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date: 21 January 2022

Founders of the Royal Academy of Artsfree

(act. 1768–1825)

Founders of the Royal Academy of Artsfree

(act. 1768–1825)
  • Holger Hoock

Founders of the Royal Academy of Arts (act. 1768–1825),

Founders of the Royal Academy of Arts (act. 1768–1825)

by Johan Zoffany, 1771–1772

The Royal Collection © 2006 HM Queen Elizabeth II

established an institution that dominated Britain's artistic life for several generations—as an art school, exhibition society, and a prestigious and prosperous professional organization. They comprised thirty-six artists of widely varying backgrounds and abilities. According to the constitution, academicians had to be painters, sculptors, and architects, 'men of fair moral characters, of high reputation in their several professions', at least twenty-five years of age, resident in Great Britain, and not members of any other London art society. The latter rule was crucial, since the academy had emerged out of a decade of increasingly fierce disputes among London's artistic community.

The founding academicians represented a minority among the Incorporated Society of Artists, London's previously dominant artistic society, from which they had seceded. The society's directors under their president, Francis Hayman, had fallen out with a group of members over the control and purpose of the society. Underlying this friction were opposing views of the direction which the society, and with it British art, ought to take. The directors' mission was to promote high-minded British art to educate and edify the public, to run a professional organization with a limited membership, and to exclude lowly genres and 'improper persons' from exhibitions. A majority of members, however, merely aimed at an open trade association of artists and semi-artisanal practitioners. After the mass resignation of directors from the Society of Artists in the autumn of 1768 George III commissioned four artists—William Chambers, Benjamin West, George Michael Moser, and Francis Cotes—to prepare a plan for a royal academy which led to the academy's inauguration on 10 December.

The Royal Academy was modelled on its hierarchical, rigid Parisian counterpart rather than the more democratic and informal Italian academies. Membership was limited to forty Royal Academicians. The king nominated the founding members—thirty-four who put themselves forward collectively in 1768, and two he selected personally in 1769; future vacancies were to be filled by election from among the artists exhibiting at the academy. The academy's founding president was Sir Joshua Reynolds. The twenty-eight painters, five architects, and three sculptors were on average about forty years old, with Francesco Zuccarelli, aged sixty-six, and Mary Moser, aged twenty-four, the eldest and youngest respectively. Nine had been born in continental Europe, two in Ireland, and Benjamin West in Pennsylvania. By 1768 all but two—Thomas Gainsborough and William Hoare—were resident in London, most of them in Westminster. The majority of these artists had backgrounds of the middling sort, as sons of farmers, of skilled craftsmen and artists, or of teachers and clerics. Men like Reynolds, the pre-eminent portraitist of his generation, Joseph Wilton, possibly the first British sculptor to have received a fairly full continental education and training, and William Chambers, the king's nominee as founding treasurer of the academy, and architect of Somerset House (1775–96) with its purpose-built academy apartments, already commanded very substantial incomes and wealth when the academy was founded. Further academicians enjoyed at least sound financial health. But some led fairly precarious lives: the Dublin-born landscape painter George Barret, Samuel Wale, a painter and book illustrator, and (towards the end of their lives) even the painter and engraver Paul Sandby and Richard Wilson, a pre-eminent figure in the early school of British landscape painting. In many cases academy pensions or sinecures helped members get by in infirmity and old age.

Among the founders were most of the leading British painters, sculptors, and architects of the day, as well as solid if not outstanding specialists in almost all genres of painting. But unlike later generations, there were also artisan painters such as Peter Toms, who painted drapery, and John Baker, who decorated coaches with flower paintings. Indeed, although generous criteria were applied, only thirty-four of the forty places were initially filled in 1768. A core group of founding members had emerged from the academy's fractious predecessors. Fourteen had previous connections with the St Martin's Lane Academy, which had been re-invigorated from the 1730s by William Hogarth, a staunch opponent of plans for a continental-style 'royal' academy. At least nine founding academicians had been closely involved with a series of plans for just such an academy in 1749–55, including the architect and urban designer John Gwynn. No less than seventeen founding Royal Academicians had previously been directors of the Incorporated Society of Artists; fifteen were members of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce. Others, like Benjamin West and the internationally admired Angelica Kauffman, possessed the right education and boundless ambition as history painters to qualify for membership in a continental-style academy. Others again had useful connections, such as the architect George Dance as surveyor of the city of Westminster and member of the Accademia di San Luca and Accademia degli Arcadi in Rome.

