George III was the King of England when the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists (RBSA) was founded in 1814.

Two more coronations were to follow before Queen Victoria sat on the throne in 1837, ready to put the “royal” into the Birmingham Academy of Arts, the forerunner of the RBSA, some 31 years later.

Today, the artist-led charity has amassed a collection of more than 800 works of art including paintings, drawings, prints, sculpture, ceramics and jewellery.

Current turnover is around £250,000 per year, but to help the RBSA to secure its future there have been two splendid presents for the bicentenary, including a grant of £76,400 from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for the project Celebrating 200 years of Art, Artists and Audiences in Birmingham.

There has also been a further £40,000 curatorial research grant from the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, to enable professional curators and volunteers to research the history of the RBSA and reveal the stories behind paintings, sculptures and other artworks created by Birmingham’s artists.

All of which is a source of great pride for Robert Neil, the RBSA’s president of two years’ standing.

He was unsure about taking the position at first but Robert admits he’s grown to love the post.

By day he’s a businessman with his brother, employing more than 50 people in a £6 million Hockley-based wholesale building business.

For around 10 to 12 hours a month, he becomes President Neil.

While accepting the title is as meaningful and useful as the Royal in RBSA, he bears it reluctantly since he wants neither term to ever prevent talented people from thinking the society and its 200 members and 450 friends is not for them.

Originally from Kidderminster, but now living in Droitwich, he was put off from studying art at the age of 16 when a college interviewer told him that he’d be expected to do all of the things he wasn’t good at.

“I was so deflated,” Robert admits. “It wasn’t until I was about 30 that I began to take art seriously and to start exhibiting and quite quickly saw the pros of getting involved with a society. I did some of the educational courses and I found certain things really worked for me.

“I am a convert in that respect and am very passionate about what the society stands for.

“When you are working in isolation as an artist, it is so easy to become very insular in terms of what you are doing.

“The society has quite a dramatic impact on the quality of work I was producing.”

Today, he’s a portrait painter who uses oils and his partner is Victoria Osborne, curator of fine art at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. “Portraiture is not terribly saleable, although I do sell some work,” he says.

“But to be running a business and then doing some painting kind of suits me.

“It gives me more flexibility to enjoy what I do rather than just try to do what is commercial.”

Robert had only been an RBSA member for a year when the incumbent president decided to resign after six years. “I immediately refused (to become president),” smiles Robert. “I thought I had too much to do with the day job.

Surviving Bombed Houses in Gooch Street (c1950) by Frank Taylor Lockwood (1895-1961).
Surviving Bombed Houses in Gooch Street (c1950) by Frank Taylor Lockwood (1895-1961).
 

“But this is such an interesting charity and organisation.

“I thought this was a fantastic charity with objectives and I came to the conclusion I would give it a go and I have loved it, it’s been fun even though public speaking was not something I was terribly experienced at.”

The RBSA has a team of five part-time people and many more volunteers.

“It’s remarkable the amount of goodwill and hard-working people who work here,” he says.

“They really do amazing work.”

Robert’s main aims include increasing public awareness of the RBSA and encouraging young talents to develop their skills while building on the society’s core values.

Artists whose work is exhibited for sale at the RBSA price up their own work for the gallery, which has a cut of 35 per cent – comparing more favourably with a more typical 45-50 per cent in the commercial sector. We are not in a hugely advantageous financial position,” says Robert, who works closely with gallery director Marie Considine. “But we punch above our weight in terms of what we achieve.”

While Penelope, Viscountess Cobham CBE is the society’s patron, Prince Charles is an honorary member.

He was invited to take part in the 200th anniversary celebrations, but has declined partly because of the number of First World War anniversaries he has been involved with.

The heir to the throne is, however, contributing two of his own paintings to a forthcoming exhibition called Birmingham and Beyond (November 19 to December 24).

For now, the big new exhibition which has just opened this week is A Place For Art: The Story of The Royal Birmingham Society of Artists. This features more than 80 major works by members and associates, including David Cox, Joseph Southall, Walter Langley and Arthur Gaskin.

It also explores the contribution made by women artists including Mary Gibson, Kate Eadiea and Teresa Clarke (Lady Clarke), the society’s first female member.

* To celebrate the bicentenary, a new book RBSA A Place For Art – The Story of the Royal Birmingham Society Artists, is out now (£12.99).

* The RBSA is at 4 Brook Street, St Paul’s, Birmingham. Visit: www.rbsa.org.uk or tel 0121 236 4353. Guided Tours: groups of ten or 20 can book free tours, subject to availability.           

