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The Society of Women Artists (SWA) is a British art body dedicated to celebrating and promoting fine art created by women.

It was founded as the Society of Female Artists (SFA) in about 1855, offering women artists the opportunity to exhibit and sell their works. Annual exhibitions have been held in London since 1857, with some wartime interruptions.


Figure 1 Dame Laura Knight, artist, circ

Figure 1 Dame Laura Knight, artist, circa 1910

During the 19th century, the British art world was dominated by the Royal Academy (RA), founded in 1768. Two of the 34 named founders were women painters: Angelica Kauffman (1741–1807) and Mary Moser (1744–1819).[1] However, it was not until 1922 that other female artists were admitted to the academy. Annie Swynnerton, a member of the Society of Women Artists since 1889, was elected as the first female associate member of the Royal Academy and in 1936, Dame Laura Knight became the first female elected full member of the Royal Academy. 



A woman's place in society was perceived as passive and governed by emotion. In the 1850s, the idea that women could be artists was hotly debated by John Ruskin and other critics in various journals. Ruskin wrote to Sophia Sinnett in 1858 "You must resolve to be quite a great paintress; the feminine termination does not exist, there never having been such a being as yet as a lady who could paint.”[2] Women were not considered as serious contributors to the field of art and had great difficulty in obtaining a public showing. Their education in the arts was limited and they had been excluded from the practice of drawing from the nude figure since the Royal Academy was founded. However, Ruskin later revised his opinion of women artists after seeing Elizabeth Thompson's The Roll Call at the Royal Academy in 1874. After much debate and petitioning, in December 1883, the Royal Academy Schools agreed to provide life classes "for the study of the partially draped figure" to female students but it was a further 10 years before women were admitted to these classes. It was at this time that life classes for women were becoming more widely available across the country. 

Nevertheless, British women artists proved themselves capable of working both individually and in collaboration and consequently, gained greater credibility. In order to progress and find opportunities to exhibit, they began to form their own organisations. One of the most significant of those bodies was the Society of Female Artists, founded around 1855. Initially, membership was granted to women who had exhibited with the Society and who earned their livelihood through art.

Society of Female Artists (c. 1855 – c. 1869)

In 1855, English biographer Harriet Grote (1792–1878) and opera singer Jenny Lind (1820–1887) were cited as founder members of the SFA, where the society's first headquarters were located at the Architectural Association in 9 Conduit Street, London.[3] The society was initially managed by a committee, and, although its members were sometimes listed in early catalogues, no presiding officer was ever named. Early members included Rosa Bonheur and Elizabeth Thompson.[4]

Figure 2 The Roll Call by Elizabeth Thom

Figure 2 The Roll Call by Elizabeth Thompson

Figure 3  9 Conduit Street, London (pres

Figure 3, 9 Conduit Street, London (present day)

Figure 4 315-319 Oxford Street, london (

Figure 4, 315-319 Oxford Street, london (present day)

Figure 5 HRH Princess Michael of Kent. S

Figure 5, HRH Princess Michael of Kent. Shown at the 2018 SWA Summer Exhibition

The society's first exhibition held at 315 Oxford Street, London between 1 June and 18 July 1857, became the focus of debate with regard to the role of women in art. The exhibition comprised 358 works by 149 female artists, the predominant genre being landscapes. In May 1857, prior to the opening, The Art Journal and The Spectator were supportive of the exhibition. The then secretary stated in The Art Journal (1 June 1857): "The Committee are (sic) gratified to announce that the success of their first Exhibition has fully exceeded their expectations”.[5] The Society then held annual exhibitions in London showing work of women artists (with the exception of 1912–1914, 1919 and 1940–1946). 

Until 1863, the annual exhibition received controversial reviews, probably as exhibits were chosen on a liberal and amicable basis. This was addressed in 1865, when their lack of professionalism led to a reorganisation of the Society under the patronage of the Duchess of Cambridge and consequently it was renamed the Society of Lady Artists.[6] The Society has received royal patronage since 1865 (the current patron is HRH Princess Michael of Kent).

In 1867 Mrs. Madeline Francis Jane Marrable, a prolific watercolourist and oil painter, joined the committee and became the first president of the society.

Society of Lady Artists (c 1869 – 1899)

The Society's earliest records were lost or destroyed during World War II  at the Society's headquarters at 195 Piccadilly, London (the Society's catalogues and remaining papers dating from 1929 are now housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum Library). As a result, there is some debate as to exactly when the Society was renamed from the SFA to the SLA. Secondary sources of reference suggest 1869,[7]whereas other sources suggest it was 1873.[4][6][8]

In 1886, Marrable became the first president of the society. In 1899, the mid-Victorian persona was discarded and the 20th century was embraced by the society with a new name, the Society of Women Artists (SWA).

