hold annual exhibitions of their work, a plan that owed something to the inspiration of the painters Robert Edge Pine and Francis Hayman. The scheme was put into the hands of an elected exhibition committee that included some of Britain's leading artists: Hayman served as chairman and was joined by William Chambers, Joshua Reynolds, Robert Strange, Richard Wilson, and Joseph Wilton. The portrait painter Francis Milner Newton assumed the powerful post of secretary thanks more to his administrative skills than to his standing as an artist. Several key figures were conspicuous by their absence, notably the court appointees Robert Adam and Allan Ramsay, and William Hogarth, though Hogarth was briefly involved with the society in the following year. Anxious to secure the patronage of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce (the Society of Arts) the artists prevailed upon Samuel Johnson to draft letters soliciting support.

The Society of Arts approved of the scheme and was host to the first exhibition on 21 April 1760, with the exhibitors styling themselves simply ‘the present artists’. Though the exhibition's success far exceeded expectation, plans for a follow-up show the next year plunged the exhibitors into fierce debate. A proposal to charge visitors a 1s. entrance fee was rebuffed by the Society of Arts as illiberal and split the artists into two competing groups. Those opposed to charging remained under the protection of the Society of Arts; they subsequently formed the Free Society of Artists which included Arthur Devis, Stephen Elmer, Angelica Kauffman, and George Romney among its members. Those in favour of the charge asserted their independence by hiring their own venue at Spring Gardens to mount an alternative exhibition. All the senior members of the exhibition committee favoured independence, and the group was rallied by the sudden intervention of William Hogarth. His powerful oratory helped galvanize its resolve and led the artists to style themselves the Society of Artists of Great Britain. However, Hogarth's involvement proved short-lived. His desire to use the exhibitions as a platform from which to attack the connoisseurs alienated important colleagues and exposed him to devastating critical reviews. Shaken and disillusioned he withdrew from the society and had no further involvement in its affairs.

The early 1760s saw the Society of Artists grow in both formality and prestige. The landscape and scene painter George Lambert became chairman in 1763; high-profile artists, among them Benjamin West, were recruited in 1764, and a successful campaign to alter copyright law was launched with support from George Hay, MP for Sandwich. In 1764 the society began moves to secure a royal charter, a campaign that was concluded in 1765 and turned the exhibition committee into the society's ‘directors’, its members into ‘fellows’, and its chairman into the ‘president’. Thereafter the society was occasionally and informally known as the Incorporated Society of Artists. Directors at the time of incorporation included the painters Francis Cotes, Thomas Hudson, Paul Sandby, and George Stubbs as well as the architect James Paine. Between 1765 and 1771 the society's rules required that the directorship be composed of thirteen painters, five sculptors, three architects, and three engravers. During the society's heyday in the 1760s other directors included the painters George Barret, Richard Cosway, Thomas Gainsborough (between October and November 1768), Nathaniel Hone, William Marlow, Jeremiah Meyer, George Moser, Edward Penny, John Inigo Richards, William Thompson, Luke Sullivan, Samuel Wale, Richard Wright, and Johan Zoffany; the sculptors Isaac Gosset, Louis Roubiliac, Michael Rysbrack, and William Tyler; architects George Dance and Thomas Sandby, and the engravers Edward Burch, Charles Grignion, James MacArdell, Simon Ravenet, Edward Rooker, William Ryland, William Woollett, and Richard Yeo. From 1771 the composition of the society's directorship was amended to comprise fifteen painters, three sculptors, two architects, and four engravers.

As well as the year of incorporation, 1765 proved to be a watershed in the society's history. That year's exhibition saw the emergence of a new generation of artists including James Gandon, Ozias Humphry, Thomas Jones, John Hamilton Mortimer, Francis Wheatley, and Joseph Wright of Derby. Humphry, Mortimer, and Wright in particular were warmly welcomed by the critics. The charismatic Mortimer led this small coterie as a subset within the society, dubbing it the Howdalian Society (after a friend of Thomas Jones, the art-loving Captain Howdell). Frustrated by a lack of influence in the management of the Society of Artists, the Howdalians formed an opposition to the established directors. There were other disaffected voices. In 1767 Christopher Seaton, the king's seal engraver, and the portrait painter William Thomson called a fringe meeting at which, with Howdalians much in evidence, the directors were charged with corruption in the annual elections and in the hanging of the exhibitions.

The marine painter Richard Paton later smoothed the differences between the directors and the recalcitrant fellows and steered the society towards more constructive projects. A prototype ‘royal academy’ was formed in 1767 when George III offered to extend his patronage of the existing St Martin's Lane Academy, and equipment from that school was transferred to a print warehouse leased by the art collector and librarian Richard Dalton on Pall Mall. Plans to erect the society's own exhibition room were laid before Hugh Smithson, first duke of Northumberland, who was diplomatic but noncommittal, though this potentially prestigious project ultimately precipitated a serious schism. When the architect William Chambers became the society's treasurer in 1768 it was clear that he would scoop the design for the gallery, a move that pushed the egomaniac James Paine, who wanted the commission for himself, into the arms of the opposition.

