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Ramblers’ Sketching Club 1879 – 1890

The Royal Ulster Academy of Arts owes its existence to the Ramblers’ Sketching Club formed 130 years ago by John Vinycomb, senior designer in the highly successful Belfast printing and publishing firm of Marcus Ward. Vinycomb founded the sketching club with sixteen members of his art department, who had been early students of the Belfast School of Art. (1) The purpose of this club was to encourage sketching directly from nature and to develop original composition; a respite from the exacting lettering, illumination and colour lithography. Rules were drawn up and John Vinycomb was elected the first President, supported by an honorary treasurer and secretary and two members, all chosen from the Rambling Club’s membership. Each member was given a membership card, which showed a painter seated in the open–air with watercolours and sketching–easel (2).

The Ramblers’ Sketching Club held its first exhibition in 1881 in the Royal Ulster Works Library in Botanic Avenue, also owned by Marcus Ward. This was the year William Conor was born in Belfast and Pablo Picasso in Malaga. With this exposure, new members joined, notably, the watercolourists, Dr. James Moore and W.H.Patterson. The Club exhibited at this venue in Botanic Avenue until Marcus Ward gave up the building in 1884. So, after, three years, the Ramblers’ Club had no exhibition space, a pattern that was to be repeated intermittently during the next 125 years. However, this setback led to the Ramblers’ Club joining forces with T.M.Lindsay’s Sketching Club at the art school, where they had their annual exhibition. Anthony Carey Stannus, a marine, landscape and genre painter and former art correspondent in South America and Mexico for the Illustrated London News, returned to Belfast and offered the use of his studio to the Ramblers’ Club. (3) This venture led Vinycomb to his decision that Belfast was ready for a public art club and he opened the Club’s membership to students from the School of Art, other practicing artists and those interested in the development of the arts environment in Belfast.

At a meeting on 15th April 1885, in the Amalgamated Engineers Hall, College Street, Belfast, a decision was made to stage a much larger exhibition to further extend membership. Vinycomb proposed Anthony Carey Stannus as President and he was elected with Vinycomb elected as Vice–President. A subsequent meeting, called for 29th April, agreed modified rules and a larger committee was elected from the fifty odd members present. Membership then included “Artist students”. The hall in College Street became too small and a larger monthly meeting place was sought to which members brought their most recent work for mutual criticism. Several venues were used, including the Rosemary Street School Room until October 1885 when Stannus, as President, obtained the use of a set of classrooms at 55 Donegall Place, next to the Royal Hotel. Here the first large exhibition of works for sale was held in November 1885 and “The Ramblers’ Exhibition” was favourably reviewed in the News Letter….” The crude and amateurish productions of three years ago have altogether disappeared, and their place has been taken by a large number of highly finished works displaying not merely promise but genuine power …” finishing with “Their show of pictures will compare favourably with the work done by any local sketching club in the Kingdom.”

At the annual general meeting on 1st December, it was decided to run life classes, both a nude model and a clothed model class, on two separate evenings during the winter months, in addition to the existing summer sketching excursion. Space became an issue as twenty members attended these classes regularly. By now women were admitted to the previously male only club and separate life classes were established during the day for the increasing number of female members. A charge was made of two pence each for all classes. Art lectures were also established. Additionally the Ramblers’ Club mounted solo exhibitions at the Club rooms in Donegall Place, one of the first was of the Belfast born watercolourist Andrew Nicholl (1804 – 1886) who had recently died in London. The Club also elected the President of the Royal Hibernian Academy, the Dublin portrait painter Sir Thomas Jones (1823 – 93) as an honorary member, beginning a long association with the RHA, which has continued until the present day. The RHA President highlighted the Ramblers’ Club’s disadvantage “having as yet no public art gallery”. This instigated a campaign to have an Art gallery provided within the Public Library, to provide an exhibition area and to give the public and art students access to works of art on loan. The Dublin Sketching Club offered to send a collection of their work for exhibition in Belfast. Sophia Rosamund Praeger was elected a member of the Ramblers’ Club.

