The artists involved with the Society of Arts in the late 1750s wanted to separate "high" art from the dictates of the market. They believed they needed some state support, and looked with envy to France, where Louis XIV - the opulent "Sun King" of Versailles - a hundred years earlier had founded a royal academy of painting and sculpture, providing a reliable source of training and funding. With a similar state-funded institution in Britain too, the artists believed a national style might be allowed to develop (not to mention the good it would do for their finances).
But there was a big obstacle: a lack of demand. There was a risk that a national academy would prepare too many artists for a market that did not exist. The painter and satirist William Hogarth even gave up his membership of the Society of Arts because he thought their prizes for drawings by young people were "cruel" - training people to become artists would lead them to unemployment and poverty. Over in France, Louis XIV and his successors lavished patronage on their artists, but Britain meanwhile had George I and II - German kings more interested in hunting, cards, and minutely arranged military parades than in high-minded intellectual pursuits like art. Below the monarch, among the aristocracy, the market for art in Britain was for the works of long-dead "Old Masters", not for the living. If the artists wished to get a national academy to support new artists, to make it viable they would have to boost demand.
One solution to the problem of demand was to instill a love of art in the consumers of the future. From 1758 the Society of Arts offered premiums for drawings specifically by the children and grandchildren of the aristocracy. As befit “persons of rank and condition”, the prizes could not be in cash, but had to be honorary medals. The idea was that by encouraging wealthy children to become amateur artists, they would better appreciate the skills of contemporary professionals. Eventually, when they had incomes of their own, they might become patrons. By the 1840s, this seems to have worked.
But artists in the 1750s could not afford to wait so long - what about the short-term? Over in France, since the late seventeenth century the national academy had exhibited the work of contemporary artists in large halls, known as salons, exposing them to wider audiences of potential patrons. And in London, too, the artists were encouraged by the experience of the Foundling Hospital, a charity set up in 1739 to support abandoned and orphaned children. Hogarth had been one of the founding governors, and used his fame as a painter to make it London’s most fashionable charity: he persuaded many of his contemporaries to donate and display their works there, alongside his own. The popularity of the exhibits at the Foundling Hospital persuaded the artists that there might be demand in Britain for a dedicated exhibition, in which contemporary art would be the focus, not just the sideshow.
The obvious venue for was the Society of Arts. In 1759, the Society had just acquired a suitably large room, and the painter Francis Hayman and his friends dominated the committee that dealt with the polite arts. But they would have to be more coordinated to get what they wanted: an artist raised the idea at a general meeting, but the proposal was rejected by the non-artistic members. Hayman and his friends thus put out the call for a general meeting of painters, sculptors, architects, engravers, and any other kinds of artists they could think of as potential allies, to all meet at the Turk’s Head Tavern, in Gerrard Street (the building survives, in what is now Chinatown). This wide group - later (and somewhat confusingly) known as the Society of Artists - drafted an official letter to the Society of Arts requesting the use of its room for their exhibition. They then flooded the Society's meetings with their own members, forcing it to agree to their request. Finally, almost a century later than the French, in April 1760 the Society of Arts hosted England’s first dedicated exhibition of contemporary art.
But things did not quite go to plan...