Our History

Our history

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.

Thanks to Ellen's influence, equality has been at the heart of our organisation from the outset. Our founding President was John Scandrett Harford, a staunch Quaker and leading abolitionist (personal friend and biographer of William Wilberforce), and we elected our first woman President, Janet Stancomb-Wills, in 1911, long before any other British Royal Academy of Art even allowed women as full members.


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 HERE.


From the outset, the RWA has encompassed a body of professional artists, elected by their peers - our Academicians ("[uh]+[kad]+[uh]+[mish]+uhnz]").  

Initially, these largely comprised the Bristol Society of Artists, whose members were mostly landscape painters, many of whom were well known, such as William Muller, Francis Danby, J.B. Pyne and John Syer.

Through our history, these have encompassed many of the leading figures of their day, including leading figures of the Newlyn School, such as Stanhope Forbes and Walter Langley; Bloomsbury Group artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and St Ives Modernists Paul Feiler and Sir Terry Frost.

Unlike our sister Royal Academies in London, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Ireland, women have always been eligible to be members. Consequently the first woman artist ever to be elected as a full Royal Academician - Dame Laura Knight (in 1936) - had been elected RWA two decades earlier, in 1913.

Other notable women Academicians include Mary Fedden OBE PPRWA, Dame Elisabeth Frink RA RWA and Dod Procter RA RWA.


Although our Academicians have always been at our core, they were not part of the management of the Academy until 1940. Since our foundation, we have had an honorary President, and for our first century these were always drawn from the world of business or were landed gentry.

Remarkably, we elected our first woman President in 1911, Dame Janet Stancomb-Wills - 108 years before the RA, and seven years before British women were first allowed to vote.

The first artist to be elected President was Lord Methuen of Corsham in Wiltshire (one of the 'Monuments Men'), who served in that role from 1940 to 1967. He had a large retrospective exhibition filling all the galleries in 1970.  Since then, all RWA Presidents have been practicing artists.

School of Art

Since 1853, the Academy has encompassed a school of art, at first known as the Bristol School of Practical Art. This school was supported by artist members of the RWA and studio space was later provided within our building.

In 1936, this became the West of England College of Art, which continued until 1969. Today, the school is managed by the Stroud and South Gloucestershire College (SGS) and still operates within our building, using the oldest life drawing studio in the country still to be in use for its original purpose.

The RWA School of Architecture was officially opened in 1921 by the then Prince of Wales (future King Edward VIII). It was later taken over by the University of Bristol in 1963, and finally closed in 1983.

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. 

Our building

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. 

The reigning monarch remains our Patron to the current day, and in 1999, Her Majesty The Queen, Elizabeth II, visited the Academy. She toured the galleries and met a number of its members and supporters. HRH The Prince of Wales is also an Honorary Academician, and exhibits each year in our Annual Open exhibitions.

Modern improvements

Since 1998, the RWA has been undergoing staged improvements to its stunning, landmark, Grade II* building.  Initially, thanks to support from number various Charitable Trusts, a Millennium Appeal enabled major refurbishment works tobe undertaken. This included the replacement of the roof; repair and cleaning of the masonry; restoration of the dome and the Walter Crane lunettes; addition of a café, and conservation of key works in the RWA Permanent Collection.

Most of the renovation work was completed in the Autumn of 2002. This enabled the revitalised Academy to re-open with its 150th Open Exhibition.

A further National Lottery funded phase of development from 2010-13 enabled the RWA to make further improvements to the gallery spaces, including the introduction of climate control measures. This has allowed the gallery to host exhibitions of works on loan from national and regional collections, who demand the highest standards of environmental control.

We have recently undergone our largest capital project in over a century, commencing in June 2021, this 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.