Almost all founding academicians are depicted in a famous early group portrait by Johan Zoffany, who was personally nominated by George III as an academician in 1769. In 1771–2 Zoffany painted The Academicians of the Royal Academy (Royal Collection), probably for the king; he exhibited it to great acclaim at the academy in 1772. It shows most founding academicians as well as some of the early elected members in a setting referring to the academy's main teaching methods: drawing plaster casts of famous statues and drawing from living models. The keeper of the Royal Academy Schools, George Michael Moser, arranges a male nude model. Moser's successor as keeper was Agostino Carlini, one of only three sculptors among the founders. His unequivocal adherence to the antique ideal helped Joseph Wilton in turn to succeed Carlini as keeper in 1790. Moser's colleagues Francesco Zuccarelli, best known for his decorative pastoral landscapes, and Richard Yeo, a medal and coin engraver, are checking the positioning of the model, with the painter Charles Catton sitting at Yeo's feet. Reynolds, with his characteristic ear trumpet, Chambers, and the academy's secretary, Francis Milner Newton, an able administrator if a stickler for rules, form a group just to the left of the painting's centre. Seated to the far left is the painter himself with palette and brushes. Standing behind him is Benjamin West, eventually the second president of the academy (1792–1805, 1805–20). Crouching to West's right is the painter Mason Chamberlin, whose presentation piece to the academy was a portrait of William Hunter, its first professor of anatomy, who stands in contemplative pose to the right of Reynolds. Behind West from left to right are the miniaturist Jeremiah Meyer, the marine painter Dominic Serres, the painter Paul Sandby and his brother, the architect Thomas Sandby, the sculptor and architect William Tyler and the painter John Inigo Richards, who succeeded Newton as secretary in 1788. The other pair of architect and painter brothers, George and Nathaniel Dance, as well as Thomas Gainsborough, the famous portraitist, are not represented in Zoffany's Academicians. In 1773 Nathaniel Dance and Gainsborough refused to exhibit after disagreements with the academy; both returned to later exhibitions, though Gainsborough withdrew permanently from exhibiting with the academy after a final clash over the hanging of works he had submitted in 1783. Giovanni Battista Cipriani, the figure to the very left in the Zoffany painting, designed the Royal Academy's diploma and, jointly with Edward Penny, the first professor of painting, positioned two to the left of Moser, the gold medals which were awarded annually to the best students. Nathaniel Hone, standing imposingly behind the model, was soon to establish a controversial reputation for himself: The Conjuror (NG Ire.), a direct attack on Reynolds for his alleged plagiarism from Italian artistic models, which also contained suggestions of a relationship between Reynolds and Angelica Kauffman, was removed from the academy exhibition in 1775. There were many other instances of strife within the academy over personal, artistic, and organizational issues, which in the 1780s and especially the 1790s tied in with, and were exacerbated by, the heightened political polarization of the American and French revolutionary periods.

Reynolds was not only closely involved with the day-to-day administration of the academy, but also delivered a series of famous Discourses on Art to students, colleagues, and connoisseurs: one each at the opening of the academy in 1769 and the opening of the academy's new headquarters at Somerset House in 1780, the other thirteen on the occasion of the distribution of prizes for students. The Discourses, published and translated individually and in various collections during Reynolds's lifetime, and in more than thirty editions since, represent his thinking on the practice and theory of art. They range from the stages of academic art education to the guiding principles of high art and notions such as genius and taste, originality and imitation, always illustrated with reference to the masters of the so-called ‘great style’. Like Chambers, who regarded the architect as a critic and philosophe, Reynolds stressed the intellectual nature of his art. Critical of Hogarth's idea of deducing ‘principles’ from empirical observation, Reynolds was instead committed to the authority of the old masters. He assimilated the heroic style of the Renaissance in his portraiture and subject paintings.

The image of the academy as an intellectual hub was reinforced by the appointment of honorary professors, although the professorships carried no formal duties. The first incumbents were some of Reynolds's closest personal companions and members of Samuel Johnson's ClubJohnson as professor of ancient literature and Oliver Goldsmith as professor of ancient history, while Giuseppe Baretti became the first secretary for foreign correspondence, an office in which he left as little trace as his immediate successor James Boswell.

