We take a look at some of the remarkable women who made their mark on the Academy and the British art world…
Our Heritage, Our Future, the recent exhibition at the Victoria Methodist Church of artworks from the RWA’s Permanent Collection, highlighted the central role of women artists in the history of the Academy. Alongside masterpieces by such 20th Century greats as Dod Procter, Mary Fedden and Elisabeth Frink were works by contemporary artists like Leslie Glenn Damhus and current President Fiona Robinson. The RWA has always promoted the work of female artists: it was welcoming them as members long before women got the right to vote, and whereas the Royal Academy in London banned women from life drawing classes until the 1890s, the first female student was admitted to an RWA life drawing class in 1849.
But more than that, the RWA owes its longevity, success and even its very existence to generations of remarkable women. Here are just a few of them…
Ellen Sharples (1769-1849)
Daughter of a Lancashire blacksmith, Ellen Sharples was a tireless entrepreneur and artist who made her fortune on both sides of the Atlantic as a portrait painter, with subjects including the first five US presidents. Based in Bath and Bristol, she supported the family financially and trained her daughter Rolinda, another talented artist. Tragically, Rolinda died of cancer aged 38 and Ellen poured her grief and energy into the foundation of the RWA, donating her collection and providing funds for the spectacular building on Whiteladies Road.
Dame Janet Stancomb-Wills (1854-1932)
In 1911 the first female President of Academicians, Dame Janet Stancomb-Wills, was elected, decades before any other British Academy even admitted women as full members.
She led the organisation for over 20 years and was followed by her sister, Yda Richardson in 1932. Numerous female artists have led the RWA since – including the current President, Fiona Robinson. By contrast, the Royal Academy only elected its first female President in 2019.
Agnes Augusta Talboys (1863-1941)
Little is known of Augusta Talboys today, though her distinctive portraits of cats are still popular. She was an early associate of the RWA and many artworks in the Permanent Collection were purchased thanks to the generous sum of money she left to the Academy in her Will in 1941.
Dame Laura Knight (1877-1970)
One of the most successful and popular British painters of the 20th century, Laura Knight famously became the first woman to be elected as a full member of the Royal Academy in 1936… But she’d been elected to the RWA a full 23 years previously!
Vanessa Bell (1879-1961)
Vanessa Bell was elected to the RWA along with fellow Bloomsbury Group luminaries Duncan Grant and Bernard Dunstan as part of a drive to revitalise the RWA after the Second World War. It worked: an exhibition of Bloomsbury art in 1962 was a popular triumph.
Mary Fedden (1915-2012)
Bristol-born Mary Fedden was (along with her husband Julian Trevelyan) a leading figure in British art in the second half of the 20th Century – and a vital fixture of the RWA. She served as President in the 1980s and a major exhibition of her work was held at the gallery in 1996. Her still life and flower paintings evoke Matisse but are in a distinctive style of her own and remain highly popular today.
Read more about great women artists of the Academy in a special article for the RWA blog by Andrew Nixon, RWA Masterpieces: 5 great artworks by women.