Introductory Essay

The Exhibition Society

The second half of the 19th century witnessed a dramatic rise in the number of exhibition societies, artists' professional societies and sketching clubs being established. These were annually listed in The Year's Art, an almanac edited by Marcus Huish, which gave details of their membership, exhibitions, activities and facilities. These exhibition societies served a number of different functions.

Significantly, these societies provided an alternative exhibition space apart from, although not necessarily rivalling the Royal Academy. Academicians were not barred from exhibiting with these societies, but it was progressive artists, amateurs and artists working in a genre or medium, or indeed of a gender, discriminated against by the R.A., who substantially benefited. Such artists faced potential rejection by critical and conservative R.A. juries. Exhibition societies, on the other hand, offered a welcome sympathetic environment to hang their works with often no jury to pass judgement. [1] Amateurs and young professionals of both sexes were welcomed to the monthly meetings of the Artists' and Amateurs' Society, of which N. Chevalier was President in 1880. [2] The only restriction was numerical, members being limited to 400. [3]

Many societies had open memberships. For example, membership of the Sunday Society at the Conduit Street Galleries, was simply by means of an annual subscription. [4] A number of older, more conservative societies sought to expand their membership in the 1880s, largely as a result of dwindling numbers and lack of funds. It was for this reason that the Institute of Painters in Water Colour at the Dudley Gallery made the decision to admit all watercolour painters to its exhibitions. [5] Other societies chose to remain more select in order to retain a distinctive identity. For example, the Photographic Salon at the Dudley Gallery Art Society, first held in October 1893, 'was called into existence by a brotherhood or informal society of photographers called The Linked Ring for the purpose of exhibiting only those examples of contemporary photography which in their opinion give evidence of a personal artistic feeling and motive.' [6]

Certainly with no jury, or element of selection, the standard of exhibits could sometimes be a problem for societies with open membership. In 1899 R. A. M. Stevenson complained that societies like the Dudley Gallery Art Society 'offer us vast crowded warehouses of art of every kind, every degree of merit and demerit, and every sort of technical convention', 'without any standard of merit, any bond of unity, any tranquility of appearance'. [7] Open membership weakened societies' claims to expertise, as amateurs and professionals mixed. Many societies did operate some kind of selection system, for example, election to the membership of the Society for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts and the Burlington Fine Arts Club was by means of a council ballot. [8] Admission to the Artists' Society, which had a membership of 80 and a committee of 15, and the Langham Sketching Club, which had a membership of 50, was also by ballot. [9]

Societies not only provided a congenial exhibiting venue, but also offered other facilities, such as drawing classes, studios where patrons could sit for their portraits, and other artistic facilities. The Artists' Society was established in 1830 'for general study from the Life'. For this purpose it had a library and collection of costumes, armour and other artistic accessories. There was the opportunity for members to make studies from life every evening, both from draped and nude models, between 7-9 pm. The entrance fee was £1.1.0 and the subscription rate was £6.6.0. A conversazioni was held in January, February and March at which the Society's pictures were exhibited. Connected to the society was the Langham Sketching Club, which met on Friday evenings (October-May). Its subscription rate was £1.1.0. [10] Other societies provided financial assistance. The United Arts Gallery was founded by the London International Exhibition Society to encourage young artists 'by affording them facilities for study in the great Continental academies, supplying them with grants of money'. [11]

Societies could also be the venue for lectures and debates on aspects of art and culture. For example, the Society for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts at the Conduit Street Galleries, which was founded in 1858, held lectures and debates on art topics, as well as conversazioni in metropolitan art galleries and visits to private galleries. The annual subscription rate was £1.1.0. There was no entrance fee. In 1889 the Honorary Secretary was E. P. Loftus Brock, F.S.A. [12] Collectors and connoisseurs, not just artists, were encouraged to join these societies and participate in their intellectual life. The stated purpose of the Burlington Fine Arts Club, whose secretary in 1889 was J. Beavan, was 'To bring together Amateurs, Collectors, and others interested in Art'. This is reflected in its exhibition programme, which was not only intended as an exhibiting forum for artist members, but included 'special Exhibitions which shall have for their object the elucidation of some school, master, or specific Art'. Exhibitions were wide in scope covering 'pictures, original drawings, engravings, and rare books, enamels, ceramic wares, coins, plate'. [13] The Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society had a notably strong educational drive, organising lectures and demonstrations to coincide with its exhibitions, which were also accompanied by catalogues containing essays on the decorative arts. [14]

