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Reference group
Founders of the Society of Painters in Water Colours (act. 1804–1812) established the first of many specialized alternative institutions to the Royal Academy of Arts, concentrating on the promotion and sale of a fashionable new commodity: ‘the painting in water colours’. The sixteen founders, swiftly joined by a further eight full members and a second category of fellow exhibitors or associates, immediately attracted favourable critical notice, ready sales, and impressive attendance figures for their annual exclusive shows of watercolours.

The first projectors of the society, William Frederick Wells, Samuel Shelley, Robert Hills, and William Henry Pyne, may not have been in the front rank of watercolourists who were then in the process of realizing the expressive potential of the medium, particularly in the area of landscape. However, the society's role in expanding the market for watercolours attracted many of the most able of a younger generation, including John Varley and his elder brother, Cornelius Varley, Peter DeWint, and Thomas Heaphy. In the short period until the society suffered a commercial downturn, and reformed as the Society of Painters in Oil and Water Colours after its 1812 exhibition, the one female and thirty-five male members helped forge a distinctive tradition that appeared to many contemporaries as one of the highlights of the modern British school.

William Henry Pyne—an inveterate art gossip and journalist, as well as one of the key founders of the society—offered the most detailed account of members' motives in two series of articles on ‘The rise and progress of painting in water colours’ that he wrote for the Repository of Arts (1812–13) and his own Somerset House Gazette (1823–4). The society may have had to make diplomatic noises in its public statements, but it was the failings of the Royal Academy, Pyne declared, that drew together watercolourists divided by age, style, and subject specialism. For many of the older artists such as Shelley and William Sawrey Gilpin who had courted recognition at the Royal Academy without success, the law that forbade membership to those ‘who only exhibit Drawings’ was symptomatic of a prejudice towards a medium that had hitherto been associated with mechanical practices such as hand-coloured prints and maps (RA, general assembly minutes, 21 Dec 1772). More particularly, the hanging of watercolours in the academy's rooms at Somerset House was highly unsatisfactory since they either had to compete with showy oils or were consigned to the council room on the floor below the great room, where the light from the side windows turned the glazed works into ‘so many pier glasses’ (Somerset House Gazette, 6 Dec 1823, 130). It was difficult for watercolourists to attract sales in these circumstances and the members sought to create, in the various rooms they hired for their shows, an installation patterned on the academy's great room with several tiers of highly finished works ‘displayed in gorgeous frames, bearing out in effect against the mass of glittering gold, as powerfully as pictures in oil’, as Pyne expressed it (ibid., 8 Nov 1823, 67). The view of the 1808 exhibition, published in the Microcosm of London, shows, however, an extra detail in the centre of the room that points to a crucial distinction with the less commercially orientated Royal Academy: a desk for a clerk to take deposits from buyers and record the details in the sales book.

The society did not issue a formal manifesto but, though its title proclaimed a stylistic affiliation to the ‘painting in water colours’ as opposed to the simpler tinted outlines of an older generation of topographical artists, it was arguably the personal connections between the artists that translated dissatisfaction with the academy into a sophisticated commercial operation. The four originators, Wells, Shelley, Hills, and Pyne, were neighbours in the artists' quarter west of Tottenham Court Road, London, and they had numerous links with the group of six—Nicholas Pocock, Francis Nicholson, the Varleys, Jean Claude Nattes, and Gilpin—who joined them at the inaugural meeting at the Stratford Coffee House on 30 November 1804. All but a handful of the founders were drawing masters and the landscapists among them worked on many of the same topographical publications. Others trained together at the academy schools. Crucially they were not amateur artists. A further six men, all again with London addresses, were added before the first exhibition in April 1805—George Barret the younger, Joshua Cristall, John Glover, William Havell, James Holworthy, and Stephen Francis Rigaud. Like Shelley, Hills, and Pyne, most of the younger artists had been associated with one of at least three sketching societies that sprang up after 1799, including the Varleys, Nattes, Cristall, and Havell. Many of the landscape artists such as Cristall, Havell, the Varleys, Barret, and Nicholson also embarked on sketching tours in the summer months and some of them met at the home of the collector Thomas Monro whose informal ‘academy’ provided an important place to study the work of the earlier pioneers of watercolour. The society's minutes are typically dry records, but among the papers are hints of a genuine conviviality, a unity of purpose and a less hierarchical structure than that of the Royal Academy. Cornelius Varley's Song to the Generous of Art rails against the evils of the perverse critic and the fickle collector of old masters, but concludes with a rallying cry for the members:
Unite unite ye brave
Your Noble skills combine
Combine combine nought can withstand
Your Glory then will shine.
To the society's supporters in the press this ‘little republic of art’, with its ‘noble reliance on the taste and discernment of the public’, offered a welcome alternative to a royal academy (Review of Publications of Art, 2, 1808, 173).

