Societies of Artists previous to the Royal Hibernian Academy

From A Dictionary of Irish Artists 1913

Before the foundation in 1764 of the "Society of Artists in Ireland" the Dublin artists were not at any time combined together, either for their own interests, or for the purpose of holding exhibitions of their works, and had no society or organization of their own. The "Steyners and Peynters" of Dublin, i.e., house and church decorators, heraldic painters, and what we should now call artists, are mentioned in the fifteenth century, and probably formed a guild; but no records exist of such. In 1670 the Cutlers, Painter-Steyners and Stationers received a charter of incorporation from King Charles II, under the name of the Guild of St. Luke the Evangelist. Its records from that date, contained in sixteen volumes, are still preserved. This guild regulated the trades with which it was concerned, allowing no one to follow such trades unless admitted as a member, or freeman, or licensed as a quarter-brother. It was governed by a Master, two Wardens and a Council, and was represented on the Common Council of the City of Dublin by three of its members.

From the date of its incorporation down to about the middle of the eighteenth century the names of many limners, portrait painters and herald painters are found among its members. Artists who sought admission to the Guild obtained, no doubt, some advantages in belonging to such an organization, especially as some of them combined the calling of house-painter with that of limner and herald painter. Michael Ford, a portrait painter, in an advertisement issued by him in 1743, says that "he undertakes house-painting, floorcloths, etc." In one case, that of Francis Ryan, a "portrait or face painter," the freedom of the Guild was conferred, on the condition that he did not practice as a house-painter! Portrait painting was combined with the, perhaps, more profitable work of painting the signs which then distinguished every shop, and in the decoration of the panels of coaches with classical and historical subjects or elaborately painted coats of arms, mantlings and ornamental accessories. Among the original members of the Royal Academy in London at its foundation in 1769 were Charles Catton, an heraldic coach-painter and Master of the Company of Painter-Stainers in London, and John Baker, both of whom chiefly found employment as heraldic and sign painters.

The names of the following artists, some of whom were herald painters, are recorded as belonging to the Guild of St. Luke in Dublin: Thomas Carlton, on the council in 1670, and warden in 1680; Richard Carney, warden in 1671; Luke Bath, 1670; Paul de Melle, warden in 1675; Francis Mathewsens, 1677; Gaspar Smitz, 1681; Peter Surville, 1684; Thomas Pooley, 1683; Richard Sisson, 1686; Aaron Crossley, master in 1689-90; John Wolverston, 1696; Martin Skinner, 1698; James Vandermere, quarter-brother, 1712; Christopher Prichard, quarter-brother, 1712; John Seymour, 1727, warden in 1736; Patrick Tommins, quarter-brother, 1751; Alexander Cairncross, 1751, warden in 1760; Jonathan Bamford, quarter-brother, 1753; Mark Fielding, 1753; George Cairncross, 1755, warden in 1763; Joseph Tudor, 1755; Charles Stordy, 1757; John Lightbourne, 1760; William Esdal;, 1777.*

In the Royal Irish Academy Collection is an engraved medal in copper, inscribed: "Friendly Brothers of St. Luke," with a representation of St. Luke, and behind him a bull's head. Nothing is known of this institution; it was probably some minor artistic association.

The success of the Society of Artists in London, founded in 1760, in enabling artists to bring their works before the public by annual exhibitions, induced the artists of Dublin to form themselves into a similar association. Early in 1764 the Dublin Society contemplated the organizing of an exhibition themselves, and issued the following advertisement: "Whereas the Society hath been informed by some of the members that it is the opinion of several of the most eminent Painters in this Kingdom that an Exhibition of the Performances of the several artists would be a great encouragement to them, the Society gives the public notice that they will permit their House in Shaw's Court to be made use of for that purpose; and all artists are desired to send in an account of the Pieces they intend to exhibit, with the dimensions thereof, signed with their names and places of abode directed to the Secretary at the Society's House before the 25th of March next. The time of exhibition not to exceed three months on such days of the week as shall be given notice of in the daily Papers. A committee of this Society will have power to examine all such pieces as shall be sent in for exhibition, and to reject such as shall be deemed improper. The forming and printing of the Catalogues are left to the artists who send in pieces to the exhibition, and, being printed in a decent manner, they are permitted to sell the same for sixpence each" ("Faulkner's Journal," 14th-18th February, 1764).

