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The Royal Society of British Artists, one of the UK’s most venerable arts organizations, celebrates its 200th birthday in May. Founded at Lincoln’s Inn Fields by several eminent painters--soon to number twenty-three--it began life as the Society of British Artists. The Society became “Royal” in 1887, thanks to the deft manoeuvring of its American president, James McNeill Whistler, who led the alliance from 1886 to 1888.

Whistler joined and first exhibited with the Society in late 1884 at its Suffolk Street galleries. He contributed only two pieces on that occasion but was more visible the following spring when he exhibited eight works, including his magnificent portrait of celebrated violinist Pablo de Sarasate. That exhibition also produced one of Whistler’s most famous exchanges with Oscar Wilde. Learning of a bon mot with which the artist had regaled people the previous evening, Oscar gushed, “Heavens, I wish I had said that Jimmy,” to which Whistler replied with his strident peacock laugh, “But you will Oscar.”

A year later, Whistler was elected president, thanks to a “Whistlerite faction” of loyal supporters that included Mortimer Menpes, William Stott, Sidney Starr, and Albert Ludovici. He swiftly appointed his claque to governing positions in the Society, thus confirming the new “Whistler regime” in Suffolk Street. The SBA had been established to provide an alternative exhibition venue to the Royal Academy while still acknowledging the superior stature of the RA. Whistler had other ideas. Having felt himself snubbed in elections to the RA, he intended to make the SBA the nation’s premier arts organization.

Even before assuming the presidency, he had engineered reforms to elevate the Society’s profile and repair its precarious financial condition. He transformed the “dingy” galleries by having them freshly painted, hung with muslin draperies, and decorated with floral arrangements. He initiated Sunday receptions (echoing his own “Sunday breakfasts”) where members could sell their work and meet potential patrons. He also ensured that friends who were not members could exhibit with the Society. These included “Clifton Lin” and “Rix Birnie,” better known as Maud Franklin and Beatrice Godwin.

He went further as president by introducing non-British art to the exhibitions, inviting distinguished non-British artists, such as his friend Alfred Stevens, into membership, doubling the price of tickets to the “Smoking Conversazione” held before each exhibition, and hanging the central gallery with billowing velarium. Most radically, he limited the number of works to be exhibited and insisted that they be arranged on a single line, with ample space between, as he did for his own exhibitions. The days of covering gallery walls from floor to ceiling had ended, he announced. The Society would no longer be “a shop” for “mediocre” art and the sale of shoddy goods.

You can imagine the grumbling. Members threatened to resign, but Whistler ignored the bluster. When Edward, Prince of Wales, attended the spring 1887 exhibition at Whistler’s invitation, the future king asked the president to tell him something of the Society’s history. Whistler replied, “It has none, Sir; its history begins to-day.” In a sense, that was true. Thanks largely to the notoriety of its new leader, the Society received more press coverage than ever before. Even Punch acknowledged that the SBA owed “much, very much, to the genius of its President.” He put the Society on a firm financial footing, too, by borrowing £500 from Richard D’Oyly Carte, who had served as impresario for his Ten O’Clock lecture, to satisfy its debts. Friends insisted that Whistler deserved a knighthood.

Then came his grandest scheme. With the approach of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, Whistler decided to bring the Society to the monarch’s attention by offering her a memorial tribute and a pledge of fealty from its members. He paid an expert in heraldry to hand-letter the twelve-page document in Gothic script, using the same aged Dutch paper on which he printed many of his etchings. He personally illuminated the pages with a variety of drawings, including the royal coat of arms and the Queen’s monogram. Bound in yellow Moroccan leather, the tribute concluded with a request that the Society of British Artists be recognized as the Imperial Society of British Artists. Whistler was determined to transcend the merely “Royal” Academy in name as well as fact.

To the members’ astonishment, Whistler’s audacious ploy worked, mostly. Though informed by the Palace that, because the Society operated wholly within the United Kingdom, it could attain no higher status than Royal, that title was indeed bestowed upon them. To celebrate the occasion, Whistler designed a new emblem for the Society, featuring a lion wearing an imperial crown. As a gesture of gratitude, he then sent Victoria an album of fifteen original etchings, dubbed the “Jubilee Set,” also bound in leather and scented with the Queen’s favourite perfume.

Then things went very wrong. Enemies within the Society, who still resented the continued flood of “reforms” instituted by their high-handed leader, forced Whistler to repeal some of the changes. He apologized for having acted with “more zeal than consideration,” but that did not satisfy the malcontents. Employing some political maneuvers of their own, they elected a new president in May 1888, upon which Whistler and twenty-three loyal followers resigned from the Society. He also cancelled his £500 loan. “Why should these people . . . perish rather than forgive the one who had thrust upon them honour and success!” he asked in amazement. Pointing to the mass defections of his friends, he declared, “The ‘Artists’ have come out, and the “British’ remain—and peace and sweet obscurity are restored to Suffolk street—Eh? eh? Ha! ha!”

The Society survived the tumultuous reign of its Mad-Hatter president, though it never again experienced such exciting times. Now referred to more often as the Royal British Artists, it has joined with eight other societies to form the Federation of British Artists, which administers and holds exhibitions in the Mall Galleries. Happy Birthday RBA.

We continue to be grateful to Dan Sutherland for his Letters from America. They originate from his notes and research for his forthcoming book which will explore the enduring influence of James McNeill Whistler and the lives of those he knew and inspired.

NEWSLETTER No. 43 June 2023
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