The Nineteenth Century History of Plymouth Art Club
Taken from the Minutes Nov 1865 - Dec 1877
Feb 1889 – Oct 1896
(Please note all quotations are from the Minutes)
The first meeting of Plymouth Art Club was held on the 18th November 1865 at the Plymouth Free School, Coburg Street. Initially known as the Plymouth Sketching Society and then renamed the Plymouth Fine Art Society, it became in 1875 the Plymouth Art Club and finally in 1891 the Society of Western Artists.
The inaugural president Mr J Colley was succeeded in 1868 by Mr P Mitchell who remained in office for 26 years. The meetings of the club were to be held twice weekly at the Free School “for the purpose of drawing from the model” – 8pm on Fridays and 7pm on Saturdays and the subscription was 10 shillings a quarter, club ‘rules’ were agreed and printed; from a copy (circa 1874) we learn that “members & associates not clearing away their own drawing materials at the close of meeting shall be fined one shilling”!
Full members were “Artists by profession”; however, amateurs, who hold the status of “associates” were able to apply for full membership two years after entry to the club.
The available Minutes (1865 – 77 & 1889 – 96) show that Committee & Annual General Meetings were held regularly, the language used to describe the business has a distinctive Victorian flavour and the imaginative reader is easily transported back to the late 19th Century.
Early membership was exclusively male, reference to females is confined to their provision of hospitality (as wives of members) or as models. The final reference to female membership came in 1891 when “Mr J B Clarke and Miss Lizzie Clarke…….were declared non-elected” ; however some eighteen months later Louisa Uren & Miss Wilcocks “were unanimously elected”.
Early in the club’s history the “desirability of holding the meetings at the Athenaeum” was discussed. The club’s suggestion that “the fact that 8 or 9 members…..are also members of the Plymouth Institute will no doubt make a considerable difference in the terms which your committee would expect for the room” did not meet with a favourable response from the Athenaeum’s “secretaries” and terms could not be agreed. Eight years later in 1874 successful negotiations resulted in the club being allocated a room at the Athenaeum and all members having dual membership with the Institute.
Much satisfaction with this outcome is recorded and there are some interesting references to the arrangements which were made to prepare and furnish the new accommodation. A “4 foot gaslight with a paper reflector” was purchased at a cost of 44 shillings and members were particularly concerned that the lighting and work environment should be satisfactory with “simple arrangements” being required “for resting the paper and candle for each member when at work”.
The additional Institute membership entitled club members to attend lectures, use the library and purchase “ladies tickets” for guests. The ambitions of the club were expressed in the Minute “Thus by removing to the Athenaeum we shall have another development of our society and its objects, taking up our position as the Art Society of this great and growing metropolis of the West”.
The club seemed well pleased with its new premises and at the AGM of Feb 1875 it was stated that “In place of a bald school room, improperly lit, and without comfort or convenience we have a building in every way adapted for studying night and day” and it was further agreed to hold a “conversazione” and exhibition; members were exhorted “to let Art & Art only be in our thoughts....”. The first exhibition appears to have been held on 15th November 1875 .
The AGM of 1876 was told that “we have increased in numbers and influence since 1865…..amidst the rapid advance of Art & Science throughout England our Plymouth Club lifts it’s head and demands to be led to more advanced study”. A more regular attendance of members was reported together with “more earnest work done” in spite of the difficulty with models when “great inconvenience” had been sustained “by their not keeping engagements”. Any discussion of “politics, ideology, teetotalism and any other subject likely to lead to argument” was to be excluded from any future meetings and the high aspirations of the club were expressed in the wish that it would eventually be known as “The Western School of Painting”.
Confirmation of the completion of a new drawing room at the Athenaeum was given at the 1877 AGM and members could now “come by day” for private study from models. There had been a successful Christmas “conversazione” which had been “visited by upwards of 150 people in one winters day”.
After 1877 no minutes are available until Feb 1889 when a new minute book was started, this book is written in a different hand, the writing is at times illegible and the language more businesslike. By this date the club has been in existence for almost a quarter of a century and the committee was considering extending the membership. It was reported that the previous nine years had seen annual exhibitions with sales amounting to £2,000.
Later in 1889 there are records of a “Sketching Day” but “Unfortunately the weather proved disastrous and not much work was done”; Mr Fouracre (a member since 1873) had however offered refreshments at his home at Clearbrook and “a sumptuous tea” was provided by his wife “of which all partook” before the members returned to Plymouth “pleased with their trip notwithstanding the serious drawback of the weather”. Proposals for the club to continue with such outings followed with each member contributing “at the earliest opportunity” a 7” x 5” sketch to pay for the expenses. Members also agreed that monthly sketching meetings would be held at each others houses but “if refreshments be at all provided they should be of the simplest kind” – clearly they were not to be expected to follow Mrs Fouracre’s high standard! The president’s house was to be the first venue.
There is no list available of members for 1889 but by 1892 a pencilled list in the minute book indicates membership of 34 persons – 20 more than in 1865.
The weather was not the only prohibiting factor in the club’s business; A copy of a letter to Guido Black, artist, thanked him for the submission of 3 oil and one watercolour paintings for the Autumn exhibition 1889 but it was regretted that the club “was unable to effect sales” one of the chief causes being “the fever epidemic in the town which kept both strangers and residents out of the place”. It seems that as a result of the epidemic the club was “considerably out of pocket” over the exhibition which had been open over 4 weeks.
The January 1891 AGM saw the arrangements with the Athenaeum under question when it was hoped that club membership would be increased if it was “at liberty to invite any artist to join…..regardless of their connection with the Plymouth Institution”. Successful negotiations resulted in new Rules being drawn up with the effect of enabling much wider membership. The affairs of Plymouth Art Club were wound up and all monies transferred to the new “Society of Western Artists” – a membership list (circa 1894) shows a membership drawn from North and East Devon , Cornwall and London as well as Plymouth . A proposal that “Messrs Tuke, Langly and (one other not legible) be invited to send pictures to the forthcoming exhibition” was carried unanimously and although there is no record that the invitation was accepted for 1892, in 1893 Walter Langly sold a picture for 5 guineas with 10 shillings and sixpence paid to the club as commission; in that year F J Widgery is also listed as a member.
The venues for exhibitions in the early 1890’s included the Plymouth Art Gallery and the Athenaeum but there were also communications with galleries in Torquay and Exeter . In May 1894 an 8 week exhibition was held in Mr Parkhouse’s gallery in Old Town Street at a cost of £20 and 5% commission on all sales – the club had been required to provide a minimum of 100 pictures.
On August 1st 1894 , Mr P Mitchell, president since 1868 resigned - there is no explanation but it was “regretted” and the club had “no alternative but to accept it”. The position was not filled until 1896 when the vice president Mr Barrett was elected.
The last records of the 19th Century show that in July 1895 the club was owing a balance of £8.11s and in 1896 no exhibition was held because of the lack of funds – in Oct 1896 the club was free of all liabilities and was able to present a Mr Nash (resigning as secretary) with sketches “from the artists as a measure of goodwill” to mark his forthcoming wedding.
Post Script: The 20th Century minutes are available 1952 – 1989. In 1952 Mrs Ann Pollard R.M.S. is President to the Plymouth Art Club which by now has a craft section and exhibition. Models were still being used and in Oct 1952 an 80 year old resident from “Gunnerside Home” was recruited. The modern minutes are detailed and reveal an active club with the membership including a number of respected and well known artists.
Researched and compiled by Mrs Jane Honeywill.