When the landlord would not reduce the rent from £30 to £10, the Ramblers’ Club had to give up its tenancy at 55 Donegall Place. As a result new headquarters were found on the third floor of Garfield Chambers, Royal Avenue, for an annual rent of £20. In 1888, the Ramblers’ Club introduced the category of “Associate Members,” for those interested in art but who were not practitioners, expanding categories to Patrons, Honorary Members and Artist Students. The Library Committee invited the Ramblers’ Club to stage an exhibition in 1889 and agreed to waive the proposed charges of £8, £6, and £4 per week respectively for the three rooms when the Ramblers’ Club promised not to charge an admittance fee. This exhibition in October 1889 in the art gallery on the upper floor of the Library was well received and the Ramblers’ Club booked the venue for the next year’s annual exhibition.

Belfast Art Society 1890 – 1930

At the AGM of the Ramblers’ Club in 1890, Stannus resigned his presidency and Vinycomb was re–elected President. He immediately changed the name of The Ramblers’ Sketching Club to the Belfast Art Society. He had successfully steered the Club from the sixteen members of his design department in Marcus Ward to a thriving society of over a hundred members. The following year, affiliation with the Watercolour Society of Ireland brought works of a high quality from all parts of Ireland. The first annual exhibition of the Belfast Art Society in the Free Library in October 1890, contained 450 works, and was opened by the City’s Mayor. Exhibits included works by Sir Thomas Jones, PRHA, and the watercolourists, Mildred Butler and Rose Barton and the foremost Dublin painter, Walter Osborne. In 1892 the Belfast Art Society moved to new premises at 49, Queen Street and in the same year, Walter Osborne was elected an honorary member. It was proposed in 1897 that 12 artists from the Glasgow School be invited to exhibit at the Autumn Exhibition and in 1899 a party of the Art Society members visited Dublin to see a loan exhibition of works by Whistler, Leighton, Watts, Burne–Jones, Millais, Corot, and Courbet. Under Vinycomb’s direction, members were encouraged to learn about art and see as many examples as possible. In 1904 the Society moved again, from Queen Street to rooms in the Scottish Provident Buildings, 7 Donegall Square West and these remained the Society’s home until 1923. The Joint Art Committee was formed in 1905 from membership of the Belfast Art Society, the Ulster Arts Club and the Ulster Institution of Architects to lobby for the arts in Belfast and above all to press for a dedicated public art gallery. Four years later this committee succeeded in having a room at the Free Library allocated as a gallery, which was named the Municipal Art Gallery, with Arthur Deane appointed curator. Prior to this, in May 1906, the Art Committee organised an exhibition of modern paintings and convinced Hugh Lane to become honorary director.

Subscriptions were raised to buy paintings for the future art gallery from the exhibition and two works, “Le Dejeuner au Jardin” by Henri Le Sidaner and “Resting” by William Orpen are both now in the Collection of the Ulster Museum with ‘The Goat Girl” by James Charles, which was presented by Hugh Lane, who became a patron of the Belfast Art Society in 1909.

The same year, works by Constable and works by members of the Royal Scottish Academy, were included in the Annual Exhibition. Nathaniel Hone, RHA, submitted paintings and William Conor was elected a member, joining Wilhelmina Geddis who was elected in 1907 and Paul and Grace Henry, elected in 1908. John Lavery began submitting works in 1911 and his “Lady in Black” was the main attraction of the Annual Exhibition in 1911. Lavery accepted the invitation to be President in 1919 and attended the opening of the exhibition that year with his wife Hazel.

The practice of inviting artists, who were not members, to exhibit at the annual exhibition was discontinued that year and replaced by works from honorary members. For the first time catalogues of the Annual Exhibition were sent to the National Library in Dublin. Regrettably however, Jack Yeats, who had exhibited annually, decided to stop submitting since he never sold, suggesting that Belfast buyers were conservative in their taste. For the first time, in 1920, the Society decided to pay the secretary a sum of £30 per annum but the treasurer’s post remained an honorary one. That year the Laverys again attended and Hazel Lavery opened the annual exhibition. They were unable to attend the following year but three works were purchased from this exhibition through public subscription; Frank Mc Kelvey’s drawing of “An Old Cottager”, Charles Lamb’s “A Lough Neagh Fisherman” and Hans Iten’s “Les Capucines”. (4) Charles Lamb, from Portadown who lived in Dublin and taught at the Metropolitan School of Art, had been elected an associate member the previous year, in 1920.

