In the early nineteenth century, a group of artists in Bristol formed an association known as the Bristol Society of Artists. The members were mostly landscape painters and many were well known, such as William Muller, Francis Danby, J.B. Pyne and John Syer.

In 1844, a small group of wealthy and influential individuals founded the Bristol Academy for the Promotion of Fine Arts and the Bristol Society of Artists was incorporated into it. At this time the President and committee were redominantly its patrons, rather than its artists.

A leading figure in this group was Ellen Sharples, who was an artist - one member of a portrait painting family - who had spent considerable time in America before settling back in Bristol. 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 donated by other supporters, enabled the erection of a fine building in 1858 - Bristol's first Art Gallery. Early patrons included Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Prince Albert, 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; this was supported by artist members and studio space was later provided by the Academy. In 1936, this school became West of England College of Art, which continued until 1969, since when it has changed hands and identities, being run by UWE and now Stroud and South Gloucestershire College (SGS), offering a continued presence for a school of art wthin the Academy premises. Education continues to be important at the RWA.

The Academy during H.M. King George V's visit of 1912

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 for the collection, to which she also bequeathed her own paintings. This part of the collection alone now numbers over a thousand works and forms the substantial part of the Permanent Collection of the RWA - a substantial part of which can now be viewed on the BBC Your Paintings website.

Annual Exhibitions have been held at the Academy since its beginnings in the 1850s, with the only gap being during the Second World War, during which 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. At this time, 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. Other notable shows have included The Architecture and Drawings of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Paintings by Anne Redpath and Pablo Picasso Etchings.

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

Millennium Appeal building facade

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.

Thanks to the generosity of a large number of individuals and some Charitable Trusts, major refurbishment works funded through the Appeal 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 improved lighting in the galleries, addition of a café and conservation of key works in the RWA Permanent Collection.

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.

A further phase of development was instigated in 2010 by the Academy's Administrator, Dee Smart, supported by UWE. Entitled 'Great Spaces Inspire', this project was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund with additional contributions from the Garfield Weston Foundation, Denman Charitable Trust, Charles Hayward Charitable Trust, Mercers Charitable Foundation and a number of generous individual Patrons.

'Great Spaces Inspire' has enabled the RWA to make further improvements to the gallery spaces, including the introduction of climate control measures, enabling us to host exhibitions of works on loan from national and regional collections by meeting the highest standards of environmental control. It has also funded the development of our learning and participation programme and has enabled the RWA's collection to be properly stored and conserved.

Further development plans include improvements in the RWA's accessibility by replacing the antiquated passenger lift, further enhancement of the gallery spaces and better utilisation of the building and its adjoining outdoor space. If you are interested in supporting us in this work, we would welcome your assistance: please contact us on 0117 973 5129 or email info@rwa.org.uk