The artists, however, who had already considered the question of forming an association and organizing exhibitions, declined to fall in with the proposal or to contribute to an exhibition under the control of the Dublin Society. In the next issue of "Faulkner's Journal" (18th-21st February, 1764) they had the following notice: "As there had been several meetings of Painters, Sculptors, and Architects for the purpose of instituting an Annual Exhibition of their several performances (antecedent to the advertisement of the Dublin Society), it is with the greatest respect to the intentions of those worthy patrons of arts and sciences that being pre-engaged in such a design among themselves they are under the disagreeable necessity of declining the honour of their invitation to an Exhibition of their works in Shaw's Court. This is therefore to give notice that at a general meeting of Painters, Sculptors and Architects, they have agreed on an Annual Exhibition as well as to excite emulation amongst themselves as to bring forth latent merit to public view; and in order to leave every Professor without excuse for not adding something to the collection, the first exhibition is appointed for February, 1765." In addition to thus arranging for an exhibition the artists formed themselves into an association, consisting at first of twelve members, under the title of THE SOCIETY OF ARTISTS IN IRELAND.

On the 12th February, 1765, they opened their first exhibition of Pictures, Drawings, Sculpture and Designs in Architecture in Napper's Great Room in George's Lane. The following advertisement was issued previous to the exhibition: "Pursuant to a former advertisement from the Artists' Society dated the 18th February, 1764, notice is hereby given to all artists, whether Painters, carvers in wood or stone, Modellers, Engravers or Designers in Architecture wheresoever resident, that said Society have appointed their Exhibition to commence the 12th day of February, 1765; and all Artists who intend exhibiting are requested to send their Performances to the Society's Room at Mr. Charles Napper's in George's Lane before the first day of said month, as no Performance can be received after that date, a proper time being necessary for forming and printing catalogues wherein the Name and Place of Abode of each artist will be inserted. The Society hopes (as this is the first attempt towards establishing an Annual Exhibition) every Artist will contribute to so desirable a purpose by sending some of his performances" ("Faulkner's Journal," 15th-19th January, 1765).

In a further advertisement (29th January-2nd February, 1765) the public were informed of the opening of the exhibition; tickets, with catalogues, to be obtained at a British Shilling each; the hours of admission ten to four o'clock each day. The membership of the Society had considerably increased since its formation, and twenty-seven artists now contributed, viz:—Painters: Gabriel Beranger, Stephen's Green; William Bertrand, Arran Quay; John Butts, College Green; Richard Carver, Lazar's Hill; Jacob Ennis, Shaw's Court; James Forrester, in Rome; Jonathan Fisher, Ship Street; Gustavus Hamilton, Parliament Street; Robert Hunter, Bolton Street; Thomas Jarvis, Martin's Lane; James Mannin, Shaw's Court; George Mullins, Temple Bar; Denis Brownell Murphy, George's Lane; James Reilly, Grafton Street; — Robinson, Abbey Street; Peter Shee, Smock Alley; Richard Sisson, William Street; Thomas Pope-Stevens, Parliament Street; William Watson, College Green; James Wilder, Crow Street; Peter Wingfield, Skinner Row. Sculptors: Richard Cranfield, Church Lane; Patrick Cunningham, Marlborough Street; John Kelly, Eustace Street; Simon Vierpyl, Henry Street. Architects: Oliver Grace, Fleet Street; John Mack, James Street. The total number of works shown was eighty-five.

The exhibition proved so successful that its promoters resolved to build a permanent exhibition room as well as an Academy for the study of painting. A subscription was opened, and with the funds so obtained and their own contributions the members of the Society erected an exhibition room in William Street, part of the proposed building, at a cost of £1,307 5s. 11d. There they opened their second exhibition on 10th March, 1766, with 106 works. Most of the artists who contributed to the first exhibition were represented, as well as Alexander De La Nauze, Solomon Delane, Thomas Roberts, Thomas Chambars, Robert Healey and others. Each subscriber of three guineas received a silver ticket which admitted him and his heirs free for ever to the exhibitions. A sum to complete the work, estimated at £1,124 10s. 2d., being required, the Society, in 1767, made an application to Parliament setting forth that they had in part executed their scheme but were unable to carry it further without public assistance. They received a grant of five hundred pounds "for building an Academy for Painting, Sculpture and Architecture," and in 1769 the members petitioned for a further grant, declaring their intention to instruct, without any remuneration, young students in the several branches of the Fine Arts as soon as they could have a convenient building for the purpose. No further grant, however, was made, and the Society completed the exhibition building with funds raised by bonds given by three of its members on behalf of the Society. A beginning appears to have been made with the Academy, for, in 1767, Colonel Burton presented a picture by Mengs for the use of the Academy, and Anthony Lee, the portrait painter, gave "a curious Lay-Man once in the possession of Sir Peter Lely" ("Freeman's Journal," 9th-12th May, 1767). The project of an academy for teaching was, however, abandoned, but the Society continued to hold its exhibitions in William Street until 1774. To the original members were added Solomon Delane, Thomas Roberts, William Ashford, J. J. Barralet, Alexander Pope, John Trotter, Thomas Boulger, Thomas Hickey, Thomas Woodburn and others.

