Meet the founders of the Royal Academy

The RA was established by a group of artists more than 250 years ago – let's get to know a few of them.

By Royal Academy of Arts

The Royal Academicians in General Assembly (1795) by Henry SingletonRoyal Academy of Arts

The RA’s founders were several interconnecting groups of professional allies, personal friends and family relations who fancied themselves as arbiters of cultural tastes. The original group was made up of 36 artists – many British, as well as two Irishmen, four Italians, one Frenchman, two Swiss, one German and one American. As you can see, at this time, most – but not all – were men. We'll meet our female founders shortly in this story, or you can skip straight to this one, about women and the RA.

For now, let's have a look at the founders in this group portrait by Henry Singleton...

The Royal Academy of Arts (Published 2 August 1773 by Robert Sayer) by Mezzotint by Richard Earlom after Johann Zoffany RARoyal Academy of Arts

...and the few missing from there can be seen in this group portrait by Johann Zoffany RA.

The Royal Academicians in General Assembly (1795) by Henry SingletonRoyal Academy of Arts

Ironically, not all the founders were fine artists of the highest echelons themselves. For example…

Founder Charles Catton was a painter of coats-of-arms on furniture and coaches...

The Royal Academy of Arts (August 2, 1773) by Robert Sayer|Richard Earlom|Johan Joseph ZoffanyThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

...while founder Peter Toms was a drapery painter to whom fellow founders were indebted for his help completing the fabrics in their portraits.

Nonetheless, the group had a fair few star players – let’s meet a few of the founders who started this institution more than 250 years ago…

Joshua Reynolds
One of Britain’s leading portraitists in the 1700s, Reynolds became the Royal Academy’s first President. He began his career studying artists of the past in Rome, where he caught a bad cold which left him partially deaf so he often used an ear trumpet. Reynolds courted aristocracy, celebrity and royalty to establish himself as a prominent, sought-after cultural figure.

Self-portrait of Sir Joshua Reynolds, PRA (c.1780) by Joshua ReynoldsRoyal Academy of Arts

He popularised established European theories on art through a series of fifteen widely disseminated lectures published as his Discourses on Art. In these, he argued that painters should look to classical and Renaissance art as their model, and should seek to idealise nature rather than copy it. He positioned paintings of epic historic moments as the highest genre of art (with still-lifes, landscapes and animal painting ranking at the bottom) but the high demand for his portraits meant that he rarely painted such grand scenes himself.

The Royal Academicians in General Assembly (1795) by Henry SingletonRoyal Academy of Arts

William Chambers
Chambers began his career working for the East India Company, a company approved by the monarchy to act as an agent for British imperialism across Asia. Back in England, he was appointed the architectural tutor to the 19-year-old Prince of Wales, who would later become King George III and appoint Chambers to be his architectural advisor.

Portrait of Sir William Chambers, R.A. (ca. 1780) by Joshua Reynolds PRARoyal Academy of Arts

The Royal Academy’s first purpose-built home, Somerset House, was designed by William Chambers in the 1770s, as well as landscapes (and a ten-storey pagoda) at Kew Gardens, and a re-modelled Buckingham Palace.

The Royal Academicians in General Assembly (1795) by Henry SingletonRoyal Academy of Arts

Angelica Kauffman
The Swiss-born artist was seen as a child prodigy, but couldn’t enter formal art education as a woman so was trained by her father. She studied in Italy for many years before coming to Britain, where she became one of the era’s most sought-after portraitists in a male-dominated field.

Self-portrait (1770) by Angelica Kauffman RARoyal Academy of Arts

Her history paintings (artworks depicting scenes from the Bible, and from ancient Greek and Roman history and mythology) were extraordinary too, focusing on intense emotional moments between characters rather than grand battle scenes – a canny way to avoid stepping on the toes of male artists.

The Royal Academicians in General Assembly (1795) by Henry SingletonRoyal Academy of Arts

Benjamin West
An American artist who arrived in London on a brief visit aged 25, West ended up staying for the rest of his life. He was born in Pennsylvania in 1738 and grew up in a world where art was little known. Despite this, he managed to establish himself as a portrait painter in Philadelphia and won the support of local patrons who funded his travel to Europe, making him the first American artist to visit Italy.

Joshua passing the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant (1800) by Benjamin WestArt Gallery of New South Wales

In England, he made friends with influential figures, becoming King George III’s official history painter and the Royal Academy’s second president – elected by his fellow members with just one opposing vote.

The Royal Academicians in General Assembly (1795) by Henry SingletonRoyal Academy of Arts

Mary Moser
British-born Moser, like Kauffman, was taught by her father, winning a silver medal in the category of ‘Polite Arts’ at the well-renowned Society of the Arts at age 14. By age 24 she was the youngest founding member of the RA.

Summer (c.1780) by Mary MoserRoyal Academy of Arts

Although she was skilled at painting portraits and historical subjects, Moser was best known for being the country’s leading flower painter (one of her works is depicted behind her here). Her most notable commission came from Queen Charlotte in the 1790s, when she was tasked with decorating a room to give the feeling of an “arbor open to the skies” at the royal estate of Frogmore House. Moser created a complex, detailed arrangement of large-scale canvases and painted walls, all depicting English flower arrangements.

Self-portrait of Thomas Gainsborough, R.A. (ca.1787) by Thomas Gainsborough RARoyal Academy of Arts

Thomas Gainsborough
One of the leading portraitists of late 18th-century England and an influential landscape painter, Gainsborough was a rival of fellow Royal Academy founder Joshua Reynolds. Though Reynolds was the King’s official court painter, Gainsborough was the monarch’s personal favourite; it’s believed that Queen Charlotte broke down in public when he unveiled his paintings of her.

Romantic Landscape with Sheep at a Spring (ca.1783) by Thomas Gainsborough RARoyal Academy of Arts

Despite his many high-profile commissions, Gainsborough longed to escape high society and spend his days peacefully painting bucolic landscapes – to “enjoy the fag End of life in quietness & ease”, as he wrote in his thirties. Fellow artist John Constable said of Gainsborough’s landscapes decades after his death: “On looking at them, we have tears in our eyes, and know not what brings them.”

The Royal Academy of Arts (Published 2 August 1773 by Robert Sayer) by Mezzotint by Richard Earlom after Johann Zoffany RARoyal Academy of Arts

Richard Wilson
Wilson was a founding member and a committed landscape painter, despite the early Royal Academy not seeing much intellectual value in the genre – President Joshua Reynolds called it “the lower exercises of art” and the “humbler walks of the profession”. Born in Wales, Wilson elevated landscape painting to the higher echelons of British art after spending years in Italy and Venice studying their grand idealised scenes. He attracted many aristocratic patrons who wanted their estates painted in his sensitive, delicately lit style.

He was also one of the first artists to turn his paintbrush to his native Welsh landscapes, which had largely been overlooked as bleak and undeserving of artistic attention. When he couldn’t make enough money from his art in later life, the Royal Academy gave him the job of librarian.

The Royal Academicians in General Assembly (1795) by Henry SingletonRoyal Academy of Arts

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