The variety of resources and facilities that societies offered its members also included libraries and study rooms. To draw again from the example of the Burlington Fine Arts Club, it sought to:

[...] afford ready means for consultation between persons of special knowledge and experience of Art; provide accomodation for comparing rare works; provide periodicals, books, and catalogues, foreign as well as English, having reference to Art; [...] to render the Club a centre where Conversazioni may be held of an Art character [...]. [15]

Societies also offered a place for people to gather with a shared social and political purpose. They could serve a lobbying function, as with, for example, the Sunday Society, which was established in 1875 with the aim of obtaining the opening of museums, art galleries, libraries and gardens on Sundays. [16] The aim of the Kyrle Society was 'to bring the refining and cheering influences of natural and artistic beauty home to the people; this it purposes to effect by decorating Workmen's Clubs, Hospitals, and Schools'. The name of the Society was derived from John Kyrle, a Hereford squire, 'who spent a long life in ameliorating the condition of his fellow-men'. The Committee included eminent artists and sculptors such as Frederic Leighton and Thomas Woolner, which helped publicise its cause. [17]

Some societies were specialised by medium: watercolour, drawing, photography, etching and decorative art. Such societies included the Photographic Salon at the Dudley Gallery Art Society; the French Water-Colour Society and Dutch Water-Colour Society, which both met at the Goupil Gallery; the Bookplate Society at the John Baillie Gallery; the Society of Painters in Tempera, which met at the premises of Carfax and Co.; and the Society of Art Workers at the Bruton Galleries. Interestingly, many of these societies catered specifically for artists in media normally rejected by the R.A., which favoured oil painting.

Other societies adopted a more all-encompassing policy, but also tackled the marginalisation of lower status art workers marked out by the R.A. For example, the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, which was founded in 1887 with Walter Crane as its President, sought to break down the hierarchical barriers between the fine and decorative arts, mixing media in its high-profile exhibitions at the new avant-garde venue, the New Gallery. Painting and sculpture (e.g. from the New English Art Club, Newlyn School and New Sculpture Movement) were intermingled with architectural drawings, interior schemes and decorative art objects (from individual craftsmen as well as leading manufacturing firms such as Minton & Co., J. Wedgewood & Sons and Coalbrookdale Co.). [18] In the catalogue of its second exhibition in 1889, Crane described their revolt 'against artificial distinctions in art'. [19] Other attempts to unite across the arts, included the United Arts Gallery, whose founding aim was to hold 'bi-annual exhibitions of paintings, drawings and sculpture', [20] and the Bibliographical Society, which met at the Grafton Galleries and opened in 1893 with the intention to integrate fine, dramatic and musical art. [21]

London societies were certainly diverse and catered for all groups on local and international levels. Societies with local interests included the Toynbee Sketch Club, which met at the Doré Gallery; the Surrey Art Circle, which met at the Clifford Art Gallery (in 1903-4 its President was Alfred Gilbert and its Secretary was Sidney Moore); [22] and the City of London Society of Artists, which was founded in 1886/87 in the house of the landscape painter Nathaniel E. Green in St John's Wood. In 1884 it had 73 members. [23]

Other societies had a more cosmopolitan outlook. One of the original aims of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, which was set up in London in 1898 with James McNeill Whistler as its President, was 'the non-recognition of nationality in Art'. [24] The Daily Mail declared, 'the fact of it being cosmopolitan will deprive it of bearing the character of competing with any of the existing exhibitions'. [25] Artists from many different countries were invited to join its Honorary Council. The first exhibition, which was held in May 1898 at the Prince's Skating Club in Knightsbridge, had works on show from Italy, Holland, Belgium, Austria, Germany, France and America. Many other societies provided important forums for the display of works by overseas artists, contrasting with the policies of the largely xenophobic R.A. The Critic pondered whether, 'the Royal Academy is at last to meet the opponent that will confound it.' [26]

