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Identity Statement

Reference code(s): GB 0403 RSA
Held at: Royal Society of Arts
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Date(s): 1634-2002 (printed material from 1634, archival material from 1754)
Level of description: Collection (fonds)
Extent: c450 linear metres and c750 printed volumes
Name of creator(s): Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce
Society of Arts
RSA | Royal Society of Arts


Administrative/Biographical history:

The drawing master and social activist William Shipley published a proposal for a fund to support improvements in the liberal arts, sciences and manufactures, with revenues to be raised through subscription, in 1753. The resulting organisation, the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, first met at Rawthmell's coffee house in Covent Garden in 1754. Awards were offered for drawing, and for the production of cobalt and madder (dye). The Society's first medals were awarded in 1756. Early members (after 1914 known as Fellows, or FRSA) included Benjamin Franklin, William Hogarth and Samuel Johnson. In 1757 the Society conferred awards for spinning in workhouses and for carpet manufacture and - in response to severe deforestation over the previous century and to boost the availability of timber for shipbuilding and industry - began to offer prizes for tree-planting. Its awards were divided into classes in 1758: Agriculture, Chemistry, Colonies & Trade, Manufactures, Mechanics and Polite Arts (painting and the plastic arts). The Society soon became informally known as the Society of Arts. It held London's first exhibition of the works of living artists in 1760. After a period in temporary premises, the Society moved in 1774 to premises in the Adelphi (just behind the Strand) designed by Robert Adam, its Great Room decorated with allegorical paintings (1777-1801) by James Barry, where it remains. Its Transactions were first published in 1783.

The President is the titular head of the Society. The Presidents have been: Viscount Folkestone, 1755-1761; Lord Romney, 1761-1793; the Duke of Norfolk, 1794-1815; HRH The Duke of Sussex, 1816-1843; HRH Albert, Prince Consort, 1843-1861; William Tooke, 1862; HRH The Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), 1863-1901; Sir Frederick Bramwell, 1901; HRH The Prince of Wales (later King George V), 1901-1910; Lord Alverstone, 1910; HRH The Duke of Connaught, 1911-1942; Sir Edward Crowe, 1942-1943; E F Armstrong, 1943-1945; Viscount Bennett, 1945-1947; HRH The Princess Elizabeth, 1947-1952; HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, from 1952. Ad-hoc committees set up by the Society discussed a broad range of topics concerned with the programme and administration of the Society. These include the Committee of Correspondence and Papers and the Committee of Miscellaneous Matters. The Council was established in 1845 and formally assumed full responsibility for the Society's management; this body was the same in constitution and personnel as the existing Committee of Miscellaneous Matters. The first Chairman of Council was elected in 1846. Chairmen are elected for two years. The Society was granted a Royal Charter in 1847. Edward VII, as Patron of the Society, granted permission for the term 'Royal' to be used in the Society's title (1908), which became the Royal Society of Arts (RSA). Its many eminent members included George Birkbeck, Charles Dickens and Karl Marx.

Until the mid 19th century the Society offered rewards for innovation. The awards system was discontinued after 1850 when the Society established a lecture programme to promote wide-ranging discussion on contemporary issues such as transport, manufacture, agriculture and food supply, applied art, industrial design, architecture, housing, technological innovation, issues relating to both the natural and the built environment, urban and rural affairs, trade, business, education and the arts. It played a role in instigating the Great Exhibition (1851), which followed its own exhibitions of industrial products. The RSA Journal was published from 1852 to disseminate information about the Society's activities. In 1866 the Society initiated the memorial tablets scheme in London: these 'blue plaques' were mounted on the former homes of prominent figures. The RSA advocated an exhibition to mark the centenary of the Great Exhibition (1851), and the resulting Festival of Britain (1951) created the South Bank arts complex.

In the field of education, the Society's first examination for artisans was held in 1855, and its music examinations in 1859. In 1870 inquiries into the state of education were launched and the findings published in the Journal. In 1872, a paper on the education of women led to the establishment of the Girls' Public Day School Company to provide education for girls at fees affordable to less well-off families. The Society established a National Training School for Music in 1876, which was to become the Royal College of Music. In 1882 the first fee-paying examinations were held. The Society became a major examining body, principally in commercial/office skills and languages (particularly English as a foreign language), at levels ranging from elementary to post-graduate. Growth in the number of entrants led the Society to make its Examinations Board a separate company in 1987, which in 1997 merged to form part of OCR (Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations).

