Before reviewing the exhibition, I thought it worth saying a bit about the history of the RI as it's known over the last two centuries.
The Society is only 181 years old in 2012 - however in the nineteenth century it used to hold more than one exhibition a year in London galleries - notably the Institute's purpose built gallery at 190-195 Piccadilly (now a listed building), just opposite the Royal Academy .
Below you can see the image of the New Gallery of the Institute of Painters in Water Colours in Piccadilly as reproduced in the Illustrated London News dated April 28th, 1883 - and exhibited in a display of the archives in the 200th exhibition
|New Gallery of the Institute of Painters in Water Colours, Piccadilly|
|200th Exhibition of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours 2012|
Private View 13th March 2012
(it's still going strong after five hours!)
Mall Galleries, The Mall, London
History of the Watercolour Societies
The Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours has its origins in societies created as an alternative to the Royal Academy.
These stemmed from the fact the Royal Academy deemed that watercolours were not an appropriate medium for serious artistic expression.
Though painters such as Paul Sandby had been among the Academy's founding members, by the turn of the 19th century watercolors were blatantly disparaged in its annual exhibitions, categorized as a type of drawing and sometimes displayed in the same dimly lit room used to show sculptures (the lighting favored the marbles, not the paintings). In fact, a painter primarily in watercolors did not gain election to the Royal Academy until 1943.The RA rather obtusely ignored the fact that many British painters who were held in high regard - Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Thomas Girtin (1775-1802), John Sell Cotman (1782-1842), David Cox (1783 - 1859), Richard Parkes Bonington (1802-1828) - all worked with serious intent in watercolours.
Handprint - Watercolour Artists
So, as is the nature of these things, a breakaway group decided to place an emphasis on the importance of painting in watercolours.
The Royal Watercolour Society
In 1804, the Society of Painters in Water-Colours was created. In 1881, it changed its name to become the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolours and then became Royal Watercolour Society in 1905 after it was granted a royal charter. It's now the oldest watercolour society in the world. The focus of this Society was to promote the use of watercolour - but also to exhibit only the work of its own members - which is a tradition which continues to this day. (The RWS has an open competition when exhibiting work by non-members - see RWS Contemporary Watercolour Competition 2012 - Review).
In the Victoria age, the RWS was referred to as the Old Water-Colour Society (OWCS) so as to distinguish it from the newer society which became the RI.
The Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour
Some painters in watercolours wanted an art society which also allowed the exhibition of work by non members alongside that of members. Hence the New Society of Painters in Watercolours was born in 1807.
In 1808 it changed its name to the Associated Artists in Water Colours and was successful in being able to include work by some of the foremost watercolour painters of the day in its exhibitions - artists like David Cox, Peter de Wint (1784-1849), William Blake (1757-1827) and Paul Sandby (1731 - 1809). David Cox was a President of the Associated Artists in Water-Colour.
However, this new society experienced financial problems and it disbanded in 1812.
In 1832, the society was resurrected and relaunched as (again) the New Society of Painters in Water-Colours. The Society later became known as the Institute of Painters in Water-Colours (1863) and finally the Royal Institute of Painters in Water-Colours (1883) following the command of Queen Victoria.
This New Water-Colour Society(NWCS), widely perceived as less prestigious than the Old, was founded to encourage the artistic innovation and wider membership that many artists and critics felt was lacking in the Old Society.The Society managed to thrive during the nineteenth century despite some internal strife and the abandonment of the policy of exhibiting both non-members and member's work together - thus losing a critical feature of differentiation from the OWCS. It did however continue to advocate for painting in watercolour - even if some of the painters tried to make them look as much like oil paintings as possible!
