The Fine Art Society was established by a passionate group of art enthusiasts and collectors in 1876. It is the oldest commercial gallery in London, still based in its original location, a five-storey Mayfair townhouse with a façade designed by the nineteenth-century architect E. W. Godwin.
Originally trading as print sellers, The Fine Art Society has always championed living artists, playing a fundamental role in the promotion of their art. The gallery invested heavily in the rights to reproduce the most celebrated Royal Academy pictures, including Elizabeth Thompson’s The Roll Call, 1874, and Edward Poynter’s Atlanta’s Race, 1876.
As well as engravings, the gallery hosted a varied exhibition programme, exhibition entry fees being a constant and reliable form of income. The crowds attending the most popular shows in the nineteenth-century were so big that the traffic in Bond Street was regularly brought to a halt. The gallery can even be credited for the invention of the modern concept of the solo exhibition. James McNeill Whistler, in a bid to move on from the salon-style hang of the Royal Academy, oversaw the transformation of the gallery for an exhibition that profoundly changed the exhibition format. He hung his works in a continuous line, at the same height, against pale coloured walls – a precursor to the white cube space.
In the twentieth century the gallery showed its commitment to modernity by hosting exhibitions such as Drawings for Ballets, Plays and Costumes by León Bakst in 1913, to celebrate the arrival in London of Diaghilev’s Russian Ballet. The costume designs, like the ballet itself, were extraordinarily vivid and exotic and attracted a highly sophisticated public.
The list of artists that have exhibited at The Fine Art Society within their lifetimes is both illustrious and surprising, and includes Samuel Palmer, Frederick Lord Leighton, Lawrence Alma Tadema, John Everett Millais, Edward Burne-Jones, G. F. Watts, John Singer Sargent, William Holman Hunt, Walter Sickert – including his first ever exhibited painting – and Frank Brangwyn.