After the exhibition of 1773 a schism took place in the Society. The seceders, under the title of "THE ACADEMY OF ARTISTS," opened an exhibition in the old room in George's Lane on 14th February, 1744, and issued the following notice: "The Academy of Artists acquaint the Public that their exhibition of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, &c., will commence on Monday, the 14th February next, at their Exhibition Room—formerly Napper's—in Great George's Street. The Academy of Artists, considering the Subscribers to the Exhibition Room in William Street as encouragers of the Arts and not of the Individuals, think it their duty to admit their tickets" ("Faulkner's journal," 27th January, 1774). This exhibition was followed by another, opened on 1st May, 1775. The remaining members of the old society found themselves unable to continue their exhibitions in William Street; but eventually the two sections were re-united under the original name of THE SOCIETY OF ARTISTS, and in April, 1777, held an exhibition in William Street in which were 227 works contributed by forty-two artists and nine amateurs. For the next two years the Society was unable to hold any exhibition. Its affairs became embarrassed, for although the exhibitions had been well attended the receipts were insufficient to pay the interest on the bonds and debt. Richard Cranfield, the treasurer, took up the bonds on his own account, and the whole management of the Society fell into his hands. Eventually the members being unable to pay the interest on the bonds, which amounted to £800, they were obliged to assign over to Cranfield all their interest in the William Street premises. In May, 1780, they held their last exhibition in William Street, and the Society of Artists ceased to exist. Their old exhibition room, after being used for various public purposes, meetings, balls, auctions, etc., was taken by the Corporation of Dublin in 1809, who used it as their assembly room until they removed to the Royal Exchange in 1852. It is now used as the Court of Conscience.

After 1780 no public exhibition was held in Dublin for twenty years. John Ellis, landscape painter attempted, in 1790, to revive exhibitions by Irish artists in his premises in Mary Street; but although he received some encouragement, his project was not carried out. In 1792 he opened in the rere of his house in Mary Street a "Museum" for the public exhibition of pictures and works of art, and showed there pictures by Hunter, Home, Robinson, and others; but his Museum, which lasted or some years, was chiefly a "collection of arts and natural and mechanical rarities."

In 1800 a general meeting of the artists of Dublin was held, and an association formed under the patronage of the Lord Lieutenant, the Duke of Richmond, with the title of "THE SOCIETY OF THE ARTISTS OF IRELAND." The following notice was issued to the public in the newspapers: "The Artists of the City of Dublin beg leave to inform the public that what they now submit to them is the Commencement of a Plan which must have been considered as a desirable object for some time past. Should it merit the attention they are anxious for, and tend in the least to the National object of setting forward the Fine Arts in Ireland, their wishes will be amply gratified, and be a stimulus for their future exertions in each succeeding year." The use of rooms at Allen's, the print-sellers, 32 Dame Street, was obtained, and there in May, 1800, the Society opened a small but very interesting exhibition of paintings, drawings, and sculpture. Twenty-seven artists contributed works to the number of 143. In 1801 the Society applied to Government for the use of a room in the Parliament House, then fitting up as a bank, and were granted the chamber lately used by the House of Lords. Here they held an exhibition in 1801, and another in 1802. Both these exhibitions surpassed the first in the number and quality of the works shown, and the Society bade fair to achieve further success; but, unfortunately, the Parliament House became no longer available, the artists were unable to hold an exhibition in 1803, and could find no better place than the small gallery at Allen's in which to have their fourth exhibition in 1804. For the next few years no exhibitions were held; but, after fruitless applications to Government, the artists at length found a refuge in the newly-built rooms of the Dublin Society in Hawkins Street. In these rooms, which had been specially built for exhibition purposes, the fifth exhibition was opened in May, 1809; and further exhibitions were held in 1810 and 1811. The Society had for its President, in 1811, William Cuming; and for its Vice-President, Gaspare Gabrielli; James Petrie was Secretary, and George Meade, Treasurer.

