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Royal Watercolour Society

Identity Statement

Reference code(s): GB 1744 RWS
Held at: Bankside Gallery
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Full title: Royal Watercolour Society
Date(s): 1804-2003
Level of description: Collection (fonds)
Extent: 147 boxes
Name of creator(s): Royal Watercolour Society | 1988-
Society of Painters in Water Colours | 1805-1812
Society of Painters in Oil and Watercolours | 1812-1820
Society of Painters in Water Colours | 1820-1881
Royal Society of Painters in Water Colours | 1881-1988


Administrative/Biographical history:

The establishment of the Society of Painters in Water Colours grew out of discontent at the disadvantage suffered by watercolours being hung amidst oil painting at the exhibitions of the Royal Academy of Art in Somerset House.
At a meeting at the Stratford Coffee House, Oxford St, London, on the 20 Nov 1804, William Frederick Wells initiated the establishment of the Society Associated for the Purpose of Establishing an Annual Exhibition of Paintings in Water Colours, in conjunction with the artists William Sawrey Gilpin, Robert Hills, John Claude Nattes, John and Cornelius Varley, Francis Nicholson, Samuel Shelley, William Henry Pyne and Nicholas Pocock. By the time of their first exhibition in April 1805, it had become known as the Society of Painters in Water Colours, and had gained six more members. The success of this exhibition, which enjoyed 12,000 visitors, encouraged its development into an annual event.

As a cooperative society, the Society's profits were shared among exhibitors, and at its peak in 1809, when there were more than 22,000 visitors, a profit of over 626 was divided between the twenty full members and seven associates. However poor financial management, and the uncertainty caused by renewed war with France, seems to have contributed to a decline in visitors and profits, ending in the collapse and winding up of the Society in 1812.

The Society was re-formed as the Society of Painters in Oil and Watercolours, in Dec 1812, with largely the same membership and struggled along until 1820, when on the 30 November 1820 the Society of Painters in Water Colours was reborn, reverting to the exclusive exhibition or water colours.

1860 saw the beginning of Diploma Collection - artworks presented to the Society by members following their election. Under the Presidency of Sir John Gilbert, the Society obtained the designation of 'Royal' following the agreement of Queen Victoria to sign the Diploma, in 1881.

Annual exhibitions of water colours began in 1805, with the Winter exhibition introduced in 1862. They were held in a variety of galleries located at Brook Street, Pall Mall, Old Bond Street, Spring Gardens, and the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. In 1823 the Society moved to number 6 Pall Mall East, where is stayed until 1938 when it moved to number 26 Conduit St. Following the expiration of the lease in Conduit St in 1980, the Bankside Gallery Charitable Limited Company was established by the Society in conjunction with the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers (previously the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers) who had shared the Society's premises since 1888, and with whom it had members in common.

John Joseph Jenkins, Secretary of the Society 1854-1864, collected the papers of the Society and compiled notes with the intention of writing its history. Though he did not achieve this, they were used extensively by John Lewis Roget in his two volume publication History of the 'Old Water-Colour Society', (Longmans, Green and Co, London, 1891).

The Society's Art Club was founded in 1884 to promote interest in watercolour painting by holding evening conversazioni, which were attended by professional and amateur artists. It was wound up after its centenary in 1984 and transformed into the Friends of the Bankside Gallery.

In 1923 the Old Watercolour Society Club (OWSC) was founded, and produced volumes of essays by artists and academics relating to watercolour artists from 1924-1994.


Scope and content/abstract:

Records of the Royal Watercolour Society and its predecessors including:

minutes and proceeding of the Society associated for the purpose of establishing an annual exhibition of paintings in water colours 1804-1808; the Society of Painters in Water Colours 1908-1812; the Society of Painters in Oil and Water Colours 1812-1820; and the Society of Painters in Water Colours 1820-2003;

proceedings of the committees, 1805-1896; minutes of the Council, 1896-1989; and correspondence 1938-1975;

administrative papers including laws and regulations, correspondence, deeds, leases, licences, plans, signature collections, menus, photographs, 1823-1980; annual reports 1897-1955; calendar 1939-1959;

letter books 1896-1942;

financial records 1805-1978;

catalogues of exhibitions 1805-1990; catalogues of non-members exhibitions 1939-1968; London Salon of Photography exhibitions, 1935-1972; Society of Portrait Sculptors, 1958-1967; Society of Miniaturists 1943-1970;

