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, 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). 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.” 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. 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.
Figure 2 The Roll Call by Elizabeth Thompson
Figure 3, 9 Conduit Street, London (present day)
Figure 4, 315-319 Oxford Street, london (present day)
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”. 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. 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,whereas other sources suggest it was 1873.
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. Illustrator Mabel Lucie Atwell and Suzanne Lucas, 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 Colours, The 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. 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
1917–1922 Lota Bowen
1923–1931 Charlotte Blakeney Ward
1968-1976 Lady Muriel Wheeler
1977–1982 Alice Rebecca Kendall
1982–1985 Gladys Dawson
1985–2000 Barbara Tate
2000–2005 Elizabeth R. Meek, MBE, HPRMS, FRSA
2005–2012 Barbara Penketh Simpson
2021- Helen Sinclair
1932–1933 Dorothea Sharp
1934–1936 Helen Stuart Weir
1937–1939 Constance Bradshaw
1947–1948 Dorothea Medley Selous (aka. Jamieson)
1949–1950 Irene Ryland
1951–1967 Lady Muriel Wheeler
1973–1976 Alice R. Kendall
Notable Members & Exhibitors
(In alphabetical order, excluding SWA presidents or acting presidents, listed above)
Laura Sylvia Gosse
Joyce Wyatt Hon UA ASAF(HC) FRSA
Honorary Retired Members
Figure 6 The Mall Galleries, London
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, 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.
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.
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The Society of Women Artists 155th Annual Exhibition 2016 catalogue