The ISSPG was also an important exhibitioning venue for women, whose works at the turn of the century were still considered by many to be inferior to that of men. The Derbyshire Courier declared on 19 February 1898: 'The injustice done to ladies has found voice at last'. [27] Cecilia Beaux, Lady Butler, Mary Davis, Amy Draper, Mary Sargent Florence, Lady Glenesk, Bessie MacNicol, Clara Montalba, Henrietta Rae, Marianne Stokes, Winifred Thompson, Suzanne Valadon, Helen Walton and E. M. Ward were all represented at the opening exhibition. However, the regular exhibitions of 'Fair Women' that began in 1908 potentially undermined women's position as serious artists, presenting them as mere objects of prettiness for the male gaze.

Women generally found exhibition societies to be more welcoming than the discriminatory R.A. In 1859 a petition urged the R.A. to admit women but to no avail. Membership was not offered until 1922. In 1856-57 the Society of Female Artists was founded, largely through the efforts of Harriet Grote. [28] Membership was limited in number to twenty-three and was only open to serious professional artists, not amateur watercolourists or illustrators, in order to gain critical recognition from the male art world. It became the Society of Lady Artists in 1872 and in 1886 it expanded its membership, allowing non-professionals to exhibit for a fee. [29] Other societies were intended solely for female amateurs, for example, the Ladies' Amateur Art Society, which met at the Baker Street Picture Galleries. Women were eligible for membership in the Society for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts. [30] Expansion of membership within even conservative societies meant that in many instances women were able to become members and participate in society business. For example, the Royal Society of Painters in Water-colours allowed women to vote for the election of members and associates and attend general meetings from 1890. [31]

Women artists found it difficult to sell their work in the 1860s and 1870s, even despite critical acclaim. [32] The commercial aspect of exhibitions was stressed to varying degrees by different societies. Some more gentile amateur societies presented their exhibitions as 'fund-raising' rather than commercial. The rules of the Graphic Society forbade purchases or asking of prices so that meetings would 'not degenerate into a bazaar'. [33] However, although prices were not necessarily included in exhibition catalogues, they could usually be obtained on request. At a time of a 'glut' in the profession of painting, as Marcus Huish put it in the Nineteenth Century in 1892, exhibition societies offered important economic links in a limited market between the artist and the buying public, societies sometimes directly liaising with clients on the artists' behalf. [34] The United Arts Club specifically stated its intention to 'act as agents for members of the Club in the sale and purchase of works of art'. [35] The Dudley Gallery Art Society, which had 150 members, both oil and watercolour painters, took 75% commission on sales. [36]

Many exhibition societies sought royal patronage in order to attract public attention and give their organisations further eminence. For example, the Society of Painters in Water-colours, which met at Dowdeswell and Dowdeswell, was accorded royal status in 1881. The Art Journal noted in 1881 that 'The Kyrle Society was fortunate in obtaining the assistance of Prince Leopold at its third annual meeting'. [37] Whistler went to great ends to obtain royal status for the Society of British Artists in 1887 and promptly designed a royal lion for the society's official notepaper. [38] The Duke of Argyll was President of the Dudley Gallery Art Society in 1893. Although offering an alternative to the R.A., in reality exhibition societies often recreated their own hierarchies and structures. They held private viewings and sought high-ranking artists and society figures to become honorary members to lend their society an air of respectability and prestige. [39]

Nevertheless, it is indisputable that exhibition societies in the 19th century provided valuable opportunities and facilities for their members. These amenities were particularly appreciated by young and low-status artists, who were provided with valuable exhibition and studio space, library facilities and educational support, in addition to financial assistance and access to new patrons and markets. For these artists, exhibition societies were a life-line in their struggle for critical recognition and commercial success. Amateurs and collectors also benefited from the opportunities and facilities afforded to them, not least of which their introduction to a sympathetic circle of artistically minded fellows.

Dr Joanna Meacock

[1] Kenneth W. Luckhurst, The Story of Exhibitions, Studio Publications, London, 1951, pp. 43-5.

[2] Art Journal, 1880, p. 94.

[3] In 1886 R. R. Collins was Secretary. Year's Art, 1886, p. 158.

[4] Year's Art, 1889, p. 106.