Society of Women Artists (1899 – present)

The society has had many notable artists among its members. Dame Laura Knight, the first woman Royal Academician, was elected president in 1932 and retained that office until she retired in 1968 to become a Patron.[9] Illustrator Mabel Lucie Atwell and Suzanne Lucas,[10] past President of the Society of Botanical Artists and the first woman president of Royal Miniature Society (now known as Royal Society of Miniature Painters, Sculptors and Gravers), were also members. Current members include Daphne Todd, the first female President of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters from 1994–2000 and winner of the BP Portrait Award 2010, portraitist June Mendoza, and Philomena Davidson, first woman President of the Royal British Society of Sculptors (now known as Royal Society of Sculptors).

Many SWA members are also members of other well-established societies, such as the Royal Society of British Artists, the Royal Institute of Painters in Water ColoursThe Pastel Society, and the Society of Equestrian Artists .

The SWA collated a four-volume dictionary of the society's exhibitors to 1996. The society's archive was given to the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Archive of Art and Design in 1996.[11] Only the RA and the Royal Scottish Academy produce such records. Today, the mechanics of running the society can be viewed on their website.


Membership & Exhibitions

Membership of the SWA is composed of a maximum of 140 members. They promote new artists, including young artists and encourage non-members to show their work at their annual exhibition.

The first step towards becoming a member is to submit six works regularly (although a maximum of four will be hung) for the Annual Open Exhibition. These are considered by a selection committee, and if judged exceptional, the artist is elected to become an associate member (ASWA), subject to space within the society. Associate members become eligible for election to full membership in the following year. 


1886–1912 Madeline Marrable

1913–1915 Mary Pownall

1916 Probably Beth Amoore[12]

1917–1922 Lota Bowen

1923–1931 Charlotte Blakeney Ward[13]

1932–1967 Dame Laura Knight[14]

1968-1976 Lady Muriel Wheeler[15]

1977–1982 Alice Rebecca Kendall[16]

1982–1985 Gladys Dawson[17]

1985–2000 Barbara Tate

2000–2005 Elizabeth R. Meek, MBE, HPRMS, FRSA[18]

2005–2012 Barbara Penketh Simpson[19]

2012–2017 Sue Jelley[20]

2017–2021 Soraya French[21]

2021-          Helen Sinclair

Acting Presidents

1932–1933 Dorothea Sharp

1934–1936 Helen Stuart Weir[22]

1937–1939 Constance Bradshaw[23]

1940  Ethel Léontine Gabain

1947–1948 Dorothea Medley Selous (aka. Jamieson)[24]

1949–1950 Irene Ryland[25]

1951–1967 Lady Muriel Wheeler

1973–1976 Alice R. Kendall



Notable Members & Exhibitors

(In alphabetical order, excluding SWA presidents or acting presidents, listed above)

Margaret Backhouse

Rose Maynard BartonJose


Florence Claxton

Edith Collier

Lillian Cotton

Helga von Cramm

Ursula Fookes

Laura Sylvia Gosse[27]

Alice Gwendoline Rhona Haszard

Cecil Mary Leslie

Sarah Louisa Kilpack

Vivien Mallock

June Mendoza

Sara Page

Emily Murray Paterson

Janet Russell

Mabel Mary Spanton

Elizabeth Southerden Thompson

Helen Thornycroft

Daphne Todd

Flora Twort[28]

Emily Warren

Mabel Wickham

Caroline Fanny Williams

Mary Williams






Helen Sinclair


Vice President

Anne Blankson-Hemans

Rachel Parker


Soraya French

Dani Humberstone

Sue Jelley SPF

Rosemary Miller SAA


Honorary Treasurer

Rachel Parker


Company Secretary

Rachel Parker

Executive Secretary

Rebecca Cotton


Press Officer

Helen Sinclair


Council Members

Angela Brittain

Julie Collins

Anne Blankson-Hemans

Sera Knight

Rachel Parker

Dr. Linda Smith

Helen Sinclair


Honorary Members

Philomena Davidson PPRBS

June Mendoza AO OBE RP ROI

Ruth Pilkington ROI

Susan Ryder PVPRP NEAC

Emma Sergeant


Belinda Tong

Joyce Wyatt Hon UA ASAF(HC) FRSA


Honorary Retired Members

Eva Castle

Pamela Davis

Mary Grant

Pam Henderson

Patricia Nichols

Joyce Rogerson

Dorothy Watts



Figure 6 The Mall Galleries, London.jpg

Figure 6 The Mall Galleries, London

Annual exhibition

The society holds various exhibitions throughout the year, culminating in the annual exhibition at the Mall Galleries in London. The exhibition consists of works by members and non-members, which are selected by a panel from an open call for entries. The exhibition offers awards to selected artists, many of which are supplied by the Society's sponsors,[29] and aims to highlight the wide range and diversity of fine art created by women.

Exhibition venues since the inception of the SFA have always been in London – listed below:

  • 1857 The Gallery, 315 Oxford Street

  • 1858 & 1859 Unknown

  • 1860–1863 53 Pall Mall

  • 1863–1867 48 Pall Mall

  • 1868–1896 Initially held at the Architectural Association, Conduit Street, with other venues, probably at Great Marlborough Street, the Haymarket, Pall Mall, and at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly.