In 1812 a division took place, the junior members wishing to obtain a greater control in the management of the Society. Two societies were formed; one, consisting of the seceders, called itself THE IRISH SOCIETY OF ARTISTS; the other took the name of THE SOCIETY OF ARTISTS OF THE CITY OF DUBLIN. The members of this latter society were F. C. Pack, President; Edward Smyth, Vice-President; George Meade, Treasurer; James Petrie, Secretary; Thomas Bell, Samuel Burton, J. H. Campbell, William Chalmers, Andrew Dunn, John Ellis, Joseph Ellis, Edward Farrell, J. D. Herbert, William Hunt, Edward Jones, Thomas Kirk, William Kniveton, John Moreau, George Papworth, James Peace, Joseph Peacock, George Petrie, Daniel Richardson, William Sadler, John Smyth, Samuel Woodhouse and Solomon Williams. Of THE IRISH SOCIETY OF ARTISTS William Ashford was President, John Comerford, Vice-President; T. S. Roberts, Treasurer, and Richard Elsam, Secretary; and the members were: James H. Brocas, William Cuming, who became President in 1813; Gaspare Gabrielli, George and William Grattan, T. J. Mulvany, W. S. Mossop, Charles Robertson, J. J. Russell, T. C. Thompson, W. B. S. Taylor, J. McKinley Taylor, V. Waldré and Robert L. West.

Both of these Societies held exhibitions in 1812 and 1813; THE ARTISTS OF THE CITY OF DUBLIN continuing in the Dublin Society's House, and THE IRISH SOCIETY OF ARTISTS finding a home at J. Del Vecchio's premises, 26 Westmoreland Street. In 1814 the two Societies amalgamated, and under the title of THE HIBERNIAN SOCIETY OF ARTISTS held an exhibition in the Dublin Society's House. Solomon Williams was President; F. C. Pack, Vice-President; George Meade, Treasurer; and Charles Robertson, Secretary. The members of this newly-formed Society were, however, unable to agree, and in 1815 another division took place. The senior members, who called themselves THE ARTISTS OF IRELAND, held their exhibition in the Dublin Society's House, the use of which was refused to the other members, who, continuing the name of THE HIBERNIAN SOCIETY, held their exhibition at Del Vecchio's in Westmoreland Street. The members of THE HIBERNIAN SOCIETY presented a remonstrance to the Dublin Society: "Their Institution," they said, "is not a partial monopoly confined to a few individuals, but embraces, in the most liberal manner, the whole profession. They object to artists elected for an unlimited period, whose powers are to be delegated to six, or rather three or four individuals upon whose honour or honesty the division of the money must depend. Instead of appropriating the funds collected by exhibitions to their own individual use, they have always conscientiously disposed of them to the relief of aged and decaying artists; and from the period of its formation to the present time have constantly afforded a certain stipend to cheer the old age of a once highly respectable artist, besides, occasionally, extending assistance to others where it appeared necessary." In 1816 a coalition was brought about and exhibitions were held by the whole body of artists in 1816, 1817 and 1819, in the Dublin Society's House in Hawkins Street. These exhibitions were successful, although the artists do not appear to have had any regular organization but were controlled by the Dublin Society. When that Society, after its removal to Leinster House, disposed of its premises in Hawkins Street, the artists were deprived of the exhibition-rooms, and in 1819 the last exhibition of painting, sculpture and architecture was held in the Hawkins Street Gallery.

The artists thus left without a place of exhibition, determined to establish themselves upon an independent and permanent footing, and to have a recognized organization. For this purpose they set to work to obtain a Charter of Incorporation, and after a long struggle and in face of much opposition they succeeded, and were at length incorporated as THE ROYAL HIBERNIAN ACADEMY by a charter dated 5th August, 1823. In 1821, after their efforts had been successful but before the charter was formally granted, the artists held an exhibition at the Royal Arcade in College Green. This was the last exhibition held before the Royal Hibernian Academy commenced its annual series in 1826, with the exception of one of water-colours in 1823.