Handprint - Watercolour Artists
The Victoria and Albert Museum describes some of the landscapes which featured in exhibitions.
|Edmund George Warren, 'Rest in the Cool and Shady Wood', 1861|
Victoria and Albert Museum no. 1212-1886
Many exhibition watercolours were surprisingly large, such as 'Rest in the Cool and Shady Wood' by Edmund George Warren, which is nearly four feet long (120 cm). It is painted in painstaking touches of gummy, glossy watercolour, so that at a first glance it appears to be an oil painting. It is also framed in a wide ornate gilt frame, as were many exhibition watercolours. This watercolour is an extreme example of the pressure some artists felt to be noticed by the public and the critics, to create a sensation; and Warren's huge watercolour was a sensation at the 1861 exhibition of the New Society of Painters in Water colours. The Spectator wrote, 'It is large in size, and must have occupied the painter some time, so full is it of detail'. Another commentator, J. B. Atkinson, called it a 'prodigy of manual skill'.Victoria and Albert Museum - British watercolour societies of the 19th centuryBoth the watercolour societies promoted the artwork of their members through annual exhibitions. It appears that both also took the view that those buying paintings would value them more if they knew that they were all produced by artists who had gained membership of their societies. Thus the establishment took over yet again!
In 1865 a new and independent group of watercolour painters was created. They showed their work in the Dudley Gallery in the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. Their exhibitions were open and hence they filled the vacuum left by the New Society when it abandoned the original policy of showing work by non-members alongside members.
The Dudley Gallery in London has been in existence since 1864. Its first exhibition was held in the month of April, 1865. It was organized for the public display of water-color pictures by painters who were not members of the regular water-color societies, and who in consequence were not permitted to send their works to those galleries. It had no regular membership; the pictures were selected or rejected by a committee of management, and the exhibitions were open to all artists whose merit or skill entitled their works to the consideration of the public.To all intents and purposes it was running an open art competition. As a result - and this is a point which all art societies should note - it attracted work from some of the best emerging artists of the day!
The Victorian Web - Victorian Art Institutions: A Contemporary Survey of Academies, Schools, and Galleries
However the new Institute was fortunate and some of the best artists joined it as members.
The Gallery in Piccadilly
The New Society held its first three exhibitions at 16 Old Bond Street in London. Below is a view of the 1834 exhibition.
|Gallery of New Society of Painters in Watercolours, 1834|
George Scharf (1788-1860)
In 1838, the society adopted 53 Pall Mall as its home which is where it stayed until 1883.
1883 was a big year for the society. Two major things happened:
- it merged with the Dudley group - which by then had some 200 members
- it moved into a new gallery at 190-195 Piccadilly opposite Burlington House - the new home of the Royal Academy of Arts. Its exterior was adorned with the Bas relief portraits of watercolour artists on the façade (see links to these below courtesy of the Victorian Web)
- The opening exhibition in 1883 (see image above) had some 900 pictures and was attended by the Prince of Wales (200 years later the RI's exhibition contains two works by HRH the Prince of Wales!)
As a result of the merger with the Dudley Group, the exhibition policy changed again and the doors of the RI reopened to allcomers once again.
The policy of exhibiting the work of both members and non-members alongside is now one which is a feature of this art society.
The RI stayed in Piccadilly until 1970 when the lease expired. It then joined with several of the other leading "Royal" art societies to create the Federation of British Artists which now holds exhibitions in the Mall Galleries and has its HQ in Carlton House Terrace. The Galleries are in fact the basement of 17 Carlton House Terrace which was originally designed by John Nash.
The RI today
The aims of the society are:
- to promote painting in watercolours;
- to encourage the use and development of water based mediums and
- to present the work of its best exponents in its annual exhibitions.
Its members include artists from all over the world (eg Mat Barber Kennedy lives in Chicago and George Politis AWS HS lives in Greece and is a signature member of both the ERI and the AWS).
The RI has both a website and a blog Artists of the RI which has regular features on members of the RI. On the website you can find:
- RI - A Short History of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours
- Metropolitan Museum of Art - Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History - Watercolor Painting in Britain, 1750–1850
- Victoria and Albert Museum - British watercolour societies of the 19th century
- The Victorian Web - Victorian Art Institutions: A Contemporary Survey of Academies, Schools, and Galleries
- Handprint - Watercolour Artists