Particularly 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. And 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.
In 1855, English biographer Harriet Grote (1792-1878) and opera singer Jenny Lind (1820-1887) were cited as founder members of the SFA, with the Society's first headquarters based at the Architectural Association in 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.
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 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 (except in the years 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 Marrable, a prolific watercolourist and oil painter, joined the Committee.
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).
The Society has had many notable artists among its members. Dame Laura Knight, the first woman Royal Academician, was elected President of the Society 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.
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 have collated a four-volume dictionary of all the Society's exhibitors from 1855 to 1996, this is already in reprint and in June 1996, the Society's archive was gifted to the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Archive of Art and Design, where it is presented as a corporate body. 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 of the SWA is composed of a maximum of 150 members and as a Society they nurture and encourage members, whilst maintaining the ethos and integrity of a long standing Society. They are keen to promote young new artists and encourage, mostly, professional non-members to show 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 will be considered by a Selection Committee, who will vote and if judged exceptional, the artist will then duly be elected to become an Associate member (ASWA), subject to availability of space within the Society. Associate members will become eligible for election to full membership in the year following.
(In alphabetical order, excluding SWA Presidents or Acting Presidents, listed above)
PresidentSue Jelley SPF
Vice PresidentsRebecca Fontaine-Wolf
Soraya French SPF
DirectorsSue Jelley SPF
Rosemary Miller SAA
Honorary TreasurerRachel Parker
Company SecretaryRosemary Miller SAA
Executive SecretaryRebecca Cotton
Council MembersAnne Blankson-Hemans
Orsi Cowell Lehoczky MAOE
Caroline de Peyrecave
Hazel Reeves RBSA FRSA
Dr. Linda Smith
Honorary MembersPhilomena Davidson PPRBS
June Mendoza AO OBE RP ROI
Ruth Pilkington ROI
Susan Ryder PVPRP NEAC
Daphne J. Todd OBE PPRP NEAC FRSA
Belinda Tong PVPSWA
Joyce Wyatt HonUA ASAF(HC) FRSA
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.
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.