Belfast Art Society 1890 – 1930
At the AGM of the Ramblers’ Club in 1890, Stannus resigned his presidency and Vinycomb was re–elected President. He immediately changed the name of The Ramblers’ Sketching Club to the Belfast Art Society. He had successfully steered the Club from the sixteen members of his design department in Marcus Ward to a thriving society of over a hundred members. The following year, affiliation with the Watercolour Society of Ireland brought works of a high quality from all parts of Ireland. The first annual exhibition of the Belfast Art Society in the Free Library in October 1890, contained 450 works, and was opened by the City’s Mayor. Exhibits included works by Sir Thomas Jones, PRHA, and the watercolourists, Mildred Butler and Rose Barton and the foremost Dublin painter, Walter Osborne. In 1892 the Belfast Art Society moved to new premises at 49, Queen Street and in the same year, Walter Osborne was elected an honorary member. It was proposed in 1897 that 12 artists from the Glasgow School be invited to exhibit at the Autumn Exhibition and in 1899 a party of the Art Society members visited Dublin to see a loan exhibition of works by Whistler, Leighton, Watts, Burne–Jones, Millais, Corot, and Courbet. Under Vinycomb’s direction, members were encouraged to learn about art and see as many examples as possible. In 1904 the Society moved again, from Queen Street to rooms in the Scottish Provident Buildings, 7 Donegall Square West and these remained the Society’s home until 1923. The Joint Art Committee was formed in 1905 from membership of the Belfast Art Society, the Ulster Arts Club and the Ulster Institution of Architects to lobby for the arts in Belfast and above all to press for a dedicated public art gallery. Four years later this committee succeeded in having a room at the Free Library allocated as a gallery, which was named the Municipal Art Gallery, with Arthur Deane appointed curator. Prior to this, in May 1906, the Art Committee organised an exhibition of modern paintings and convinced Hugh Lane to become honorary director.
Subscriptions were raised to buy paintings for the future art gallery from the exhibition and two works, “Le Dejeuner au Jardin” by Henri Le Sidaner and “Resting” by William Orpen are both now in the Collection of the Ulster Museum with ‘The Goat Girl” by James Charles, which was presented by Hugh Lane, who became a patron of the Belfast Art Society in 1909.
The same year, works by Constable and works by members of the Royal Scottish Academy, were included in the Annual Exhibition. Nathaniel Hone, RHA, submitted paintings and William Conor was elected a member, joining Wilhelmina Geddis who was elected in 1907 and Paul and Grace Henry, elected in 1908. John Lavery began submitting works in 1911 and his “Lady in Black” was the main attraction of the Annual Exhibition in 1911. Lavery accepted the invitation to be President in 1919 and attended the opening of the exhibition that year with his wife Hazel.
The practice of inviting artists, who were not members, to exhibit at the annual exhibition was discontinued that year and replaced by works from honorary members. For the first time catalogues of the Annual Exhibition were sent to the National Library in Dublin. Regrettably however, Jack Yeats, who had exhibited annually, decided to stop submitting since he never sold, suggesting that Belfast buyers were conservative in their taste. For the first time, in 1920, the Society decided to pay the secretary a sum of £30 per annum but the treasurer’s post remained an honorary one. That year the Laverys again attended and Hazel Lavery opened the annual exhibition. They were unable to attend the following year but three works were purchased from this exhibition through public subscription; Frank Mc Kelvey’s drawing of “An Old Cottager”, Charles Lamb’s “A Lough Neagh Fisherman” and Hans Iten’s “Les Capucines”. (4) Charles Lamb, from Portadown who lived in Dublin and taught at the Metropolitan School of Art, had been elected an associate member the previous year, in 1920.
The concerted campaign by The Joint Art Committee, which started in 1905, came to fruition in 1922 when the first stage of the new museum building was begun in Botanic Gardens, despite frugality in the aftermath of the 1914 – 18 War. The following year, due to a rent rise, the Belfast Art Society moved from the Scottish Provident Building to rooms at 12 Lombard Street, with a rent of £60 per annum. Lavery resigned his post as President but continued to exhibit and when the Museum opened in 1928 Lavery donated 33 paintings to the new gallery, a legacy, which greatly enhanced the collection being built up by the Belfast Art Society. The role the Belfast Art Society played in this heritage was pivotal. Arthur Deane, on becoming Director of the Museum, offered to the Art Society, the vacated College Square building, owned by the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society and which it had built in the 1830s. After months of debate the Art Society rejected this offer, deciding that the building was unsuitable for their purposes, preferring the Water Commissioner’s building in Fountain Street. By 1932, however, the new Ulster Academy Council decided to rent the top floor of the Old Museum and to employ a full time caretaker to allow open public access to the gallery. This became the Academy’s base from 1932 until 1972 and it was able to accommodate member’s exhibitions, displays of Diploma works, meetings and lectures.
One of the first lectures given was by a young John Hewitt in 1932 on “Art and Experience”. The Royal Ulster Academy was forced out of these premises in 1972 due to the prevailing civil unrest and it has been without a similar base ever since. The aim then, as now, was to find a space suitable for exhibitions of members’ work, a space to meet for discussions, lectures and life classes and an administration office. In 1929, for the first time the Society was enabled by Arthur Deane, who had been a member and Vice– President since 1922, to hold its annual exhibition in the new Belfast Museum. Some members thought the venue too far out of town while others thought the large art gallery should have been allocated.