[5] Julie F. Codell, 'Artists' Professional Societies: Production, Consumption, and Aesthetics', Towards a Modern Art World, ed. Brian Allen, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, p. 171.

[6] Reginald Craigie was its Secretary in the 1890s. Dudley Gallery, exhibition catalogue, 1902, p. 7.

[7] R. A. M. Stevenson, 'Exhibitions', Art Journal, May 1899, pp. 158-9.

[8] Year's Art, 1883, p. 162. Year's Art, 1889, pp. 105-6.

[9] Year's Art, 1883, p. 154; 1886, p.152; 1889, p. 104. 'Laws and by-laws of the Artists' Society', London, 1896 (NAL).

[10] Year's Art, 1883, p. 154; 1886, p.152; 1889, p. 104. 'Laws and by-laws of the Artists' Society', London, 1896 (NAL).

[11] 'The United Arts Gallery', Times, 2 November 1881, p. 10.

[12] Year's Art, 1889, pp. 105-6.

[13] The entrance fee and annual subscription were both £5.5.0. Year's Art, 1883, p. 162. Year's Art, 1886, p. 163. Year's Art, 1889, p. 110.

[14] 'The Arts and Crafts Exhibition', Times, 4 October 1890, p. 6.

[15] Year's Art, 1883, p. 162; 1886, p. 163; 1889, p. 110.

[16] In 1886 its Honorary Secretary was Mark H. Judge. By 1889, the society had held 62 exhibitions. Year's Art, 1889, p. 106.

[17] Art Journal, March 1881, pp. 95-96.

[18] The Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, like many other societies and galleries, offered free entry into its exhibitions on certain days in order that craftsmen, students and art workers too could attend. 'The Arts and Crafts Exhibition', Times, 4 October 1890, p. 6. Karen Livingstone & Linda Parry, International Arts and Crafts, V&A Publications, London, 2005, pp. 52-55.

[19] 'The Arts and Crafts Exhibition', Times, 4 October 1890, p. 6.

[20] Year's Art, 1883, p. 52. Times, 19 May 1881, p. 10.

[21] Giles Waterfield et al, Palaces of Art: Art Galleries in Britain 1790-1990, exh. cat., Dulwich Picture Gallery and National Gallery of Scotland, London, 1992, p. 170.

[22] Year's Art, 1904, p. 127.

[23] Art Journal, 1884, p. 224.

[24] Dundee Advertiser, 11 February 1898, ISSPG press cutting books, p. 7, A.13 (6-20), National Art Library, Victoria and Albert Museum.

[25]Daily Mail, 9 February 1898, ISSPG press cutting books, p. 7, A.13 (6-20), NAL, V&A.

[26] Critic, 26 February 1998, ISSPG press cutting books, p. 7, A.13 (6-20), NAL, V&A.

[27] Derbyshire Courier, 19 February 1898, ISSPG press cutting books, p. 7, A.13 (6-20), NAL, V&A.

[28] Susan P. Casteras and Linda H. Peterson, A Struggle for Fame: Victorian Women Artists and Authors, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, pp. 11-12.

[29] Codell, p. 172.

[30] Year's Art, 1889, pp. 105-6.

[31] Codell, pp. 171-2.

[32] Pamela Gerrish Nunn, Victorian Women Artists, Women's Press, London, 1987, p. 81.

[33] Rules and minutes of the Graphic Society, Royal Academy Library, quoted in Codell, p. 171.

[34]Marcus Huish, 'Whence This Great Multitude of Painters?', Nineteenth Century, vol. 32, November 1892, p. 720, quoted in Codell, p. 169.

[35] Year's Art, 1907, p. 163.

[36] The Dudley Gallery became the Dudley Gallery Art Society in 1883, at which date the Council included Lord Bury, John Ruskin, F. Goodall, W. Q. Orchardson, Walter Paton, George Fripp, Mrs Butler, Henry Harper and Walter Severn. Art Journal, 1880, pp. 25, 316; 1881, pp. 28, 125.

[37] Art Journal, March 1881, p. 95.

[38] James McNeill Whistler, Design for Lion for RBA, Glasgow University Library Special Collections. Richard Dorment & Margaret F. MacDonald, James McNeill Whistler, Tate Gallery Publishing, London, 1994, p. 53.

[39] Codell, p. 172.