Like all societies, much can be learned about the academy and its founders by studying who was excluded: connoisseurs, women (with one notable and one less notable exception), engravers (at least from full membership) and a few, very specific, high-profile artists. To start with, the Royal Academy was an exception among European academies in not admitting noble dilettanti or connoisseurs—no doubt reflecting previous conflicts, for instance in collaborating with the Society of Dilettanti. Second, with the exception of two female founding members—the flower painter Mary Moser, daughter of the founding keeper, and the internationally recognized Angelica Kauffman—there was no female academician until Dame Laura Knight was elected in 1936. Moser's and Kauffman's involvement marks a significant departure from the general practice of eighteenth-century British voluntary associations, but they were not expected to participate actively in the academy's teaching or administration. Zoffany's portrait shows the female members (who were excluded from the life class, the very practice which defined artists' intellectual pursuits) only in fairly poor and almost unrecognizable portraits on the right-hand wall. Third, engravers—considered mere mechanics and craftsmen—were initially excluded from the membership of what posed as an academy of the liberal arts, though an exception was made for Francesco Bartolozzi, an artist already benefiting from court emoluments. Yet, possibly as a concession to the strong position of engravers in London's artistic community, as early as January 1769 the academy proposed to admit six associate engravers, soon expanding the idea into a new order of associate Royal Academicians. Up to twenty associates were to be elected from among the exhibitors; they had to be at least twenty years of age, must not be apprentices, and had the use of all the academy's facilities but no say in its government. It was only in the 1850s that associate engravers were admitted to full membership. Finally there were some very well-respected and successful artists who did not become founding members in 1768—either by choice or because they had been banned. Chambers had apparently excluded his colleague and rival, the joint architect of the works Robert Adam. Adam's fellow Scot Allan Ramsay had probably lost his appetite for art societies and, after his tremendously successful coronation portrait of George III, increasingly indulged his literary ambitions. And George Romney, who about 1768 was fast becoming one of London's most fashionable portrait painters, was not invited to join the new academy either at its foundation or in early elections. Romney switched from exhibiting with the Free Society of Artists to the Incorporated Society of Artists; he soon became one of its directors and exhibited works that can be read as direct challenges to Reynolds's subject pictures shown at the academy. In any case Romney stood in the Hogarthian tradition of rejecting the notion of a continental-style academy as an organization of monarchical privilege.

Among the early elected members, the majority had been educated in the Royal Academy Schools, which offered Britain's most sophisticated art education. A good number of second-generation academicians had also made use of other study facilities in London and almost half won a premium from the Society of Arts. Among these new academicians a large number had studied in continental Europe, as had many founding members; up to about 1790 the academy also continued to co-opt several more foreign-born artists such as Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg, the landscape painter and innovative scene designer.

Critics alleged that the Royal Academy failed to represent all genres, media, and styles of what could be considered as ‘national art’. The related proliferation of increasingly specialized art institutions eroded the academy's claim to be the only institution legitimately to represent the artistic profession to the public and public authorities. Some critics rejected outright the theory and modes of painting taught at ‘academies’, and academic aesthetic authority gradually attenuated as the treatment of nature and form in art was re-evaluated. But at least for two generations the Royal Academy's influence in the artistic and wider cultural world was considerable. It educated hundreds of students free of charge—some rising to the greatest distinction in their fields, as did Sir John Soane and Sir Thomas Lawrence, a future professor of architecture and president of the Royal Academy respectively. Growing numbers of exhibitors, exhibits, and visitors generated a rising income which allowed the academy not least to dispense more money in relief of artists than any other society. Art institutions across Britain and her former North American colonies benefited from academicians' advice, concrete help, and prestige. As the national pool of artistic and aesthetic expertise with a genteel residence at Somerset House, the Royal Academy had raised the prestige of the fine arts and its professors at home and abroad. Drawing on its (not entirely uncontested) royal connections and by lobbying government and parliament, academicians helped shape the professional identity of artists, spread the notion of the arts as a national resource, and influenced the building of national monuments, the acquisition of the Elgin marbles, and the movement towards a national gallery.


  • R. C. Alberts, Benjamin West: a biography (1978)
  • J. Brewer, The pleasures of the imagination: English culture in the eighteenth century (1997)
  • J. Harris and M. Snodin, eds., Sir William Chambers: architect to George III (1996)
  • H. Hoock, The king's artists: the Royal Academy of Arts and the politics of British culture, 1760–1840 (2005)
  • A. Kidson, George Romney, 1734–1802 (2002)
  • J. Marsden, ed., The wisdom of George III (2005)
  • D. Mannings and M. Postle, Sir Joshua Reynolds: a complete catalogue of his paintings, 2 vols. (2000)
  • The plan of an academy for the better cultivation, improvement and encouragement of painting, sculpture, architecture, and the arts of design in general: the abstract of a royal charter as propos'd for establishing the same, and a short introduction (1755)
  • J. Reynolds, Discourses on art, ed. R. R. Wark, 2nd edn (1975)
  • D. H. Solkin, ed., Art on the line: the Royal Academy exhibitions at Somerset House, 1780-1836 (2001)
  • R. Wendorf, Sir Joshua Reynolds: the painter in society (1996)
  • RA, archives
  • members' papers, RA
  • minute books, RA
  • Society of Artists papers, RA


  • RA, members' papers, minute books, Society of Artists papers


  • J. Zoffany, group portrait, oils, 1771–2 (The academicians of the Royal Academy), Royal Collection [see illus.]
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Royal Academy of Arts, London