  • 1897–1922 6a Suffolk Street, with the exception of the years

  • 1912 to 1914 and 1919.1923–1940 Royal Institute Galleries

  • 1941–1946 No exhibitions were held during World War II

  • 1947 The Guildhall

  • 1948–1969 Royal Institute Galleries

  • 1970 Chenil Galleries

  • 1971–1987 The Mall Galleries

  • 1988–1989 Westminster Gallery

  • 2000–2003 Westminster Hall

  • 2004– The Mall Galleries.


Special reception

The SWA has a history of collaborating with charities to help with the under-privileged and vulnerable. Currently, the SWA collaborates with Breast Cancer Now, the UK’s largest breast cancer charity, created by the merger of Breast Cancer Campaign and Breakthrough Breast Cancer. Each year a special reception is held during the annual exhibition, here members donate works that are auctioned and the proceeds from the sales are presented to the charity.


Demonstrations and workshops

During the annual exhibition and within the gallery, member artists provide a series of informal demonstrations to the public. Special workshops are also led by members and held within the Learning Centre at the Mall Galleries.



  1. "Striving after excellence": Victorian women and the fight for arts training – Blog – Royal Academy of Arts" Retrieved 13 May 2018

  2. Cook and Wedderburn, The Life, Letters and Complete Works, London, 1903 etc., vol. 14, p. 308

  3. Crawford, Elizabeth, The Women's Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866–1928, Routledge, 1999, p253

  4. Jump up to: a b

  5. Nunn, Pamela Geraldine, The Mid Victorian Woman Artist 1850–1879, PhD Thesis, University College London, 1982, p167-173

  6. Jump up to: a b "V&A Archives" Retrieved 13 May 2018"

  7. History". Retrieved 13 May2018

  8. "Society of Women Artists – Artist Biographies" Retrieved 13 May 2018

  9. Campbell Orr, Clarissa, Women in the Victorian Art World, Manchester University Press, Manchester & New York, 1995, p55

  10. "Biography Suzanne Lucas (1915 – 2008) M.B.E Medaille de la France FLS PRMS FPSBA SWA HSF" Retrieved 13 May 2018

  11. Baile De Laperriere, Charles, The Society of Women Artists exhibitors 1855–1996 : a dictionary of artists and their works in the annual exhibitions of The Society of Women Artists, 4 volumes, Hilmarton Press, Wiltshire, c1996, p5, ISBN 0-904722-30-9ISBN 978-0-904722-30-7 retrieved 02-01-2017

  12. "AMOORE Beth 1863–1944 – Artist Biographies". Retrieved 13 May 2018

  13. "Charlotte Blakeney WARD – Cornwall Artists Index". Retrieved 13 May 2018

  14. Alicia Foster (2004). Tate Women Artists. Tate Publishing. ISBN 1-85437-311-0

  15. "Muriel (née Bourne), Lady Wheeler - Person - National Portrait Gallery". Retrieved 13 May 2018

  16. "Alice Kendall – Dunbar, Scotland – Mike Art Collection". 11 September 2015. Retrieved 13 May 2018

  17. "Invaluable" Retrieved 13 May 2018

  18. "Elizabeth R Meek Artist – Miniature Portraits". Retrieved 13 May 2018

  19. "Barbara Penketh Simpson RMS FRSA". Retrieved 13 May2018

  20. “Sue Jelley Artist” Retrieved 13 May2018

  21., Site constructed by Adam Hayton. "Homepage Soraya French" Retrieved 13 May 2018

  22. "Helen Stuart WEIR – Cornwall Artists Index". Retrieved 13 May 2018

  23. "Constance H BRADSHAW – Cornwall Artists Index". Retrieved 13 May 2018

  24. "Dorothea Selous". Retrieved 13 May 2018

  25. "Irene Ryland – Johnston Fine Arts" Retrieved 13 May 2018

  26. Revell, Alastair. "Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood (20th Century Fine Art Auctioneers): Jose Christopherson (b 1914)" Retrieved 13 May 2018

  27. "Sylvia Gosse (1881–1968) RBA RE SWA – Panter & Hall". Retrieved 13 May 2018

  28. Cook, Jean H (1998). Famous Women of Hampshire. Happy Walking International. pp. 34–35. ISBN 1874754675

  29. "Sponsors". Retrieved 13 May 2018.




Barbara Tate and the Society Of Women Artists, retrieved 01-01-2017

Baile De Laperriere, Charles, The Society of Women Artists exhibitors 1855–1996: a dictionary of artists and their works in the annual exhibitions of The Society of Women Artists, 4 volumes, Hilmarton Press, Wiltshire, c1996

Gray, Sara, The Dictionary of British Women Artists, The Lutterworth Press, 2009, retrieved 01-01-2017

Just Opened London, retrieved 01-01-2017

Nunn, Pamela Geraldine, The Mid-Victorian Woman Artist 1850–1879, PhD Thesis, University College London, 1982

The Society of Women Artists 155th Annual Exhibition 2016 catalogue

External links

British art

Art societies

British artist groups and collectives

1855 establishments in the United Kingdom

Arts organizations established in 1855

Women's organisations based in the United Kingdom

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