In the Exhibitions held by the Societies but little discrimination appears to have been exercised in the admission of works. Besides those by regular artists—often of a very low standard—drawings by amateurs and by young pupils of the Dublin Society's School and of private drawing masters were admitted. The number of artists of any ability exhibiting bore but a small proportion to those who were mere daubers, or whose career—in many cases afterwards distinguished—was only beginning. Of the exhibition of 1775, the author of "A Tour in Ireland in 1775" writes: "I saw an exhibition of Pictures in Dublin by Irish Artists; excepting those, chiefly landscapes, by Mr. Roberts and Mr. Ashford, almost all the rest were detestable." Commenting on the exhibition held in 1804 a contemporary writer observes that it was the best yet held: "There are fewer daubs of tyros and scratches by children than we remember to have seen in others" ("Ireland's Mirror," 1804).

Exhibitions of the Various Societies of Artists in Dublin, from 1765 to 1821.

YearName of SocietyWhere HeldNo. of ExhibitorsNo. of Works
1765 Society of Artists Napper's Room, George's Lane 27 88
1766" William Street 30 106
1767" " 30 137
1768 " " 31 140
1769 " " 40 119
1770 " " 47 104
1771 " " 30 105
1772 " " 38 101
1773 " " 40 128
1774 Academy of Artists George's Street 38 130
1775 " " 24 160
1777 Society of Artists William Street 51 223
1780 " " 41 214
1800 Society of Artists of Ireland Allen's, 32 Dame Street 27 143
1801" Parliament House 41 200
1802" " 51 213
1804 " Allen's, 32 Dame Street 33 140
1809 Society of Artists of Ireland Dublin Society's House, Hawkins Street 64 231
1810 " " 76 244
1811 " " 75 235
1812 " " 58 216
1812 Irish Society of Artists Del Vecchio's, 26 Westmoreland Street 42 173
1813 Society of Artists of the City of Dublin Dublin Society's House, Hawkins Street 44 212
1813 Irish Society of Artists Del Vecchio's, 26 Westmoreland Street 28 138
1814 Hibernian Society of Artists (the two Societies amalgamated) Dublin Society's House, Hawkins Street 74 263
1815" Del Vecchio's, 26 Westmoreland Street 56 226
1815 Artists of Ireland Dublin Society's House, Hawkins Street 39 115
1816 " " 38 139
1817 " " 57 206
1819 " " 51 187
1821 " Royal Arcade, college Green 42 181
1823 Water-colour Exhibition 11 113

In addition to the foregoing exhibitions by Societies a few by single artists were held. Richard Hand and J. J. Barralet held an exhibition of "pictures stained in glass" at No. 14 New Buildings, Dame Street, in 1785. Robert Hunter had an exhibition of his pictures in 1792; Thomas Sautelle Roberts exhibited in January, 1802, a number of his landscapes, chiefly those painted for the Lord Lieutenant and the Chief Secretary; Andrew Dunne had an exhibition of his miniatures in Hawkins Street in 1808 preliminary to commencing practice in Dublin; J. G. Oben showed a large collection of his water-colour drawings at 49 Marlborough Street in 1809; William Grattan exhibited the works of his deceased brother, George Grattan, at 15 Dame Street in 1819, and in the same year William Ashford had an exhibition of his works in the Dublin Society's House.


* The records of the Guild contain the following list, undated, of "Pictures belonging to the Guild":

1. The Royall Founder his Matie King Charles the 2nd; a half-length with a frame. Done by Mr. Peter Servile, and his gift.

2. Mr. Samuel Cotton, cutler, 1st Patentee Master, by Paul de Melle.

3. Mr. John North, Stationer and 2nd Patentee Warden, by Mr. Murphy.

4. Her Majesty Queen Mary the 2nd, by Thomas Pooley, Esqr.

5. The King's Armes, small, Queen Anne, by Mr. Bodeley.

6. The Guild's Armes, small, with Mr. F. Leeson.

7. Mr. John Kade, cutler, by Mr. Dixon.

8. Mr. Jonathan Jones, cutler, by Mr. Thomas Carleton.

9. Mr. Joseph Toplis, cutler, by Mr. Joachim Croker:

10. A Piece of Perspective. Done by Mr. Mathewsens.

11. Lord Caple's Armes, by Mr. Thomas Langrishe.

12. A back breast and gauntlett for the Armorer.

13. The Guild's Armes, large. Done when Mr. F. Leeson was Master.

14. A Piece of Still Life, by Mr. Stopeller.

15. King William the Third. Done by Mr. Carleton.

16. King George, by Mr. Holland.

17. Thomas Pooley, Esq., a half-length. Done by himself, his gift to the hall.

William Woodburn (q.v.).

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