The concerted campaign by The Joint Art Committee, which started in 1905, came to fruition in 1922 when the first stage of the new museum building was begun in Botanic Gardens, despite frugality in the aftermath of the 1914 – 18 War. The following year, due to a rent rise, the Belfast Art Society moved from the Scottish Provident Building to rooms at 12 Lombard Street, with a rent of £60 per annum. Lavery resigned his post as President but continued to exhibit and when the Museum opened in 1928 Lavery donated 33 paintings to the new gallery, a legacy, which greatly enhanced the collection being built up by the Belfast Art Society. The role the Belfast Art Society played in this heritage was pivotal. Arthur Deane, on becoming Director of the Museum, offered to the Art Society, the vacated College Square building, owned by the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society and which it had built in the 1830s. After months of debate the Art Society rejected this offer, deciding that the building was unsuitable for their purposes, preferring the Water Commissioner’s building in Fountain Street. By 1932, however, the new Ulster Academy Council decided to rent the top floor of the Old Museum and to employ a full time caretaker to allow open public access to the gallery. This became the Academy’s base from 1932 until 1972 and it was able to accommodate member’s exhibitions, displays of Diploma works, meetings and lectures.

One of the first lectures given was by a young John Hewitt in 1932 on “Art and Experience”. The Royal Ulster Academy was forced out of these premises in 1972 due to the prevailing civil unrest and it has been without a similar base ever since. The aim then, as now, was to find a space suitable for exhibitions of members’ work, a space to meet for discussions, lectures and life classes and an administration office. In 1929, for the first time the Society was enabled by Arthur Deane, who had been a member and Vice– President since 1922, to hold its annual exhibition in the new Belfast Museum. Some members thought the venue too far out of town while others thought the large art gallery should have been allocated.

Ulster Academy of Arts 1930 – 1950

In 1930, the Belfast Art Society became “the Ulster Academy of Arts” and its annual autumn exhibition was held in the large art gallery of the Belfast Museum at Stranmillis, with 400 works, hung four or five works deep. A new era had begun and a Royal Charter was sought for the Ulster Academy of Arts. It was proposed that twelve academicians be elected “who would do the Academy honour”. At least thirty votes were needed for election and only the following nine were successful; Frank McKelvey, Sophia Rosamund Praeger, Hans Iten, William Conor, J. Humbert Craig, J.W. Carey, Sir John Lavery, Mildred Butler, and Georgina Moutray Kyle. However, in October, four more members were elected to bring the number up to thirteen. These were Paul Henry, James Sleator, Charles Lamb and Anne Acheson. In October 1930, a new category was introduced and eight Associates were elected, Mrs McCready, Theo Gracey, Donald McPherson, Snr., Stanley Prosser, W. Arthur Fry, Frederick Girling, John Hunter and Frank Wiles. The first three listed were elected Academicians the following year. A rule was instigated for Academicians, which required that “Each academician, within a period of one year from the date of appointment, shall present a representative Diploma Work to the Academy”. Enforcing this rule was problematic from the start and remains so today but it is an invaluable historic resource of works ranging from the first donation of Mildred Anne Butler’s “Dust Bath” a beautiful watercolour of a peacock cleaning its feathers in the dust.

Over the ensuing 79 years the Diploma Collection has resulted in an important survey of Ulster art, which is seldom exhibited, due to the lack of an Academy gallery space, with the exception of two exhibitions in the Ulster Museum and one in the Glebe gallery in Donegal. (5) To form the new council of the academy, it was decided that representatives be elected only from Academicians. Accordingly Humber Craig was elected President and John Lavery was elected Hon. President, a role he held until his death in 1941. Committee members elected were Frank McKelvey, Rosamund Praeger and Georgina Moutray Kyle. However, in 1933, it was decided that nominations should come, not just from the Academic group but also from the overall membership which consisted of patrons, annual subscribers, honorary members as well as ordinary members whose subscriptions provided the Academy’s core funding.

The association with the Museum at Stranmillis continued from 1929 until 1934 with the Academy holding its annual exhibition there. However in 1934 the Academy decided to hold its Annual Exhibition of 242 works in the Academy’s own gallery and in the adjoining lecture room in College Square. Sir John Lavery flew into Belfast for the opening and for the ‘Jubilee Dinner’ in the Carlton Hall to celebrate fifty years since the first exhibition of the Belfast Rambler’s Club.

