HISTORY OF THE RSA

The Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) was founded in 1826 by a group of eleven eminent artists whose aims were to:

  • present an annual exhibition open to all artists of merit
  • create an academy of fine arts instructing students at no charge
  • maintain a library devoted to the fine arts
  • support less fortunate artists through charitable funds
  • elect eminent honorary members.

The first Annual Exhibition was held in 1827, and as the Academy developed in stature its membership increased in the disciplines of painting, sculpture and architecture. Gaining a Royal Charter in 1838, the Academy rapidly grew in significance and status throughout the nineteenth century, providing training for young artists and maintaining a collection of inspirational works of art for the benefit of students and the wider public.

In 1850 construction began on purpose built premises designed by William Henry Playfair on The Mound. The Academy initially shared the premises with the newly formed National Gallery of Scotland and held its first Annual Exhibition in these new galleries in 1855. The RSA also had its Council room, Library and Life School in the building, where it taught fine art until the formation of Edinburgh College of Art in 1907 (where the Life School continued to function until 1930).

A Parliamentary Order in 1910 transferred the Academy to the adjacent premises which was formerly known as the Royal Institution. In return, the Academy gifted ninety-six paintings and sculptures and approximately two-thousand drawings to the National Gallery of Scotland. This building has been the venue for the Academy’s Annual Exhibitions since 1911.

The Royal Scottish Academy set the standard for the arts of painting, sculpture and architecture in Scotland, electing the most promising artists as Associates in the hope that they would in time become full Academicians. The RSA extended its influence through the election of Honorary Academicians from the UK and abroad – from Samuel Morse, President of the National Academy of Design in New York (and inventor of the Morse code), to Sir Edwin Landseer; from Lord Leighton, President of the Royal Academy to the sculptor, Rodin and the painter Degas. Today artist Anselm Keifer and composer, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies join a roll headed by our longest ever Honorary Academician, HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (also Patron of the Friends of the RSA).

From its early years as very much an Edinburgh institution the Academy now embraces a membership from the whole of Scotland as well as Scots working further afield. Through an extensive network of residencies we collaborate with centres from the Northern and Western Isles and throughout the mainland, both urban and rural. Our international network continues to expand particularly in Poland and Italy, and most recently in the Far East.