The Society of Women Artists, or SWA is a British art society and registered charity, that has a unique history dedicated to celebrating and promoting art created by women. It was founded in about 1855 with the name of Society of Female Artists (SFA), offering women artists the opportunity to exhibit and sell their works. The SWA have been held annual exhibitions in London since 1857, with some wartime interruptions.
The SWA was created in a time of great imbalance in gender representation within the art world, playing an instrumental role to redress this imbalance. In the 1850s the idea that women could create art was debated by critics in newspapers, including John Ruskin. Women were not considered as serious contributor to the art world, what can explain the difficulties they to participate in public shows. As well as their education in art was limited and the fact that they had been excluded from the practice of drawing from a nude figure since the foundation of the Royal Academy.
During the 19th century, the British art scene was dominated by the Royal Academy, which was founded in 1768, even if two of the thirty-four named founders were women painters: Mary Moser and Angelica Kauffman; it was not until 1922 when the academy admitted other woman artist, Annie Swynnerton, who was a member of the SWA since 1889, was elected the first female associate member of the Royal Academy in, and Dame Laura Knight became the first female full member of the RA in 1936.
In order to have opportunities to exhibit their work, women began to create their own organisations, and undoubtedly, one of the most significant was the Society of Female Artists which had created a platform for women artists to showcase their work. At the beginning, the membership was granted to female artists who had exhibited with the SFA and who earned their livelihood through art.
The society existed with the name of Society of Female Artists since its foundation until 1869. English biographer Harriet Grote and the opera singer Jenny Lind were cited as founder members of the SFA. At that time, the society was managed by a committee. among the early members were Rosa Bonheur and Elizabeth Thompson.
The first exhibition was held at 315 Oxford Street, between 1 June and 18 July 1857. The Exhibition comprised 358 works, most of them were landscapes, by 149 artists. It became the focus of a debate on the role of women in art. According to the press of the time, the success of the exhibition exceeded the expectations.
However, the annual exhibitions received controversial reviews, maybe one of the reasons to this was that the exhibits were chosen on a liberal and amicable basis. This was addressed in 1865, when their lack of professionalism led to a reorganisation of the SFA under the patronage of the Duchess of Cambridge, therefore the society was renamed as the Society of Lady Artists. since then the society has received royal patronage, the current royal patron is the Princess Michael of Kent.
The Society’s earliest records were lost or destroyed during the Second World War. The catalogues and remaining papers dating from 1929 are now housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum Library. For this reason, there is a debate to determined exactly when the society was renamed. The different sources suggest twa dates: 1869 and 1873. In 1886 Madeline Francis Jane Marrable, a prolific watercolourist and oil painter, who joined the committee in 1867, became the first president of the society. The society embraced the 20th century with a new name: Society of Women Artists (SWA).
The SWA has had several important artists among its members, such as Dame Laura Knight, who was elected president in 1932 and retained that office until she retired in 1968 to become a patron. Other notorious names are the illustrator Mabel Lucie Atwell, portraitists Daphne Todd and June Mendoza.
Nowadays, and according to the words of its former president Sue Jelley, the SWA has become a modern tradition with initiatives to encourage young talented artists to fulfil their potential and collaborating with charities to help the need.
- The membership of SWA is composed of a maximum of 150 members who promote new artists and encourage present their work in the annual exhibitions.
- the SWA’s archive was given to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Archive in 1996.