In his dinner address he urged Belfast Corporation to complete the Museum and Art Gallery at Stranmillis, which did happen eventually and in 1961 an extended building became the Ulster Museum, no longer the responsibility of Belfast City Council but funded directly by government.

In 1937 and 1938, the Academy held its annual exhibition back in the Museum at Stranmillis and these two exhibitions, were opened by Rosamund Praeger and Oliver St. John Gogarty, respectively, due to Lavery’s declining health. With the outbreak of War in 1939, the Annual Exhibition was held in College Square and opened again by Rosamund Praeger who became President after Lavery’s death in 1941, a position she held for two years. The extensive catalogue was eliminated that year as an economy measure and members donated 10% of sales to the Red Cross. In spite of the war the Annual Exhibition continued at College Square until 1943 when it returned to Stranmillis, the same year that the Irish Exhibition of Living Art (IELA) was founded in Dublin and the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) was set up in Belfast. The latter, retitled the Arts Council in 1960, was an important development for the arts in general and specifically for the Academy, which has benefited from grants to the present day, enhancing the quality of the exhibition catalogues and the Academy’s education programmes. Individual artists, many who exhibit with the Academy, have been awarded Arts Council grants for studios, travel and exhibitions.

In Dublin, during 1943, the IELA was set up in revolt against the strictures of the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) which, at the time, was not receptive to modern movements in art and many artists, including Louis le Brocquy had their work rejected. Academies were criticised nationally and internationally by young and avant–garde artists who regarded them as outmoded institutions in the middle of the 20th Century within an ongoing debate between the advocates of tradition and innovation. Interestingly the Irish Exhibition of Art disbanded in 1987, having, in the view of its members, served its purpose. It was replaced, in public perception, by an invigorated RHA with its own gallery space from 1984, which has recently been revamped into an outstanding gallery with art studio facilities in Dublin’s Ely Place.

What the Royal Ulster Academy now needs is an archangel patron like Matthew Gallagher who funded the core building for the RHA in 1971 on the site of the former home of Oliver St. John Gogarty, which had been bought by the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1939.

Royal Ulster Academy 1950 – 2009

After the war, in 1949, the Academy again held its annual exhibition in the Belfast Museum & Art Gallery, which was arranged by John Hewitt, then Keeper of Art, and opened by the sculptor Morris Harding, who was President from 1946 until 1957. In 1950, as part of the Festival of Britain of 1951, the Royal Prefix, was granted by King George VI, and the Academy acquired its present title, the Royal Ulster Academy of Arts. The Academy’s organisation has changed little since the instigation of “the Ulster Academy of Arts” in 1930. On Harding’s resignation, William Conor was elected President. The 1958 Annual Exhibition, held at the Belfast Museum, was severely pruned to thirty seven works to raise the standard of the exhibition which many members felt had disimproved during the previous decade. Following this exhibition the Academy exhibited in College Square. Wilfred Haughton became President in 1964 and continued until 1970 when Patric Stevenson took over the position for the next five years. There was no annual exhibition in either, 1971 and 1972, due to the increasing turbulence in Belfast and Patric Stevenson moved the Diploma Collection out of the Old Museum in College Square to the safety of the Shambles Gallery in Hillsborough, close to where he lived.

These events could well have dealt a fatal blow to the Royal Ulster Academy had not the Ulster Museum proved again to be a lasting friend and hosted the exhibition in 1973 after the approaches of Mercy Hunter, who became President in 1975 for two years. This practice continued during T.P.Flanagan’s presidency from 1977 – 1983 and through David Evans’ Presidency. When the Ulster Museum’s galleries were undergoing major refurbishment in the late 80s and early 90s, the annual exhibition was mounted at Queen’s University in the Department of Architecture’s building in Chlorine Gardens. During Rowel Friers Presidency from 1993 until 1997, the annual exhibition moved back to the Ulster Museum and attracted on average 14, 000 visitors, the largest number for any exhibition over its three week run. Throughout this period arrangements were energetically organised by the Academy’s Secretaries, Helen Falloon, Doreen Crockard and Harry Reid and works were sympathetically and skilfully hung by Anne Stewart, from the Museum’s Art Department with an innovative and well supported education programme, delivered by the Museum’s Education Department. This successful and seamless arrangement continued throughout the Presidencies of Richard Croft, Joe McWilliams and Carol Graham with welcome sponsorship from the Wellington Park Hotel and Audi (NI). When the Ulster Museum closed its doors in 2005 for major renovation, the Royal Ulster Academy was homeless again after a settled period when the quality and range of its exhibitions increased and the Academy’s finances consolidated.

