Our Building

A photograph of the old RWA building fading into the new building showing the changes for the forecourt and windows.

Before and after of the 2022 Light and Inspiration building transformation. Alterations to the forecourt and exterior create a more welcoming first impression

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3 photographs of the RWA cafe. On the right hand side a greyscale photo of the old cafe and on the right two photos of the new cafe after the building transformation

The Cafe space has been increased substantially including more seating and better accessibility

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Our building has been open to the public since 1858 and has seen drastic changes throughout its history. This page explores our recent Light and Inspiration Project, the role of the RWA's building in the second World War and the 1913 alterations. 

Light and Inspiration Project

We have recently undergone our largest capital project in over a century, commencing in June 2021, this project completed in May 2022 when our beautiful building reopened. The Light and Inspiration Appeal enabled us to make the most significant changes to our building in over a century, delivering improvements that will make it much more accessible and welcoming to all, while also undertaking urgent repairs. Read more about the Light and Inspiration Capital Project.

In 20202. Former Bath Young Poet Laureate Polly Denny was been appointed Writer in Residence at RWA. During this period she wrote the following poem to mark the new phase in the gallery’s history. 

The Second World War 

During the Second World War, 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 Academy was occupied by the Inland Revenue. It wasn't until 1950 that the building was returned to its original function after the intervention of Prime Minister Atlee. The building was found to be in a poor condition and great efforts were made to restore the fabric of the building and improve the galleries. 

 An illustration of the historic RWA building

1913 Alterations

In 1913, major alterations to the building were completed, including the addition of further gallery spaces; a new dome rising above the beautiful marble-clad interior staircase and landing, and spectacular ceiling lunettes painted by Walter Crane. The reopening of the building was marked by King George V granting the Academy its Royal title. 


Bristol's First Art Gallery

The RWA began its existence in 1844, when - largely at the instigation of pioneering woman artist Ellen Sharples (1769–1849) - the Bristol Academy for the Promotion of Fine Arts was founded. 

Ellen Sharples had made her fortune in America, where she and her husband James both produced portraits of all four founding Presidents. When James died in 1811, she returned to Bristol with her artist-daughter, Rolinda, and set about trying to found the kind of regional Academy she had experienced in Philadelphia - the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts - within her home city. 

She spearheaded the fundraising campaign, persuading wealthy individuals to support the project, including both Albert, Prince Consort, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel.  When Ellen died in 1849, she left £2000 to the Academy, and this sum, together with an earlier gift from her and money donated by other supporters, enabled the erection of our stunning, purpose-built building, which opened to the public in 1858 as Bristol's first public art gallery.