Birmingham Watercolour Society is about to celebrate its centenary with an international exhibition, writes Terry Grimley.
A century after it was formed with a little assistance from the Post & Mail, Birmingham Watercolour Society has reinvented itself as an international organisation.
The centenary exhibition which opens at St Paul's Gallery in the Jewellery Quarter on November 20 will include contributions from members from as far away as China and Australia.
The reason for this unexpected development can be explained in two words: the internet. The society's secretary, David Poxon - who says no one was more surprised than him to discover that people wanted to join who live on the other side of the world - explains:
"My own experience of the society is that I had never heard of it until I was exhibiting in Dudley, and a lady came and introduced herself and asked if I would like to become a member.
"Membership is by election, so I took my six paintings along, and about half an hour later I was a member. As it was the first thing I was elected into, it's very special to me.
"I built a website for the society and became secretary about three or four years ago. With the website we have a lot of interest from people overseas, because of the history the society has. There's a whole sense of tradition and history, and with the website we are out there in the world.
"The first year we invited international applications we had about six international members. Four of them came to the annual exhibition, which is an incredible commitment, so I had a little party for them at my home. There were two from America, one from Spain and one from Chile. It gave us a fantastic atmosphere and a fresh impetus."
This month the society is looking forward to welcoming members from China, Singapore, Argentina, Chile, Spain, Norway and Australia - a development which would have astonished the pioneers who set out to create an exhibiting society for local amateur artists a century ago.
It all began in 1907 with a letter from a correspondent calling himself "Connoisseur" to the Birmingham Daily Mail, complaining that the main art society in Birmingham, the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists, seemed to have the same people in it year after year and didn't seem to be encouraging watercolour artists.
"There was quite a considerable response to the suggestion of forming an amateur water-colour society in the city," says David, who has been researching the minutes of the society, preserved in a large tin box. "A meeting was held at the offices of the Post & Mail in July 1907, chaired by a Mr Hadley, who it seems might have been a company employee."
After this meeting the term "amateur" was dropped. The first president was Charles Showell, and there were originally 14 members. The celebrated Birmingham artist John Wainwright took a keen interest, although it is unclear whether he was ever actually a member.
A musical evening was held in conjunction with the first exhibition, and members would go out on sketching trips. It was decided to restrict fares to one shilling so that everyone could afford to go.
During the First World War some members joined up, and those that remained had a meeting interrupted by a Zeppelin raid. The archives record that they went out with their sketchbooks to record the event, "exchanged insults" with the pilot and invited him to return the following week as they hadn't finished their sketches.
Unfortunately none of these drawings seem to have survived. In fact, there appears to be no visual archive of the society at all.
Between the wars there was an attempt to set up a headquarters in Royal Chambers, Temple Street "to foster the bohemian spirit which is characteristic of the art world", but nothing came of it.
In 1939 there were complaints about poor attendance at the annual general meeting because it clashed with a major speech being given by Neville Chamberlain at the Birmingham Jewellers' dinner.
A year later there were more complaints about poor attendance, but for a different reason. Evening meetings were suspended during the war because of the blackout, and instead took place on Saturday afternoons at the Queens Hotel.
This one coincided with a 13-hour bombing raid, but the secretary, a man called Nixon, who picked his way through the rubble to find that only two people had turned up, complained about the lack of courtesy from members who had not sent their apologies.
However, there was a note from a Mr Boot saying: "I have been inconvenienced by a visit from one of Mr Hitler's followers, but will be along later."
Sketching expeditions had to be suspended because of security. One member was arrested and only released when he named all the members of the society's committee.
"One or two members were killed during the war, and the society perhaps struggled to maintain itself after the war," David says. "Membership probably peaked at about 70 or so."
Still, there is, he thinks, a certain stubbornness that goes with the medium.
"You either love watercolour or you hate it. You're not just wrestling with the thing you're trying to paint, but with the thing itself. They are the kind of people who don't like to give in, and you tend to get people who are quite stubborn.
"Which is surprising, because it's the medium in which a lot of people start out. But I think it's a very serious medium."
We tend to think of it as a quintessentially English medium - not only because of its glorious history here, but perhaps also because it seems uniquely suited to the muted colours associated with our climate. So the idea of distinct and vigorous traditions of watercolour painting in other parts of the world take a little getting used to.
"In America there are loads of these dedicated watercolour societies," David points out. "When we first registered the name on the internet we couldn't have BWCS because of Birmingham, Alabama, or BWS because of the Brooklyn Watercolour Society. I know from my own work that looking at American work has given me a direction I'm really enthusiastic about following."
The website has drawn in new members from across the UK as well as abroad, but the total membership is still below 100 as by no means everyone who applies is elected.
As well as bringing in members from outside the city, the society has invited distinguished artists to show their work at the annual exhibition for the last few years. This year the guest artist is David Curtis.
"I'm communicating with people in the same society as me all over the world," says David. "I regard them as friends, a lot of them, and these people are bringing in another level of talent.
"We're getting some new techniques coming along and that can only help show local members there are ways of progressing with the medium. We are importing talent, just as the city has imported talent, and I think that's a good thing."
* The Birmingham watercolour Society Centenary Exhibition is at the St Paul's Gallery, Northwood Street, Jewellery Quarter, from November 20-28.