History of the RBSA


The history of the RBSA dates back to 1821 when the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists was formed as the Birmingham Society of Artists.  However, the Society can be traced back as far as 1809 when Samuel Lines, Moses Haughton, Vincent Barber and Charles Barber opened a life drawing academy in Peck Lane, now the site of Birmingham New Street Station.  This group of artists went on to form the Birmingham Academy of Arts in 1814 in premises in Union Street, they then held their first exhibition, open to artists living within a thirty-mile radius of the town.  When the Union Street lease expired in 1821, they established an art school supported by local businessmen in the Panorama, a large circular wooden building on New Street.  The aim was to provide basic training in art and design for artisans employed in the many workshops in the town.

In 1829 a prestigious new gallery, designed by Thomas Rickman and Henry Hutchinson, both members of the Society, was built on New Street, in the centre of Birmingham.  It was one of the largest provincial galleries capable of housing major exhibitions.  The inaugural exhibition in 1830 was opened by Princess Victoria, escorted by the Duke of Wellington.

In 1868 the Birmingham Society of Artists received its royal charter and was given official consent to use the term “royal” in its title.  The RBSA remained in this original building until the site was redeveloped in 1912, after which the Gallery, much reduced in size, was housed in what is now the Medicine Bakery on New Street.  The Society moved the Gallery to its current location on St Paul’s Square in 2000 when the new building was opened by the then Prince of Wales, Charles, on 12 April.

The RBSA has had some very notable members throughout its history and played an influential role within the Pre-Raphaelite and Arts and Crafts movements.  Members and past presidents include Sir Robert Peel, William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, John Everett Millais, Lord Leighton, Bernard Fleetwood-Walker, Sir Charles Wheeler PRA and William Gear.

Within the RBSA Gallery is held the Society’s permanent collection.  This archive comprises over 1000 artworks, catalogues, letters and records documenting the Society’s activities over the past 200+ years.  The works of many RBSA Members and Associates, both past and present, are held within the collection, alongside other items important to the history of Birmingham as a city.  The RBSA Gallery is, as a result of this important collection, an accredited museum and holds exhibitions showing items from the archive twice a year.

The RBSA continues its work as an artist-led charity which supports artists and promotes engagement with the visual arts through its varied programme of exhibitions, events, and workshops.  The Gallery also houses a craft shop which stocks jewellery, ceramics, textiles, prints, books, glassware, and greetings cards from designers and makers based in the West Midlands and beyond.

A Brief History of the RBSA can be purchased from the Gallery Shop in store or online.

Images: Thomas Radclyffe, Society of Arts, Birmingham, 1830
The Old Portico, RBSA Gallery, New Street, c.end 19th Century