Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours: An exhibition of fifty works from twenty-five members of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours.

The beginnings of the RI can be traced back to 1807 with the formation of the New Society of Painters in Water Colours. The New Society was inaugurated as an alternative to an existing society (now the RWS) which had been founded in 1804 and which exhibited only the work of its own members. From the start the New Society showed the work of non-members’ alongside that of members, a policy still followed today. Both societies were started at a time when watercolour was used for serious artistic expression. In the early years many highly regarded painters including Cotman, Turner, Cox, de Wint, Bonington and many others exploited the natural and luminous qualities of the medium to great acclaim.


The New Society changed its name in 1808 to the Associated Artists in Water Colours. The exhibitions attracted some of the foremost watercolourists of the time including: David Cox, Peter De Wint, William Blake, Samuel Prout, Paul Sandby and Joseph Powell. Even so financial problems caused them to fold in 1812.


Nineteen years later, in 1831, Joseph Powell with several like minded artists resurrected the New Society of Painters in Water Colours. The next few years were stormy ones with considerable internal disputes and major changes in policy. In fact the society abandoned the policy of exhibiting together both non-members and member’s work thus losing a vital component of the difference between the Old and New Societies. Even so, and despite strong competition from both the Royal Academy and the Old Watercolour Society, the society thrived during these years and concentrated on consolidating its position as one of the foremost artist’s groups in the country.


The society’s growing strength during the period around the middle of the 19th Century shows it at the forefront of the movement to get more recognition for watercolour painting. The Royal Academy, who continued to dismiss watercolour painting as a serious art form, stood firmly at the centre of the British art establishment and in 1858 the government proposed a new gallery and building at Burlington House to house the RA and other art groups. The then President of the New Society, Henry Warren, proposed that the Old and New societies should group together and pose a united front to gain a place in the new building. Unfortunately the move failed but the New Society continued to fight for watercolour’s rightful place as a serious medium for art.


In 1863 the New Society became the Institute of Painters in Water Colours. Two years later a new group of watercolour painters was inaugurated, they showed their work at The Dudley Gallery in the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly and soon became know simply as the Dudley. Their exhibitions were open to all-comers thereby filling the vacuum left when the New Society closed their doors to outsiders and this policy attracted some of the best emerging artists of the day. Some of these artists began to join the Institute. In 1883 the Institute moved into their new gallery in Piccadilly opposite Burlington House. In the same year the Institute and the Dudley joined forces and in 1885, by command of Queen Victoria, the Institute was able to add the prefix ‘Royal’ to its title.


The amalgamation of the Dudley and the Institute and the move to the new premises in Piccadilly coincided with a major change in the (soon to become Royal) Institute of Painters in Water Colours exhibition policy. After many years of exhibitions limited to the work of members only, the RI reopened their doors to all comers.