In the early nineteenth century a group of artists in Bristol formed an association known as the Bristol Society of Artists, these were mostly landscape painters and many were well known such as William Muller, Francis Danby, J.B. Pyne and John Syer. In 1844, when the Bristol Academy for the Promotion of Fine Arts was founded, the Bristol Society of Artists was incorporated into it. At this time the President and committee was predominantly its patrons, rather than its artists.
Ellen Sharples, was an artist associated with this group and a member of a portrait painting family, who spent considerable time in America. When she died in 1849 she left £2,000 to the Bristol Academy for the Promotion of Fine Arts. This sum, together with an earlier gift from her and money raised by other supporters, enabled the erection of a fine building in 1858 - Bristol's first Art Gallery. Early patrons included Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the Prince Consort.
In 1875 a considerable collection of Turner watercolours were exhibited attracting over 15,000 visitors.
A school of art was established in 1853, known as the Bristol School of Practical Art supported by artist members and studio space was later provided by the Academy. From 1936 to 1969 it was known as the West of England College of Art. Since then a school of art has always occupied part of the Academy premises. Education continues to be important at the RWA.
The RWA School of Architecture was officially opened in 1921 by HRH Prince of Wales, it was later taken over by the University of Bristol in 1963 and closed in 1983.
In 1913 a major extension to the front of the building, including the dome and Walter Crane lunettes, was completed and King George V granted the Academy its Royal title, with the reigning monarch as its Patron.
Two of the early Presidents were Lord Winterstoke and Lady Stancombe-Wills; both were members of the Wills family and both contributed generously with time and money to the Academy. Lord Methuen of Corsham in Wiltshire was President of the RWA from 1940 to 1967 and he encouraged the Academy to ensure that all future Presidents were artists. He had a large retrospective exhibition filling all the galleries in 1970.
In 1941 Augusta Talboys, an artist member, left a sum of money to the Academy so that the interest from it may be used to purchase works of art by artist members.
These works now exceed a thousand in number and form the substantial part of the Permanent Collection of the RWA.
Annual Exhibitions have been held at the Academy since its beginnings in the 1850's, with the only gap being during the Second World War. After the World War II the building was found to be in a rather poor condition and great efforts were made to restore the the fabric of the building and improve the galleries.
Throughout its history the Royal West of England Academy has shown numerous exhibitions of note, including, in 1930, a French Modern Art Exhibition that showed among others the work of Auguste Rodin, Paul Gauguin, Pierre Bonnard and Raoul Dufy.
During World War II the Academy became the temporary home of various organisations including the Bristol Aeroplane Company and the U.S. Army. Immediately after the war ended the Council applied for the release of the galleries but was informed that they would be occupied by the Inland Revenue until further notice. It wasn't until 1950 that the building was returned to its original function after the intervention of the then Prime Minister, Mr Atlee.
During the past 60 years a variety of exhibitions have been held at the Academy, these have included The Architecture and Drawings of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Paintings by Anne Redpath and Pablo Picasso Etchings. In recent years the number and quality of exhibitions has increased and includes an annual open Autumn Exhibition and open exhibitions of printmaking, sculpture and painting held in rotation, every three years.
In 1999, the Patron of the RWA, Her Majesty The Queen visited the Academy, toured the galleries and met a number of its members and supporters.
The RWA Millennium Appeal
The RWA Millennium Appeal was launched in April 1998 aiming to raise funding for the repair and revitalisation of the RWA. In essence the Appeal sought to achieve two objectives; to upgrade the RWA facilities so that the public would be able to view major exhibitions and renew and strengthen our traditional involvement in the practice and teaching of fine art. Proposed changes included replacing the roof, repair and cleaning of the masonry, including the spectacular façade of the Academy, restoration of the dome and the Walter Crane lunettes, installation of lighting and climatic controls in the galleries, addition of a café and auditorium and the full restoration of the RWA Permanent Collection. These changes would enable the RWA to expand its important contribution to the cultural and educational life of the West of England.
In active partnership with both the public and private sectors, the Academy staged exhibitions of even greater regional and national importance through the modernisation of our facilities.
To achieve the objectives of the Appeal the RWA needed to raise £5 million. Therefore your contributions were very important to us, no matter how much or how little you gave.
The main work on the Academy building and most of the other projects were completed in the Autumn of 2002. This enabled the revitailized Academy to re-open with its 150th Open Exhibition, a great success for all those involved. Our thanks go out to all those who made donations or who helped in other ways to bring about the successful conclusion to our millennium appeal.