For further information on the history of the RSA, see D Hudson & K W Luckhurst, The Royal Society of Arts 1754-1954 (London, 1954), and its website:


Scope and content/abstract:

Archive, 1754 to date, of the Royal Society of Arts (RSA; formerly the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, or Society of Arts), created by the Society in the course of its activities, and comprising records of its administration (Ref: AD), and records of its activities and events (Ref: PR), also including some printed material dating back to 1634.

Administrative records of the Society include:
Records of Miscellaneous Committees to discuss the programme and administration of the Society, including the Committee of Correspondence and Papers and the Committee of Miscellaneous Matters, 1754-1848 (Ref: AD.MA/104).
Records of the Society from 1754, later the Council (established 1845) (Ref: AD.MA/100).
Records concerning Chairmen of Council (from 1846) and Council membership (Ref: AD.MA/102).
Records of Secretaries (administrative head of the Society), after 1994 known as the Director (Ref: AD.MA/101).
Records of Presidents (Ref: AD.MA/103).
Records of Membership/Fellowship, relating to subscribers to the Society, originally termed 'members', referred to as 'Fellows' from 1908 (Ref: AD.MA/900). (The archive does not include extensive biographical information on RSA Fellows, although dates of membership of Fellows are usually recorded.)
Records concerning the Society's House in John Adam Street from its design and construction by the Adam Brothers, including correspondence, papers, notes, leases and other legal documents, relating to administration, management, alteration and repair of the building (Ref: AD.MA/300).
Records of various House Committees set up at different times to look at the building, its use, function, administration and management (Ref: AD.MA/305).
Accounting and financial records produced by various committees including the Accounts Committee and Finance and General Purposes Committee (Ref: AD.MA/400).
Annual Reports recording the Society's activities over the year, initially within the Journal (from 1852), but later as a separate publication (Ref: AD.MA/701).
Records relating to general lectures (developed from the 1850s when the Society ceased the award of premiums for inventions), with correspondence mainly concerning administrative arrangements for speakers and publication of their texts (in the RSA Journal) and suggestions for topics for discussion (Ref: AD.MA/800).
Records relating to the RSA Silver Medal awarded annually for the most interesting lecture over the preceding year (Ref: AD.MA/803).
Records relating to production of the Journal and other publicity, promotion and communication (Ref: AD.MA/203).
Donations and collections, comprising objects and artefacts donated to or bought by the Society (Ref: AD.MA/204).

