Wednesday 19 March 2014

The Royal Academy of Arts

Drawing from life at the Royal Academy
from The Microcosm of London (1808-10)
The foundation of the Royal Academy

The Royal Academy of Arts was founded on 10 December 1768 when George III gave his personal approval to a document proposing its creation. The Instrument of Foundation listed the names of the 34 founder members including Joshua Reynolds, Benjamin West, Thomas Gainsborough, Paul Sandby, Thomas Sandby, Angelica Kauffman, Mary Moser and William Chambers. William Hoare and Johann Zoffany were added to the list by the King and known as nominated members rather than founder members.

Joshua Reynolds was appointed the first President of the Royal Academy and gave his inaugural speech on 2 January 1769.

Sir Joshua Reynolds from The Literary Works of
Sir Joshua Reynolds by HW Beechey (1852)

The purpose of the Royal Academy was to establish the professionalism of British art through education and exhibition. Membership was initially limited to a maximum of forty, with new members being elected by current members. Associate membership was introduced in 1769, providing a means of preselecting artists suitable for election to Academy membership when a vacancy should arise.

Royal Academy Schools

The Royal Academy was the first body to provide professional art training in Britain, where artists could come and learn from the best in their profession. In its first year, over 70 students were enrolled. Its famous pupils included J. M. W. Turner, John Soane, Thomas Rowlandson, William Blake, Thomas Lawrence, John Constable, George Hayter and David Wilkie.

Royal Academy professors gave lectures to students. During his presidency, Sir Joshua Reynolds gave 15 lectures on art known as Discourses.

The annual exhibition

The first Royal Academy exhibition ran from 25 April to 27 May 1769 with a display of over 130 works of art. George III visited the exhibition on 25 May. There has been a summer exhibition of the Royal Academy every year since.

The exhibition at the Royal Academy, Somerset House
from The Microcosm of London (1808-10)
The annual dinner

The annual dinner of the Royal Academy was introduced by Sir Joshua Reynolds on 23 April 1771.

Where did they meet?

The Royal Academy initially met in Pall Mall, but moved to part of Old Somerset House in 1771 and then to New Somerset House in 1780, a building which had been designed by William Chambers, one of the founding members and the Academy’s first treasurer.

Somerset House from London in the 19th century by TH Shepherd (1829)
In 1838, the Academy moved into part of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square where it remained for thirty years before moving into its current home in Burlington House, Piccadilly, in 1868.

Burlington House, Piccadilly
Georgian Presidents of the Royal Academy

1768-1792 Sir Joshua Reynolds
1792-1805 Benjamin West
1805-1806 James Wyatt
1806-1820 Benjamin West
1820-1830 Sir Thomas Lawrence
1830-1850 Sir Martin Archer Shee

Headshot of Rachel Knowles author with sea in background(2021)
Rachel Knowles writes clean/Christian Regency era romance and historical non-fiction. She has been sharing her research on this blog since 2011. Rachel lives in the beautiful Georgian seaside town of Weymouth, Dorset, on the south coast of England, with her husband, Andrew.

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Sources used include:
Ackermann, Rudolph, and Pyne, William Henry, The Microcosm of London or London in miniature Volume 1 (Rudolph Ackermann 1808-1810, reprinted 1904)
Leslie, Charles Robert, RA, and Taylor, Tom, MA, Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1865)
Postle, Martin, Reynolds, Sir Joshua (1723-1792) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn Oct 2009, accessed 2 Jul 2013)
Shepherd, Thomas H, London in the Nineteenth Century, illustrated by a series of views (1829)

Royal Academy website

All photographs ©


  1. I have been studying Mary Moser, on of the two women allowed to be members in the first lot. She had an affair with Richard Cosway, a miniature painter. Richard's wife was really interesting and although a devote Catholic, had an affair with Thomas Jefferson, whose wife died early in life. All these connections are fascinating to me in the same way the noble folks married their cousins.

    1. I find it interesting that the founder members included two women. I know little about her, but it sounds like Mary Moser had a colourful life! I do not find it so odd that the nobility sometimes married their cousins because it happened several times in my family tree and they were definitely not nobility!