First Exhibition (1756)

The first modern public exhibition took place in London during 1756, when the recently established Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce held the first in a series of fine art exhibitions. Prizes were offered for improvements in the manufacture of tapestry, carpets and porcelain, and winners were chosen from a competition of submitted articles. The show was open to society members and their friends. The society was more concerned with quicker production and more efficient implements than with artistic expression. Awards were given to young students for such practical things as planting oak trees for the English navy and dyeing textiles. There were 130 paintings by 69 painters in the exhibition, including artists such as Joshua Reynolds, Benjamin Wilson, Richard Cosway and Louis-François Roubiliac.[1]

The Royal Society was known as the "Premium Society" because they offered cash premiums to encourage inventors and artists in their work. Its ten fellows included Benjamin Franklin, Jonas Hanway, William Hogarth, Thomas Hollis, Samuel Johnson, and William Shipley. They met at first at a coffee house in Covent Garden in 1754. The first awards given by the society were for discovering cobalt, raising and curing madder, and shipping breadfruit, and they had an emphasis on improving farming techniques.

The exhibition was considered a success. Hundreds of people visited, and although the Society had decided not to charge an entrance fee, the artists were left with a balance of £100 from the sale of catalogues.[2] In 1761 there was a follow-up exhibition of agricultural and other machinery sponsored by the British Society of Arts, which offered prizes as well.[1]


  1. History Timeline RSA Archived 1 December 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  2. Henry Trueman Wood, A History of the Royal Society of Arts, 1913
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