By the end of 1768 the Society of Artists was in turmoil. The growing debate over electoral reform at the national level seems to have percolated into its members' consciousness and informed debates over its own representational procedures. Harried by angry fellows demanding reform of the electoral system, the directors appealed to the attorney-general, William de Grey, who counselled prudent compromise. This they rejected in favour of confrontation. The result was that in the annual October polls in 1768 many leading directors were cast out of office in an election that saw Joshua Kirby elected president. Meanwhile a group of disaffected former directors was secretly negotiating with the king to found an exclusive academy with limited membership. According to Thomas Jones, news of the Royal Academy's foundation was presented to the Society of Artists as a triumphant fait accompli in December 1768. Although Joshua Reynolds was chosen as the Royal Academy's first president there is no reason to suppose that he was a leading plotter as some have surmised. Despite the poaching of many of its finest artists, the Society of Artists still boasted Humphry, Mortimer, Pine, Stubbs, Wheatley, and Wright among its members. Although the Society of Artists and the Royal Academy were now rivals, Kirby resisted opposing the academy from both political conviction and personal distaste. He did, however, consent to the foundation of a new Society of Artists academy late in 1769 housed on Maiden Lane. Modelled on Hogarth's egalitarian St Martin's Lane Academy, this offered lectures on anatomy by John Hunter and his assistant William Andre, along with a collection of casts and courses on the chemistry of pigments by John Awsiter.

However, Kirby's passive approach to the Royal Academy earned him censure by a more aggressive faction led by the architect James Paine. In June 1770 Paine assumed the presidency and began a public campaign against the academicians, cynically borrowing the language of John Wilkes to cast the academy as an affront to English liberty. Charles Lennox, third duke of Richmond, was persuaded to open his sculpture gallery to the society exclusively, a snub to the king's artists that helped define it as a political alternative to the Royal Academy. In 1771 a critical pamphlet, The Conduct of the Royal Academicians, while Members of the Incorporated Society of Artists, was published by the society, laying bare the quarrel and accusing the founders of the Royal Academy of corruption and dishonourable proceedings. The pamphlet must be reckoned a failure; the academy kept a dignified silence and its publication had no discernible impact on the number of its visitors. That same year Paine persuaded the Society of Artists to buy a plot of land behind the Strand (on the site now occupied by the Lyceum Theatre) and provided plans for the construction of an exhibition room. When completed in 1772 it was perhaps the world's first purpose-built gallery for the public display of modern art. Its gala opening was hosted by the dukes of Richmond and Northumberland and graced with an ode by Evan Lloyd, set to music by James Hook. But the rot had already set in. Disgusted by Paine's arrogance and arbitrary proceedings, several leading members, among them Humphry, Pine, and Paton, either defected to the Royal Academy or quit exhibiting altogether.

When Paine was finally ousted from the presidency in October 1772 and replaced by George Stubbs he retaliated by withdrawing his security on the society's mortgage, ultimately forcing the Society of Artists to sell its exhibition room at a considerable loss in 1776. Financial collapse went hand in hand with ideological disintegration as the society gave way to rancour and indifference. The decline of the Wilkes and Liberty movement left the society bereft of a coherent means of articulating its oppositional relationship to the Royal Academy. The flight of its remaining distinguished members meant waning public interest, so much so that between 1779 and 1789 it managed only two exhibitions. The last was held in 1791 and thereafter the Society of Artists slipped into obscurity and was presumably wound up in the early 1790s. Although the society went unmourned, its pioneering exhibitions had played a vital role in transforming the eighteenth-century British art world, and its extinction left the Royal Academy the pre-eminent fine art institution in Britain.

Matthew Hargraves


M. Hargraves, Candidates for fame: the Society of Artists of Great Britain, 1760–1791 (2006) · 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 their transactions since (1771) · R. Strange, An enquiry into the rise and establishment of the Royal Academy of Arts (1775) · D. H. Solkin, Painting for money: the visual arts and the public sphere in eighteenth-century England (1992) · J. Brewer, The pleasures of the imagination: English culture in the eighteenth century (1997) · J. Pye, Patronage of British art: an historical sketch (1845) · H. Hoock, The king's artists: the Royal Academy of Arts and the politics of British culture, 1760–1840 (2005) · Graves, Soc. Artists · S. C. Hutchison, The history of the Royal Academy, 1768–1986, 2nd edn (1986) · W. T. Whitley, Artists and their friends in England, 1700–1799, 2 vols. (1928)