Britain’s Royal Academy of Arts Is Founded Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Great Britain’s first large-scale public display of contemporary artworks by British-born artists, including painters Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds, led to the establishment of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, Britain’s first national arts academy.

Summary of Event

In 1648, the French monarchy had established the Academy of Painting and Sculpture, but Great Britain did not have a national arts academy for the formal or academic training of native artists. Commissions, too, would go to foreign artists. Eighteenth century Britain saw a movement calling for a national art school Art schools that would cultivate a native art tradition. [kw]Britain’s Royal Academy of Arts Is Founded (Dec. 10, 1768) [kw]Founded, Britain’s Royal Academy of Arts Is (Dec. 10, 1768) [kw]Arts Is Founded, Britain’s Royal Academy of (Dec. 10, 1768) [kw]Academy of Arts Is Founded, Britain’s Royal (Dec. 10, 1768) [kw]Royal Academy of Arts Is Founded, Britain’s (Dec. 10, 1768) Royal Academy of Arts, England [g]England;Dec. 10, 1768: Britain’s Royal Academy of Arts Is Founded[1920] [c]Art;Dec. 10, 1768: Britain’s Royal Academy of Arts Is Founded[1920] [c]Organizations and institutions;Dec. 10, 1768: Britain’s Royal Academy of Arts Is Founded[1920] Gainsborough, Thomas Reynolds, Sir Joshua Hogarth, William Hayman, Francis George III

Thomas Gainsborough’s Mrs. Siddons (1785).

(Courtesy, National Gallery, London)

In 1755, Francis Hayman and the renowned artist Sir Joshua Reynolds formed a committee for planning a national art academy to be sponsored by the Crown. However, they were unable to obtain sponsorship by King George II, George II who was indifferent to art. The artists approached the Society of Dilettanti, Society of Dilettanti (England) a group of wealthy art connoisseurs, for help with establishing the school and holding public art exhibits. However, the artists would not agree to the Society of Dilettanti’s condition that it have total control of the exhibits.

Finally, in 1760, without financial support or royal approval, the artists held a public exhibition at the Strand, Strand art exhibition (England) owned by the Society of Arts. This was Britain’s first large-scale public art exhibition of contemporary works by native-born artists, featuring 130 works by 69 artists. Although admission was free, 6,582 illustrated catalogs were sold at sixpence each, making a profit. However, the group quarreled and split into two factions: the Free Society of Artists, Free Society of Artists which stayed at the Strand and eventually folded in 1774, and the more prestigious Society of Artists (whose official name would eventually be the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce), Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, England which included Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough.

The Society of Artists made plans to exhibit in a new space in 1761, with a price of one shilling for a season’s ticket. Gainsborough’s work was exhibited for the first time in London at this exhibition (he provided a full-length portrait), and William Hogarth provided two engravings for the catalog. King George III, who, unlike his predecessor, was interested in art, had ascended the throne in 1760, and the society—hoping finally to win royal patronage—fired rockets in front of its quarters in honor of the new king’s birthday. In 1765 the society received a royal charter and had 211 members. Entrance fees to exhibits provided significant income. However, lack of organization, internal conflicts, and disputes led to the resignations of Reynolds and many other directors in 1768.

Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse (1784).

(Courtesy, Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino, California)

In private meetings, William Chambers, the royal architect, and Benjamin West, West, Benjamin an American artist living in London, helped persuade the king to support a British royal academy that would compete with its counterpart in France. In November, Reynolds invited Gainsborough to become a founding member of the Royal Academy of Arts. On December 10, 1768, King George III signed the Instrument of Foundation of the Royal Academy, in which the king declared himself the patron Art patronage and protector of the academy. There would be forty elected members, called royal academicians, consisting of prominent sculptors, architects, and painters. The king would provide spaces for the academy’s free art schools and annual exhibitions. Reynolds agreed to be the first president, and the academy established its first quarters at London’s Pall Mall.


The establishment of the Royal Academy of Arts provided for the first time a valuable place for artists to show their work to a huge audience. The academy also placed Great Britain within the international arts scene. No longer would France dominate painting in Western Europe.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Asfour, Amal, and Paul Williamson. Gainsborough’s Vision. Liverpool, England: Liverpool University Press, 1999. This informative book discusses eighteenth century art and the artist’s style and originality. Includes extensive notes, 185 illustrations, a bibliography, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Doeser, Linda. The Life and Works of Gainsborough: A Compilation of Works from the Bridgeman Art Library. New York: Shooting Star Press, 1995. This beautifully illustrated book includes biographical information and detailed explanatory captions with paintings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leonard, Jonathan Norton. The World of Gainsborough, 1727-1788. New York: Time-Life Books, 1969. This study provides comprehensive biographical information and analyses of Gainsborough’s art. Includes illustrations, a chronology of artists, and a bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Postle, Martin. Thomas Gainsborough. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002. This source discusses the early development of Gainsborough’s art, the influence of the Royal Academy, and the artist’s thoughts on landscape and portrait painting. Beautifully illustrated with color plates. Includes a chronology, a bibliography, notes, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosenthal, Michael, and Martin Myrone, eds. Gainsborough: The Painter in Modern Culture. London: Tate Gallery, 2002. At 272 pages, this catalog accompanying a Tate exhibition shows how Gainsborough’s unconventional techniques, theories, and use of color have influenced modern British art. Illustrated (mostly in color).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vaughan, William. Gainsborough. London: Thames & Hudson, 2002. The author uses previously unknown resources to assess Gainsborough’s life and career. Includes 172 illustrations, a chronology, and a bibliography.

Foundation of the Spanish Academy

Society of Dilettanti Is Established

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Eighteenth Century</i>

Thomas Gainsborough; George III; William Hogarth; Sir Joshua Reynolds; Benjamin West. Royal Academy of Arts, England

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