Pall Mall, South Side, Past Buildings: The Royal Academy

Survey of London: Volumes 29 and 30, St James Westminster, Part 1. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1960.

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'Pall Mall, South Side, Past Buildings: The Royal Academy', in Survey of London: Volumes 29 and 30, St James Westminster, Part 1, (London, 1960) pp. 346-348. British History Online [accessed 5 March 2024]

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Pall Mall, South Side, Past Buildings

The Royal Academy

Occupied part of the site of the United Service Club

The foundation of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768 was preceded by a period of some twenty years of dissension among the London artists of the time, during which several unsuccessful attempts were made to establish such a body.

As early as 1749 the Society of Dilettanti met at the King's Arms in Pall Mall and considered a proposal for the foundation of an academy for artists. (fn. 2) Whether the proposal came from a member of the society or from someone outside is not known, but nothing resulted from the discussion. In 1755 a group of artists approached the society with a 'Plan of an Academy for the better Cultivation, Improvement, and Encouragement of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, and the Arts of Design in General', which was enthusiastically received. Among the proposers of the plan were John Astley, Richard Dalton, James Paine, (Sir) Joshua Reynolds, Nicholas Revett, James Stuart and (Sir) Robert Taylor; Revett and Stuart were both members of the Society of Dilettanti. The plan foundered on the question of control of the proposed academy, the society wishing to have the right to elect the academy's presidents, and the artists being unwilling to forgo this power. (fn. 3)

On 5 November 1759, a proposal was made at a meeting of artists at the Foundling Hospital that an annual exhibition should be held 'in order to encourage Artists whose Abilities and Attainments may justly raise them to Distinction and that their several Abilitys may be brought to Public View'. A general meeting was held soon afterwards at the Turk's Head Tavern, Gerrard Street, and a committee was appointed to make arrangements. The committee included (Sir) Joshua Reynolds, Francis Hayman, Richard Wilson, Richard Dalton, (Sir) William Chambers, George Michael Moser, Richard Yeo, Francis Milner Newton and Nathaniel Hone, who were all associated later with the Royal Academy. It was resolved that works by painters, sculptors, architects, engravers, seal-cutters, chasers, and medallists could be submitted to the exhibition and admission should cost a shilling. The charge for admission was intended to procure money for distribution amongst needy artists. (fn. 4)

The first exhibition was held in 1760 at the rooms of the Society of Arts, then in the Strand, but the society refused to allow the artists to charge for admission so sixpence was charged for catalogues. (fn. 5) In the following year some of the artists refused to exhibit at the same time as candidates for the premiums awarded by the Society of Arts, and as they also wished to impose a charge for admission (fn. 6) they agreed with a Mr. Cock for the use of his room in Spring Gardens, (fn. 7) where they held their exhibitions from 1761 to 1772. (fn. 8) In 1765 they obtained a royal charter and became the Incorporated Society of Artists of Great Britain. (fn. 6)

The other artists held a separate exhibition at the rooms of the Society of Arts in 1761 and in the following year they formed themselves into the Free Society of Artists. (fn. 9) They subsequently exhibited at Mr. Christie's (see page 297) and the society came to an end in 1778 (fn. 10) or 1783. (fn. 11)

Within two or three years of the grant of the charter dissension appears to have arisen among the members of the Incorporated Society of Artists, the two factions being led by James Paine and (Sir) William Chambers. Paine gained control of the society and Chambers decided to form a new and pre-eminent body. (fn. 12) He was able to enlist the support of George III, to whom he was at the time Architect of the Works, and whose tutor in architecture he had been. (fn. 13)

In November 1768 Chambers waited upon the King 'and informed him that many Artists of reputation together with himself, were very desirous of establishing a Society that should more effectually promote the Arts of Design than any yet established, but that they were sensible their Design could not be carried into Execution without his Majesty's Patronage'. (fn. 14) The King answered 'that whatever tended effectually to promote the liberal Arts, might always rely upon his Patronage' and invited Chambers to prepare a memorial. On 28 November 1768 a memorial was submitted to the King by the 'Painters, Sculptors and Architects of this Metropolis' which stated that their two principal objects were 'the establishing a well regulated School or Academy of Design, for the use of Students in the Arts, and an Annual Exhibition open to all Artists of distinguished Merit, where they may offer their Performances to public Inspection, and acquire that degree of Reputation and Encouragement, which they shall be deemed to deserve'. It was hoped that the monies raised at the exhibitions would pay for the school and 'we even flatter ourselves they will be more than necessary for that Purpose and that we shall be enable'd Annually to distribute somewhat in useful Charities'. Among the signatories were several artists who had served on the committee for arranging the exhibition of 1760—Chambers himself, Yeo, Moser, Newton and Hayman. (fn. 14) The instrument founding the 'Royal Academy of Arts in London' was signed by George III on 10 December 1768, the King 'graciously declaring himself the patron, protector, and supporter thereof'. (fn. 15)

