A painted portrait of Ellen Sharples


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.