Records of the Society's activities (such as award schemes, exhibitions, conferences, seminars and lectures), including joint initiatives with a range of other organisations, include:
Guard Books (30 volumes), 1754-1770, containing correspondence and papers about all Society activities and committees, on a range of subjects (Ref: PR.GE/110).
Manuscript versions of the Society's Transactions, comprising draft versions of the printed Transactions, including drawings, plans and diagrams in support of claims for premiums and awards. Also general correspondence to the Society on various 19th century campaigns, conferences and committees, covering subjects including lectures (arrangements for dates, speakers, chairmen, participants; suggestions for subjects, submission of lecture texts, corrections to texts, requests for tickets/programmes, acceptances, apologies for non-attendance etc), examinations (requests for syllabus, copies of certificates, programmes, rules; complaints, arrangements, agreements with colleges, details of examiners etc), membership (requests for information, applications, replies to circulars, notes accompanying subscriptions, resignations, complaints), Council/committee chairmen (intention to attend meetings, acceptances, general arrangements for meetings, requests for information, dates, times etc), Journal (receipt/non-receipt of copies, reciprocal arrangements with other libraries, requests for extra copies, corrections to proofs, advertising, arrangements for making blocks, photogravures etc), House (letters from freeholders, solicitors, contractors; booking of rooms), staff (applications for employment, testimonials, sick notes etc - a very small number of items), general (invitations, letters from bankers, auditors, business circulars, requests for funding, suggestions for campaigns, policies, events etc), and including artistic copyright, uniform musical pitch, domestic economy, art workmanship, musical training, food committees, patent law reform, prevention of fires in theatres and education exhibitions (Ref: PR.GE/118-19, 121).
Records relating to Premium and Programme committees (Ref: PR.GE/112); Albert Medal (founded 1863) (Ref: PR.GE/101); Memorial Tablet (blue plaque) scheme (founded 1866) (PR.GE/122); War Memorials Advisory Council (established 1944, disbanded 1948), concerning memorials of the Second World War (Ref: PR.GE/117); Exhibition of Exhibitions (1951), concurrent with the Festival of Britain, to commemorate earlier ground-breaking Society exhibitions on contemporary art (1760), industrial design (1847-1850), photography (1852), industry (1761), and the first international exhibition (1851) (Ref: PR.GE/102); R B Bennett Commonwealth Prize (endowed 1944) for outstanding contribution to the promotion of the arts, agriculture, industries and commerce of the Overseas Empire (Ref: PR.GE/116); Commonwealth Committee (Ref: PR.GE/113); proposals and planning for the Festival of Britain (1951) (Ref: PR.GE/103); events for the RSA Bicentenary (1954) (Ref: PR.GE/107); Benjamin Franklin Medal (instituted 1956) (Ref: PR.GE/100); Trusts, bequests, fundraising and development (Ref: PR.GE/111).
Records relating to manufacture and commerce, including the Paris Exhibitions (1844-1900) (Ref: PR.MC/109); Great Exhibition (1851) (Ref: PR.MC/107); International Exhibition (1862) (Ref: PR.MC/108); Chicago Exhibition (World's Columbian Exposition, 1893), British Section (Ref: PR.MC/112); Industry Year/Industry Matters (1986) (Ref: PR.MC/100); Tomorrow's Company (begun 1994), concerning the role of business in a changing world (Ref: PR.MC/115); Redefining Work (launched 1995) (Ref: PR.MC/116); Forum for Ethics in the Workplace (1997) (Ref: PR.MC/117); Manufacturing, Wealth Creation and the Economy (1998) (Ref: PR.MC/118).
Records of subject-based standing committees set up by the Society from 1754 to judge awards and premiums in particular areas, including minutes and correspondence about awards and attendance at and structure of committees: Agriculture (Ref: PR.MC/103), Chemistry (Ref: PR.MC/105), Colonies and Trade (Ref: PR.MC/104), Manufactures (Ref: PR.MC/102), Mechanics (Ref: PR.MC/101), and Polite Arts - including prints, drawings and other artwork submitted for award (Ref: PR.AR/103).
Records relating to fine and applied arts, including exhibition of works of Ancient and Medieval Art (1847-1850) (Ref: PR.AR/105); exhibition of the works of William Etty and William Mulready (1848-1849), including general correspondence, printed matter, catalogues, press cuttings, tickets and notices about mounting of exhibitions, and attendance (Ref: PR.AR/112); British Art in Industry Exhibition (1935) to publicise good design in articles of everyday use (Ref: PR.AR/101); Humorous Art Exhibition (1949-1950) (Ref: PR.AR/100); Art for Architecture scheme (from 1990), aiming to enhance the urban environment by encouraging cross disciplinary approaches to building and landscape projects, and associated with the Jerwood Art for Architecture Award (introduced 1994) (Ref: PR.AR/110); Shakespeare in Schools (begun 1992), a pilot project to introduce Shakespeare to children (Ref: PR.AR/108).
Records relating to promotion of design, including the Design Bursaries Board, Design Committee, the Design Board, Design Advisory Group and Design Section (Ref: PR.DE/106-7); Industrial Art Bursaries Competition (started 1924), succeeded by the Design Bursaries Competition, Competition of Industrial Designs and Student Design Awards (Ref: PR.DE/100); Royal Designers for Industry (RDI) scheme (created 1936) to encourage a high standard of industrial design (Ref: PR.DE/101); Bicentenary Medal (instituted 1954) for exceptional influence in promoting art and design in British industry (Ref: PR.DE/102); Presidential Awards for Design Management (instituted 1964) to recognise outstanding design policy (Ref: PR.DE/105).
Records relating to education, including the RSA Examinations Board (PR.ED/100); the Education for Capability programme (initiated 1979) to counteract academic bias in British education and promote practical, organising and co-operative skills (Ref: PR.ED/107); the future of Technological Higher Education in Britain (1982), a study group to consider the problems facing Britain in the development of technological higher education (Ref: PR.ED/118); Home-School links (from 1988) (Ref: PR.ED/108); Parents in a Learning Society, a development project to involve parents in education and assess home-school work (Ref: PR.ED/104); the National Advisory Council for Careers and Educational Guidance (established 1994), to promote and advise on provision of guidance for learning and work (Ref: PR.ED/103); Education Futures (2000) (Ref: PR.ED/116).
Records relating to the environment, including the Campaign for the Preservation of Ancient Cottages (begun 1926) to protect cottage architecture, establishing a fund which purchased or restored cottages near Worthing, at Bibury, Gloucestershire, West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, Chiddingstone, Kent, and elsewhere (Ref: PR.EN/100); three 'Countryside in 1970' Conferences (1963-1970) (Ref: PR.EN/104); Environment Committee (formed 1971) to identify and anticipate major environmental problems and provide a forum for discussion (Ref: PR.EN/107), which began the Pollution Abatement Technology Award Scheme (PATAS) (1983-1986) (Ref: PR.EN/103), succeeded by the Better Environment for Industry/European Better Environment Awards for Industry (BEAFI/EBEAFI) (1987-1991) (Ref: PR.EN/101); the Environment Committee's sub-committee the RSA-Cubitt Trust Panel (to 1991), devoted to the built environment and working with the Cubitt Trust to convene conferences, seminars and an annual Cubitt Lecture (Ref: PR.EN/106); After the Earth Summit - What Next? (1992) (Ref: PR.EN/128); RSA Environmental Management Awards (begun 1993) (Ref: PR.EN/102).
The Early Library (Ref: SC/EL/1-5), comprising c500 printed works collected by the Society before 1830, including journals and periodicals, and c300 pamphlets and tracts covering broad-ranging topics relating to premiums and awards of the various sectional committees (Agriculture, Polite Arts, Chemistry, Manufactures, Mechanics, and Colonies and Trade), and including extracts from proceedings of other societies and learned institutions.

