What exactly is the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce?
If you're a Fellow or a friend of the RSA, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what it does, at least today. But few people have even heard of the organisation, and even fewer know what it does - even though its influence has probably touched their lives in some way.
More than just art
Many assume, from the way its name is sometimes abbreviated to the Royal Society of Arts, that it is all about art. And it has certainly done a lot to promote art, from holding the country’s first dedicated exhibition of contemporary art in 1760 to promoting the fusion of fine art with mass-manufacturing in the 1930s. But it has also done much, much more than that.
In fact, the Society is by its very nature difficult to define. There is no other organisation quite like it, and nor has there ever been. It is in a category of its own.
For almost three hundred years, the Society has essentially been Britain’s voluntary, subscription-funded, national improvement agency. It has tried to change an entire nation, in every way imaginable. From art, music, employment and education, to food, the environment, the economy, and even Britain’s morals and culture. If anything can be improved, the Society has almost certainly tried.
Hundreds of years of history
In its first hundred years, the Society funded inventions that would not otherwise have been profitable, encouraged the opening of new trades with Britain’s colonies, encouraged the landed aristocracy to plant over sixty million trees, and tried to abolish the use of children in cleaning chimneys. Yet as the world changes, so must the methods of improving it.
In the mid-nineteenth century, when the Society’s prize system no longer seemed to be working effectively, it became a platform for utilitarian reformers trying to create rational systems in everything, from education and the postal service, to musical pitch and toilets. It adopted the use of exhibitions - most famously the Great Exhibition of 1851 - to promote inventions and good design to consumers, and to give an opportunity for manufacturers to learn from one another. And it became a focal point for social movements, from the push for workers’ self-education in the 1850s, to the preservation of medieval cottages in the 1920s, to the origins of the environmentalist movement in the 1960s.
A desire to benefit the public, a need to reinvent itself
Yet despite its wildly disparate projects, a common thread hangs through its whole history: a desire to benefit the public. The Society has been so unique, with such wildly disparate projects, because in order to stay useful it has had to constantly reinvent itself.
Having given birth to hundreds of other institutions and projects, when they show some success it usually gives them independence and moves on - take the blue plaques that dot Britain’s buildings, or the temporary sculptures displayed on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth.
As one of the Society’s leaders once put it:
“having blazed a needed trail it hands the axe to others to carry on while it looks for another trail and another axe.”
But pushing new ideas, forging new ground and new alliances, is easier said than done, which is why the Society’s history, its successes and failures, are so worth investigating. It is, after all, still going strong.
Its membership is increasingly global, and as the world continues to change around it, so it adapts to meet new challenges and crises. It continues to seek new opportunities to advance the public good. Its endeavours - past and present - have lessons for all would-be reformers today.
Dr Anton Howes is the RSA’s historian-in-residence.
His book on the Society’s history, Arts and Minds: How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation can be found in all good bookstores.
The hardback is available from the publishers, Princeton University Press, at a 25% discount and free shipping when using the code AAM20.