For the students of the Academy there were to be classes held in the winter and summer to which admission would be free. Students would be provided with living models, lay figures, and casts of statues from which to draw and paint. The forty Academicians—'artists of the first rank in their several professions'—were to provide nine 'of the ablest' to attend the schools by rotation, to advise and instruct the students. In addition, four professors were to be appointed to give public lectures annually, on painting, architecture, anatomy and perspective. A library of books and prints was also to be provided for the students' use, and a fund established for the relief of indigent artists. (fn. 16)

The first home of the Royal Academy was in Pall Mall, (fn. 16) on the south side facing Market Lane (now the Royal Opera Arcade); the site is now occupied by part of the United Service club-house.

The building (pocket, drawing B) had a wide front, its ground storey being given over to two double-fronted shops flanking the Academy entrance—an arched doorway dressed with columns and entablature. The upper part, of simple Palladian design, contained two storeys, each with three widely spaced windows. In the centre of the principal storey was a Venetian window and on either side a tall sashed light, dressed with an architrave, frieze and triangular pediment. The chamber-storey windows were almost square and framed with architraves. Coney's street elevation shows the front to have been simply finished with a plain coping, above which appears the large lantern-light of one of the Academy's exhibition rooms. A plan of 1760 (fn. 17) shows a wide central vestibule on the ground floor, connected by a narrow passage with a large room at the rear.

In 1765 Richard Dalton had acquired a sublease of this house, which had previously been occupied by an auctioneer. (fn. 18) Richard Dalton (1715?–1791) was trained as an artist and studied in Rome. He visited the Near East and published engravings of monuments of ancient art seen on his travels. He became librarian to the Prince of Wales (later George III), a post he retained on the Prince's accession to the throne. (fn. 19) At his death he was described as 'keeper of the pictures and antiquarian to his Majesty'. (fn. 20) Dalton was among the proposers of the plan to found an academy in 1755, and was a member of the committee chosen to arrange the exhibition at the Society of Arts in 1760. He also became treasurer of the Incorporated Society of Artists. (fn. 21) According to Sir Robert Strange, the engraver, Dalton acquired the house in Pall Mall with the idea of establishing a print warehouse there, 'but being conducted without judgment and without taste, it soon proved abortive'. (fn. 22) (fn. 1)

The print warehouse having failed, 'and anxious to relieve himself of the great expense into which it had involved him, Mr. Dalton, in conjunction with some of his friends, formed a scheme to engage the King to establish an academy in these rooms'. The King was interested, and in 1767 the subscribers to the private academy in St. Martin's Lane which had been founded by William Hogarth (fn. 23) consented to the removal of their furniture, anatomical figures, busts and statues to the rooms in Pall Mall. 'The label over the door containing the Print Warehouse was erased, and another substituted in its place, viz. The Royal Academy.' (fn. 22) Apart from the fact that students were admitted by subscription, nothing else is known of Dalton's short-lived academy. (fn. 24)

In 1768 part of Dalton's premises were taken over by the Royal Academy, but no record of any agreement between the parties seems to have survived. From a later lease it is known that the Academy had the use of two exhibition rooms (a 'Great' or front one, and a back one), an office at the stair head, one other room at the back and two parlours all on the first floor, and two rooms on the second floor, one of which was used to house the library. The 'Great' exhibition room was equipped with a fireplace with a Portland stone chimneypiece and a Bath stove; it was hung with green baize and lit by a skylight glazed with ground glass on the south and west sides and with Crown glass on the east and north (Plate 42a). The back exhibition room also had a fireplace and skylight but was wainscoted. (fn. 25)

The first meeting of the Royal Academy was held in Pall Mall on 14 December 1768. (fn. 14) No reference to Dalton occurs in the minutes, and at a later meeting Chambers was thanked 'for his Active and able Conduct in planning and forming the Royal Academy'. (fn. 26) Whatever Dalton had to do with its foundation was not, therefore, publicly acknowledged at the time, but his position in the King's service and the use of his premises lends some colour to Strange's implication that he was very much concerned in it.