Jenkins Papers comprising106 files on individual artists collected by John Joseph Jenkins, containing obituaries, letters, memoranda, catalogues, printed papers, cuttings, and notes;

miscellaneous volumes comprising of laws and rules of the society 1804-1842; photographs of Presidents, Honorary Members, Members and Associates of the Society, c1863; membership book 1878-1985; register of candidates 1904-1967; exhibition statistics 1914-1951; admission revenues 1926-1937; General meeting attendance books, 1895-1923; Council attendance book1908-1968; library catalogue 1885-1890s; inventories of furniture, fittings and works of art 1885-1906; list of members of the first exhibition 1805; private view list 1900-1910; register of visitors 1904-1905; stationary standard books 1901-1938; parcel books 1902-1937; annual dinner invitation lists 1904-1914; Treasurer's reports to Council 1885-1889; Social Evenings Committee minutes 1885; Sub-Committee on the Law of Copyright minutes 1896-1902; agendas 1898-1952; private view signatures 1927-1978;

press cuttings books 1880-1974;

sales records comprising sales books, 1825-1981; artists and buyers daily accounts 1897-1956; ledgers 1897-1937;

Peter De Wint Trust Fund records comprising minutes 1924-1976;
correspondence and papers 1922-1969; financial records 1922-1982;

Art Club minutes and papers 1884-1984; attendance book 1912-1953; letter book 1906-1909; financial records 1884-1976; register of subscriptions, 1931-1936; sales day book, 1959-1984; annual reports, 1936-1938; correspondence 1936-1986; catalogues of exhibitions, 1886-1984 including exhibitions held jointly with the Society of Miniaturists, 1971-1983; membership lists and rules, 1884-1939;

Old Water-Colour Society Club records comprising minutes 1923-1971; draft constitution and rules 1923; correspondence 1937-1985; printed papers and ephemera 1924-1972; financial records 1939-1970; annual dinner menus 1928-1939; plans of table 1926-1939;

John Joseph Jenkins' personal papers including personal letters 1846-1875; notes 1833-1834; society papers 1810-1884; newspaper cutting 1852-1884; miscellaneous papers on artists, 1815-1880; and papers relating to the Society's history 1804-1884;

Items given to the RWS comprising illuminated coat of arms, 1931; miscellaneous letters 1804-1946; papers of Sir Ernest A Waterlow, 1898-1913; sketchbook of Alfred Parsons 1880-1918; Thomas Rooke's memoir of the RWS and its members 1926; sketch, photograph and letters of Roland Bachelor 1979-1980.

Artist files containing cuttings, articles and related papers on members of the RWS (24 boxes); and Artist photographs - collection of photographs of members of the RWS 1852/3- (3 boxes).

Access & Use

Language/scripts of material:
mainly English

System of arrangement:

Arrangement follows that of John Joseph Jenkins, regardless of chronological order. Other material has been arranged chronologically. Jenkin's files on artists are in alphabetical order by surname.

Conditions governing access:

By appointment, contact the Archivist in the first instance, Bankside Gallery, 48 Hopton St, Blackfriars, London SE1 9JH.

Conditions governing reproduction:

At the discretion of the Archivist.

Finding aids:

Published catalogue of the Society's papers The business of watercolour, a guide to the archives of the Royal Watercolour Society, Simon Fenwick and Greg Smith, (Ashgate, Aldershot, 1997)

Archival Information

Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

Generated by the society and its predecessors in the course of business with some materials presented to the Society by private individuals.

Allied Materials

Related material:

Royal Watercolour Society secretary's (Alfred Downing Fripp) correspondence, 1871-1883 (Ref: Add MS 46445) held in the British Library, Manuscript Collections, and Royal Watercolour Society papers 1805-1821, held by the Victoria & Albert Museum, National Art Library.

National Register of Archives: Click here to view NRA record

Publication note:

History of the 'Old Water-Colour Society, John Lewis Roget 2 Vols, (Longmans, Green and Co, London, 1891).

Description Notes

Archivist's note:
Sources: Historical Manuscripts Commission's On-Line National Register of Archives; The business of watercolour, a guide to the archives of the Royal Watercolour Society, Simon Fenwick and Greg Smith, (Ashgate, Aldershot, 1997). Compiled by Alison Field as part of the London Signpost Survey Project.

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:
August 2003

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