Access & Use

Language/scripts of material:
Mainly English; some French, German, Spanish and Latin in the Early Library.

System of arrangement:

Conditions governing access:

The archive is open by appointment to Fellows & researchers. Recent information is subject to the terms of the Data Protection Act and the RSA's Data Protection Code.

Conditions governing reproduction:

Photocopies of archive material or extracts from printed volumes at cost. We may refuse to copy documents where damage may be caused by copying processes or where copyright may be infringed. Copies are provided on the understanding that they are not further reproduced without permission of the RSA. Any copyright clearances, where copyright is not held by the RSA, are the responsibility of the user. We do not allow you to use conventional or digital photographic equipment in the Research Room. We can arrange for photographs to be made by a professional photographer.

Finding aids:

Cataloguing in progress. Online catalogue forthcoming at

Archival Information

Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

Created and retained by the Royal Society of Arts.

Allied Materials

Related material:

The RSA holds a collection of printed catalogues of the main International and trade exhibitions from the Great Exhibition of 1851 to the mid 20th century; and complete runs of its publications Transactions (from 1783) and the RSA Journal (from 1852), with indexes, documenting its work and activities.

National Register of Archives: Click here to view NRA record

Publication note:

Description Notes

Archivist's note:
Compiled by Rachel Kemsley as part of the RSLP AIM25 Project from descriptions created by the RSA. Sources:
RSA website:
C Evans and G Mandelbrote, 'Summary report on the records 18th-20th century of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce' (Historical Manuscripts Commission, 1993), available at:

Rules or conventions:
Compiled in compliance with General International Standard Archival Description, ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; National Council on Archives Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names, 1997.

Date(s) of descriptions:
Oct 2002

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