Chambers had been appointed treasurer by the King himself but the other office holders were elected by ballot of the Academicians. Reynolds was elected as president, George Michael Moser, keeper, and Francis Milner Newton, secretary; Nathaniel Hone (see page 364) was a member of the Council. (fn. 14) The four professorships were first held by Edward Penny (painting), Thomas Sandby (architecture), Dr. William Hunter (anatomy), and Samuel Wale (perspective). (fn. 27) Richard Dalton was appointed antiquary to the Academy in 1770; at the same time Dr. Samuel Johnson was appointed professor of ancient literature and Oliver Goldsmith professor of ancient history. (fn. 28)

Students who had 'already paid their Subscription to the Old [i.e. Dalton's] Academy in Pall Mall' in 1768 were admitted to the Royal Academy 'to draw this Season'. (fn. 24) At the beginning of 1771 the schools and the library were moved from Pall Mall to Somerset House. (fn. 29) The first annual exhibition of the Academy was held in Dalton's rooms between 26 April and 27 May 1769. (fn. 30)

In 1771 Dalton assigned his lease to James Christie, the auctioneer, who had occupied premises further west in Pall Mall (see page 368) since 1767 or 1768. No doubt because Christie allowed the rival Free Society of Artists to exhibit at these other premises, a restrictive covenant was inserted in his assignment. The covenant safeguarded to the Academy the use of 'several Rooms and Apartments . . . for the purpose of making their Annual Exhibition' between 11 April and 30 May and prohibited 'any Exhibition of Arts to be shown in the said Messuage . . . or any matter or thing to be advertized under the name or description of an Exhibition . . . by any Person or Persons, whatsoever save and except the Exhibition of the Artists belonging to the Royal Academy'. (fn. 25) Christie also entered a bond for £200 to perform these covenants. (fn. 31) The two shops which formed part of Dalton's leasehold were assigned at the same time (1771), one to Lewis Secard, picture dealer, (fn. 32) and the other to William Randall, bookseller. (fn. 33)

The Academy continued to hold its annual exhibition in Pall Mall until 1779; in 1780 the new rooms at Somerset House designed by Sir William Chambers were ready for occupation, and the annual exhibition was held there in that year. (fn. 34)

It is not known how long Christie continued to occupy the house in Pall Mall (see page 297); Dalton continued to pay the rates until his death in 1791.


  • 1. Strange's account of the establishment of the Royal Academy is probably factually correct, but he and Dalton were personal enemies and his allegation that the latter acted from selfish motives is not entirely trustworthy.
  • 2. Lionel Cust and Sidney Colvin, History of the Society of Dilettanti, 1914, p. 52.
  • 3. W. Sandby, The History of the Royal Academy of Arts, 1862, vol. i, pp. 28–30; Cust and Colvin, op. cit., p. 54.
  • 4. Walpole Society, vol. vi, 1918, The Papers of the Society of Artists of Great Britain, p. 116.
  • 5. Ibid., pp. 118–19.
  • 6. Sandby, op. cit., pp. 33–4.
  • 7. Walpole Society, op. cit., p. 123.
  • 8. Survey of London, vol. XX, 1940, The Parish of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Part III, p. 67.
  • 9. Sandby, op. cit., pp. 35–6; J. E. Hodgson and F. A. Eaton, The Royal Academy and Its Members 1768–1830, 1905, p. 10.
  • 10. Hodgson and Eaton, op. cit., p. 10.
  • 11. Walpole Society, vol. XXVII, 1939, p. 59.
  • 12. Sir W. R. M. Lamb, The Royal Academy, 1951 ed., p. 8.
  • 13. Ibid., loc. cit.; Colvin.
  • 14. The Royal Academy, General Assembly Minutes, 14 Dec. 1768.
  • 15. Lamb, op. cit., pp. 8, 193.
  • 16. The Gentleman's Magazine, 1768, supplement, pp. 602–3.
  • 17. P.R.O., LRR063/57, p. 34.
  • 18. C.E.O., deeds, Middlesex 574.
  • 19. D.N.B.
  • 20. The Gentleman's Magazine, 1791, part i, p. 188.
  • 21. Sandby, op. cit., p. 41.
  • 22. Robert Strange, An Inquiry into the Establishment of the Royal Academy of Arts, 1775, ed. William Coningham, 1850, pp. 43–5.
  • 23. John Pye, A Glance at the Rise and Constitution of the Royal Academy of Arts of London, 1859, p. 4.
  • 24. The Royal Academy, Council Minutes, 27 Dec. 1768.
  • 25. C.E.O., deeds, Middlesex 580/1.
  • 26. The Royal Academy, General Assembly Minutes, 2 Jan. 1769.
  • 27. Ibid., 17 Dec. 1768.
  • 28. Ibid., 26 Feb. 1770.
  • 29. Ibid., Council Minutes, 27 Dec. 1770, 7 Jan. 1771; Lamb, op. cit., pp. 10–11.
  • 30. The Royal Academy, Council Minutes, 27 May 1769.
  • 31. C.E.O., deeds, Middlesex 580/2.
  • 32. Ibid., deeds, Middlesex 581.
  • 33. Ibid., deeds, Middlesex 582.
  • 34. The Royal Academy, Council Minutes, 14 July 1780.