Our Heritage

Use the arrows to discover some of the historical highlights of the RWA

The history of the RWA

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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. 

Discover an overview of our history with the timeline above, and for more information use navigation menu on the right to learn more about the people who made the RWA, our grade II* listed building, exhibitions, Art School and fantastic facts about our heritage. 

Past Exhibitions 

Ellen Sharples's vision for the Academy was that it should be "an elegant edifice – an ornament & honour to the city which in its walls will contain a succession of the various beauties of Art".  It soon became an important and well-regarded art institution, and to this day is acclaimed as one of the most beautiful exhibition spaces in the country. 

Starting in 1844, one of the Academy's main activities has been to hold an Open exhibition - our equivalent of the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition. With a brief break during the Second World War (when our building was requisitioned and used to house GIs stationed in the city), these annual exhibitions have shown tens of thousands of artworks by artists ranging from the leading figures of their day to amateur artists who may never have exhibited before.  These shows have also been popular with collectors of art, and homes throughout the region and beyond hold much-loved treasures bought from the RWA.

As well as the Annual Open, throughout its history the RWA has shown numerous exhibitions of note, including, in 1930, a French Modern Art Exhibition that included works by Auguste Rodin, Paul Gauguin, Pierre Bonnard and Raoul Dufy.

Today, we present a year-round exhibition programme, with a policy of showing the best of contemporary art in a historic context, and often bringing historic masterpieces to Bristol for the first time. A selection of our past exhibitions can be seen below. Click here to see our current and upcoming exhibitions

Heritage Mural by Illustrator Dave Bain

Upon our reopening in 2022, illustrator Dave Bain created our Heritage Mural on our lower ground floor. This ginormous painting is filled colourful characters and fun facts capturing the RWA's history. Watch the videos below to see how the Heritage Mural came to life.