A new venue was provided by the Ormeau Baths Gallery (OBG), with a very successful exhibition in 2006 of 292 works with 180 works from non–members, attracting record sales of 124 works and 8000 visitors over four weeks. The success of this exhibition was followed in 2007 in OBG with over 1000 entries and a new and invaluable three–year sponsorship from KPMG, arranged with the assistance of Arts and Business and an imaginative partnership proposal initiated by the RUA’s then honorary secretary, Mike McCann. Not only does this sponsorship allow the Academy develop an education programme but it has also resulted in “The KPMG Emerging Artist Award” of £1500 to a selected artist. 297 works were exhibited and 178 of these were from non–members.

A new exhibition venue had to be found again for 2008 and the newly elected President, Rita Duffy arranged the annual exhibition in Harland & Wolff’s Titanic Drawing Offices which were generously provided by Harcourt Developments. The RUA appointed its first fulltime Development Officer, Gail Richie, in June 2007 to develop the strategic plans of the RUA and to oversee all arrangements for their most important event, the Annual Exhibition. A newly designed, larger format catalogue was produced to appropriately represent the 516 works exhibited, including 25 invited artists and 387 works from non–members.

The Academy’s 128th Annual Exhibition, moved to 2 Donegall Street, the former Old Assembly Building which became the Northern Bank. This was made possible by the current owners, Dunloe Ewart, under the direction of the Academy’s new President, Julian Friers and Administrator, Irene Fitzgerald. The historic Northern Bank building with its downtown central location proved ideal. However as the exhibition space was smaller than the previous year fewer works were exhibited (304 in total) disappointing many artists who had submitted to the exhibition. In 2004, in his President’s foreword, Joe McWilliams recorded with regret that only 15% of the 550 open submission entries could be hung due to restrictions on space.

There are four components to the annual exhibition, works from members who submit two works each, works from invited artists, works by invited graduates from the University of Ulster and works selected from the open submissions of non members which include established and emerging talent. The relationship with the art college has been sustained from the early days of the Academy but strengthened by artists who exhibit with the Academy and who taught at the Belfast College, especially Bob Sloan, Neil Shawcross and Joe McWilliams and more recently by the introduction of an annual award from the Academy to a final year student. The more exhibition space available the more lively and varied the exhibition will be and as a consequence will attract even more submissions from throughout Ireland and further afield, continuing the practice initiated a hundred and twenty eight years ago by the Ramblers’ Sketching Club.

The Ulster Museum reopened in October 2009 after extensive renovations and the Royal Ulster Academy, with support from KPMG, will return there for its 129th Annual Exhibition, from 15th October until 14th November 2010, continuing a tradition initiated by Arthur Deane, eighty years ago in 1929. Whether the 2010 exhibition space will be able to accommodate 400 works, as it did in 1930 or the 519 works exhibited in 2008, will be of interest to members of the Royal Ulster Academy, its sponsors and patrons, the wider visual arts community and the public. In any event the Royal Ulster Academy is on the move.

1. For a detailed account see Martyn Anglesea “The Royal Ulster Academy of Arts: A Centennial History” 1981.

2. The Ulster Museum has a membership card belonging to ‘J.Haddon’ in its collection, ibid. M. Anglesea, p.9

3. Anthony Carey Stannus is represented in the collection of the Ulster Museum with two works ‘The Last of the Spanish Armada’ and ‘Lands End’, both, according to Martyn Anglesea, reminiscent of Turner.

4. ibid. pps. 42 & 62. See also ‘drawings paintings & sculptures the catalogue, edited by Eileen Black, MAGNI, Museums & Galleries of northern Ireland, 2000.

5. The Centenary Exhibition of the RUA exhibited in the Ulster Museum in 1981 included the Diploma Collection. A selection was shown in the Ulster Museum in 1995 as was a selection in the Glebe gallery, Churchill, Co. Donegal in 2006.

Dr Denise Ferran, ARUA
Former Head of Education, Ulster Museum.