Our History

Our history

Bristol's First Art Gallery

In the early nineteenth century, a group of local artists 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.

A leading figure in this group was Ellen Sharples - an artist and a 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 to house the Academy. This was to be Bristol's first art gallery.

Growth and Expansion

The Academy soon became an important and well-regarded art institution. 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.

In 1853 a school of art was established in Bristol, known as the Bristol School of Practical Art. This school was supported by artist members of the RWA and studio space was later provided by the Academy. In 1936, this school 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 shares a building with the RWA.

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 a dome and spectacular ceiling lunettes painted by Walter Crane, was completed and King George V granted the Academy its Royal title, with the reigning monarch as its Patron.

Our first President was John Scandrett Harford, a staunch Quaker and abolitionist (a friend of William Wilberforce). An early President, at a time when it was unusual for women to hold this role was Janet Stancombe-Wills; who contributed generously with time and money to the Academy. Lord Methuen of Corsham in Wiltshire (one of the 'Monuments Men') was President of the RWA from 1940 to 1967. He had a large retrospective exhibition filling all the galleries in 1970.

The Second World War to Present Day

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.

Throughout its history the Royal West of England Academy 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. 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. She toured the galleries and met a number of its members and supporters. 

Modern improvements

The RWA Millennium Appeal was launched in April 1998 and aimed to raise funding for the repair and revitalisation of the RWA. Thanks to public donations and funding from a number of Charitable Trusts, major refurbishment works could be undertaken. This included the replacement of 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.

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

A further phase of development in 2010 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 are currently working towards a new development phase. Our Light and Inspiration Appeal will enable us to make urgent repairs to our building, to save our Grade II* listed galleries from catastrophic failure.