 

Exhibition Highlights

* A drawing called Trade Card For Birmingham Union Fire Office (c1790) by Joseph Barber (1757-1811), whose appointment to teach drawing at the Free Grammar School in New Street in 1798 was pivotal in helping the city to found artists’ societies which evolved into the RBSA.

* A View of New Street, the Portico of the RBSA and Town Hall (c1840) shows the city’s main street as it used to be seen by Charles Walter Radclyffe, and there’s also The Old Portico (1912) by Joseph Edward Southall.

* Some 40 years later, RBSA Gallery, New Street by Trevor Denning shows the foyer in need of repair as three characters looking at other works by Denning suggest the artist is taking a satirical swipe at the anti-modernist attitudes of some of the gallery-going public.

* To understand the might of Midlands’ industry, don’t miss Blast Furnaces, Cradley, Staffordshire by Richard Samuel Chattock and for a study of the effects of war in Birmingham there’s Surviving Bombed Houses in Gooch Street (c1950) by Frank Taylor Lockwood.

* Christchurch Passage, Birmingham (c 1972) wasn’t bombed, it was just demolished when Galloway’s Corner at the junction of New Street and Victoria Square was redeveloped in the early 1970s – but not before James Priddey had captured the scene in 1972.

* For pure brilliance enjoy Danae (The Tower of Brass) (1900) by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones.

* There’s also Portrait of Betsy c1950 by Teresa Clarke (1886-1987), thought to have been the first woman member since the society was founded 140 years ago.

Key Dates

1807 – Samuel Lines opened an Academy in Newhall Street, offering tuition to local artisans and aspiring artists. He focused on teaching basic design skills such as drawing figures, landscapes and still life.

1812 – Other pioneers such as Joseph Vincent Barber came together to study from the living model.

1814 – The founding of the Birmingham Academy of Arts. Its first exhibition was held that year under the patronage of such famous alumni as Benjamin West, J.M.W. Turner, John Flaxman, Joseph Heath and John Sloane.

1821 – The Birmingham Society of Artists was formed. Its objective was to establish a museum for works of art, provide facilities for students, hold public exhibitions and extend art education in the city of Birmingham.

1822-1912 – The society met in a beautiful Corinthian-style gallery, demolished in 1912 as part of the reconstruction of New Street.

1868 – Queen Victoria granted the society its ‘Royal’ status. Annual exhibitions, with minor interruptions during the war years, have been held ever since. The Royal Birmingham Society of Artists played an important part in the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Sir John Everett Millais and Sir Edward Burne-Jones both served as presidents of the RBSA.

Other well known presidents were Lord Leighton and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

2000 – The RBSA relocated from New Street to its current gallery, just off St Paul’s Square.           

The Old Portico (1912) by Joseph Edward Southall (1861-1944)
The Old Portico (1912) by Joseph Edward Southall (1861-1944)
 

Anniversary Timetable

Saturday October 11

2pm-4pm, Celebratory opening of the bicentenary exhibition which is showcasing more than 80 works on floors one and two (other exhibitions ongoing in the cafe spaces and craft gallery).

Light refreshments. Admission free.

Sunday October 12

10am-1pm, Symposium with Brendan Flynn, including an overview of the foundation and development of the RBSA. (£5 / £3).

Saturday, October 18

Guided walk with Dr Chris Upton, senior lecturer in history at Newman University.

11am-1pm, Jewellery Quarter – arts and crafts on the doorstep. Sign in at the gallery’s front desk at 10.45am (£5 / £3).

2pm-4pm, City centre – the links between art in the context of the Industrial Revolution. Sign in at the gallery’s front desk at 1.45am (£5 / £3).

Wednesday, October 22

7-9pm : Behind the scenes of A Place For Art: The Story of the RBSA exhibition with Brendan Flynn and the Archive Team. Meet at the gallery just before 7pm. (£7 / £5).

Saturday, November 1

Demonstration: Paul Hipkiss RBSA and Nigel Priddey RBSA, two sons of former members, will demonstrate their drawing and sketching skills.

Wednesday, November 26

7-9pm: Bicentenary debate: the significance of Royal societies in the 21st century, with John Scott Martin and guest members of UK Royal art societies. Meet at the gallery just before 7pm. (£7 / £5).

Workshops For The Family

Aimed at children aged six to 12

Sunday, October 19

2-4pm: Every Picture Tells A Story. A guide through the bicentenary exhibition led by Jo Naden. Free.

Sunday, November 9

2-4pm: Painting Portraits using was resist techniques. Led by Annette Pugh.

Sunday, December 7

2pm-4pm: Exploding Christmas Books! Includes drawing and folding skills.

Led by Caroline Ali.