Ramblers’ Sketching Club 1879 – 1890
The Royal Ulster Academy of Arts owes its existence to the Ramblers’ Sketching Club formed 130 years ago by John Vinycomb, senior designer in the highly successful Belfast printing and publishing firm of Marcus Ward. Vinycomb founded the sketching club with sixteen members of his art department, who had been early students of the Belfast School of Art. (1) The purpose of this club was to encourage sketching directly from nature and to develop original composition; a respite from the exacting lettering, illumination and colour lithography. Rules were drawn up and John Vinycomb was elected the first President, supported by an honorary treasurer and secretary and two members, all chosen from the Rambling Club’s membership. Each member was given a membership card, which showed a painter seated in the open–air with watercolours and sketching–easel (2).
The Ramblers’ Sketching Club held its first exhibition in 1881 in the Royal Ulster Works Library in Botanic Avenue, also owned by Marcus Ward. This was the year William Conor was born in Belfast and Pablo Picasso in Malaga. With this exposure, new members joined, notably, the watercolourists, Dr. James Moore and W.H.Patterson. The Club exhibited at this venue in Botanic Avenue until Marcus Ward gave up the building in 1884. So, after, three years, the Ramblers’ Club had no exhibition space, a pattern that was to be repeated intermittently during the next 125 years. However, this setback led to the Ramblers’ Club joining forces with T.M.Lindsay’s Sketching Club at the art school, where they had their annual exhibition. Anthony Carey Stannus, a marine, landscape and genre painter and former art correspondent in South America and Mexico for the Illustrated London News, returned to Belfast and offered the use of his studio to the Ramblers’ Club. (3) This venture led Vinycomb to his decision that Belfast was ready for a public art club and he opened the Club’s membership to students from the School of Art, other practicing artists and those interested in the development of the arts environment in Belfast.
At a meeting on 15th April 1885, in the Amalgamated Engineers Hall, College Street, Belfast, a decision was made to stage a much larger exhibition to further extend membership. Vinycomb proposed Anthony Carey Stannus as President and he was elected with Vinycomb elected as Vice–President. A subsequent meeting, called for 29th April, agreed modified rules and a larger committee was elected from the fifty odd members present. Membership then included “Artist students”. The hall in College Street became too small and a larger monthly meeting place was sought to which members brought their most recent work for mutual criticism. Several venues were used, including the Rosemary Street School Room until October 1885 when Stannus, as President, obtained the use of a set of classrooms at 55 Donegall Place, next to the Royal Hotel. Here the first large exhibition of works for sale was held in November 1885 and “The Ramblers’ Exhibition” was favourably reviewed in the News Letter….” The crude and amateurish productions of three years ago have altogether disappeared, and their place has been taken by a large number of highly finished works displaying not merely promise but genuine power …” finishing with “Their show of pictures will compare favourably with the work done by any local sketching club in the Kingdom.”
At the annual general meeting on 1st December, it was decided to run life classes, both a nude model and a clothed model class, on two separate evenings during the winter months, in addition to the existing summer sketching excursion. Space became an issue as twenty members attended these classes regularly. By now women were admitted to the previously male only club and separate life classes were established during the day for the increasing number of female members. A charge was made of two pence each for all classes. Art lectures were also established. Additionally the Ramblers’ Club mounted solo exhibitions at the Club rooms in Donegall Place, one of the first was of the Belfast born watercolourist Andrew Nicholl (1804 – 1886) who had recently died in London. The Club also elected the President of the Royal Hibernian Academy, the Dublin portrait painter Sir Thomas Jones (1823 – 93) as an honorary member, beginning a long association with the RHA, which has continued until the present day. The RHA President highlighted the Ramblers’ Club’s disadvantage “having as yet no public art gallery”. This instigated a campaign to have an Art gallery provided within the Public Library, to provide an exhibition area and to give the public and art students access to works of art on loan. The Dublin Sketching Club offered to send a collection of their work for exhibition in Belfast. Sophia Rosamund Praeger was elected a member of the Ramblers’ Club.
When the landlord would not reduce the rent from £30 to £10, the Ramblers’ Club had to give up its tenancy at 55 Donegall Place. As a result new headquarters were found on the third floor of Garfield Chambers, Royal Avenue, for an annual rent of £20. In 1888, the Ramblers’ Club introduced the category of “Associate Members,” for those interested in art but who were not practitioners, expanding categories to Patrons, Honorary Members and Artist Students. The Library Committee invited the Ramblers’ Club to stage an exhibition in 1889 and agreed to waive the proposed charges of £8, £6, and £4 per week respectively for the three rooms when the Ramblers’ Club promised not to charge an admittance fee. This exhibition in October 1889 in the art gallery on the upper floor of the Library was well received and the Ramblers’ Club booked the venue for the next year’s annual exhibition.