The society undoubtedly reflected the growing independent professional identity of watercolourists, but as a self-electing body with a limited membership it constituted only one faction of practitioners. Royal Academicians who practised in the medium, such as J. M. W. Turner and Richard Westall, were forbidden to join other groups. Other fine watercolourists, like John Sell Cotman and Francis Towne, failed to secure membership, and as early as 1808 a second exhibition society, the Associated Artists in Water Colours, was founded on more liberal lines. Miniaturists and portrait draughtsmen who, with the exception of Shelley, were excluded from the society, formed a main feature of their exhibitions. The society's calculated gamble—portraits were the main attraction at the academy—reflected tensions between its twin functions as a ‘mart for sale’ and an exhibition of new works designed to attract income through ticket sales (Somerset House Gazette, 6 Dec 1823, 131). Critics agreed that the latter depended on variety, but the preponderance of landscapes at the lower end of the market quickly led to a feeling of sameness in the exhibitions, especially as the more productive artists, such as John Varley and Francis Nicholson, were alone responsible for up to 30 per cent of the exhibits.

It was crucial for the society to attract more varied subject specialists and artists who exhibited larger, more spectacular works. The addition of the flower specialist Anne Frances Byrne [see under Byrne family] as an associate in 1806 and full member three years later, and the genre painter Thomas Heaphy in 1807, went some way to doing this. Heaphy, together with the other figurative artists Joshua Cristall and Stephen Rigaud, subsequently attracted a disproportionate amount of press coverage. While today landscapes characterized by complex atmospheric effects by John Varley, William Havell, or Peter DeWint might be singled out as typifying the earliest watercolour shows, it was Heaphy's highly worked and controversial genre scenes such as Credulity (1808, BM) that attracted the highest prices. Heaphy's success coincided with the society's high point in 1809 when its exhibition attracted almost 23,000 paying visitors, and his defection in 1812 may have helped precipitate its ultimate crisis.

The society functioned as a joint stock company with the profits—a substantial £626 in 1809—returned to the members according to the value of the work they exhibited, and, unlike the Royal Academy, it had no charitable or teaching function. This system was, however, open to abuse. Jean Claude Nattes was notoriously expelled in 1807 for exhibiting the works of his pupils in order to claim a higher premium, and since it precluded the building up of reserves, the society was exposed after the economic downturn of 1811–12. At a series of tense meetings in November 1812 the members split between those like the president, Ramsay Richard Reinagle, who wished the society to remain exclusively for watercolours and others, including William Havell and Robert Hills, who also worked in oils and who argued that their inclusion would make the exhibitions more viable. Though the latter view prevailed, the society reverted within a few years to its original format and name and established itself as a prestigious and prosperous institution that has survived to the present day. Following the formation in 1831 of the New Society of Painters in Water Colours, it was popularly known as the Old Water Colour Society, and, after 1881, more formally as the Royal Watercolour Society.

In addition to the nineteen male painters and one female artist mentioned above the society included the following sixteen members in the period to 1812: John James Chalon; William Delamotte; Edmund Dorrell (1788–1857); (Anthony Vandyke) Copley Fielding; Robert Freebairn; Paul Sandby Munn; Frederick Nash; William Payne; Auguste Charles Pugin; William Scott; John Smith; Francis Stevens; John Thurston; William Turner; Thomas Uwins; Charles Wild.

Greg Smith


S. Fenwick, The enchanted river: 200 years of the Royal Watercolour Society (2004) · S. Fenwick and G. Smith, eds., The business of watercolour: a guide to the archives of the Royal Watercolour Society (1997) · J. L. Roget, A history of the ‘Old Water-Colour’ Society, 2 vols. (1891) · G. Smith, The emergence of the professional watercolourist: contentions and alliances in the artistic domain, 1760–1824 (2002) · T. Wilcox, The triumph of watercolour: the early years of the Royal Watercolour Society (2005) · Royal Academy of Arts minute books, RA · Society of Painters in Water Colours minute books, Bankside Gallery, London, Royal Watercolour Society archives · V&A NAL, papers relating to the Society of Painters in Water Colours · By-laws of the Society of Painters in Water Colours, V&A NAL · The Royal Watercolour Society: the first fifty years, 1805–1855 (1992)