An Introduction to the Royal Society of Portrait Painters

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Posted 27th January 2020

An Introduction to the Royal Society of Portrait Painters


'Promoting the practice and appreciation of portraiture'.

The Royal Society of Portrait Painters was founded in 1891 by Archibald John Stuart-Wortley (chairman), James Jebusa Shannon, George Percy Jacomb-Hood, Arthur Melville and the Hon. John Collier. 'The front rank of Outsiders', as The Magazine of Art called them, emerged as a faction of the Royal Academy, disappointed with the selections for the Summer Exhibition. Their goal was to bring portraiture into the forefront of the artistic sphere. An annual exhibition was launched, that would demonstrate the creative potential of the practice and its deservingness to receive critical attention. In only a year after its conception, the Society had established itself, gaining notoriety for its exhibitions and soon members were amongst the most renowned portraitists of the age, including G F Watts, Lord Frederic Leighton, Lawrence Alma-Tadema. In 1911, the Society received Royal patronage from King George V, becoming the Royal Society of Portrait Painters (RP). The aftermath of the First World War gave rise to new movements and the society welcomed many of these innovative artists, amongst them was William Orpen, (who would go on to be President of the Society 12 years later). In 1967 the RP became a founder member of the Federation of British Artists (FBA), allowing artists from other art societies to collaborate and exhibit alongside each other. Four years later, the FBA moved to the Mall Galleries in London, where the RP still holds its Annual Exhibition today, awarding a number of significant prizes.


The sitters featured in The Show Goes On: A Theatre of Portraits by the Royal Society of Portrait Painters at Watts Contemporary Gallery spark the question of our society's fascination with celebrity. A timeless concept, for both Watts and Orpen depicted poets, politicians and actors. In regard to portraiture, the question of the relationship between the artist and the sitter arises. How did the sitter initially want to be portrayed? How has the artist interpreted not only their physical form but also their legacy and to some degree their psyche?


The RP uses its long-established reputation to help emerging artists, by funding initiatives and bursaries, fostering creative talent in the art of portraiture. Today's members range from those who received formal art school education or learned their skill from atelier-style training, to those who are self-taught. Although the styles, sitters and the creative process of the artistic members have evolved over the years, the RP still remains true to its original ethos. It is a beacon for the appreciation and practice of portraiture.


The Show Goes On: A Theatre of Portraits by the Royal Society of Portrait Painters at Watts Contemporary Gallery is on until 23rd February.



Image: Simon Davis, Supercollider, Oil on Board

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