Our Collection - Q&A

What is the permanent collection and how did the RWA acquire all of these artworks? 

The Permanent Collection really began with the works bequeathed by Ellen Sharples on her death in 1849. As well as leaving a large sum of money to the academy, she left books, notebooks and diaries and a collection of artworks, both created by her family and other pieces she had collected over the years. When the academy building opened in 1858, the collection could be displayed to visitors. Artists and patrons were encouraged to donate works, so the collection expanded quite rapidly. A diploma scheme was brought in, whereby new members would donate a piece of work to the collection.

The early 20th century was a difficult period for the RWA. The collection was stored in poor conditions and the gallery was struggling financially. When Bristol Museum and Art Gallery opened, much of the collection went out on loan to them and was later bought from the academy.

With a large part of the collection now gone, it had to be rebuilt. This was aided substantially in 1942, when Agnes Augusta Talboys left a sum of money to the academy for the purpose of buying works for the collection.  Over the years the collection has been added to through donations, diploma works, purchases, commissions and through the Arts Council England Acceptance in Lieu scheme.


What is the most interesting piece to you in the permanent collection? 

We have a painting by Frederick George Swaish, a portrait of Hazel Antoinette Heming, which people either love or find creepy. She has a very wicked grin on her face, making her look incredibly mischievous. I'd love to know what was making her grin.

Hazel Antoinette Heming (née Butt) (1889–1963)Hazel Antoinette Heming (née Butt) (1889–1963)


Does the collection include pieces with a particularly interesting story?

Probably many more than we actually know about. We have a portrait of John Burzynski by Nigel Casseldine called 'The Academy's Hands'. John worked here for many years and taught me the skills of hanging exhibitions. He was a very quiet, self-deprecating man, but his life during the Second World War is worthy of a film, involving escaping from the Nazis, joining the partisans and eventually fighting at Monte Cassino with the Polish regiment.

Others include a landscape painting by Michael Garton. He used to paint on-site, out in the open. Rather than carry his canvases back to his studio, he would wrap them up and hide them in the undergrowth until he came back.


When or where can the public see pieces from the permanent collection?

We try to display works from the collection as often as we can. At the moment we have several pieces hanging in our café, which I hope helps to create an inviting ambience.

In some of the themed exhibitions held during the year, we usually include a few pieces from the collection. The collection is so varied in style and subject matter that we can often find interesting and relevant works to show alongside the other historical exhibits. We also regularly loan works to other galleries for their exhibitions.

I recently curated an exhibition focussing on the heritage of the academy, which includes several works from the collection. The exhibition is designed to be an on-going project, so pop-up exhibitions will appear occasionally, either within the gallery spaces or on the RWA website.

The oil and acrylic paintings, as well as most of the sculpture collection, can be seen on the Art UK website. Our plan is to add watercolours and prints, making the whole collection accessible, but as you can imagine, this will be a long-term project. A smaller selection can be viewed on our website, illustrating the artist biographies.

 The RWA cafe with a large painting at the back

How did you get into the role you have now? What skills do you need? 

When I took over the care of the collection, I had already been working here for about 15 years. In that time I had come to know the collection very well and had gained lots of experience in handling artworks. When the person who had previously looked after the collection left, it was decided that I would be the ideal candidate to take over, even though I didn't know much about the administration involved. I was left with some brief hand-over notes and spent several weeks just looking through old paperwork, to see what needed to be done. Since then I have been on training courses and learned through on-line tutorials about good practice.

I have no professional qualifications, just years' of experience. Handling artworks is mainly common sense, but as every piece is different in some way, you have to think about how to treat them. It helps to be organised and methodical and have a lot of patience, especially as some of the data-inputting can be very repetitive. An enquiring mind can be useful too, especially when carrying out research.