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Enthusiasm for the North Wales landscape brought a group of artists together in 1881 and the rest as they say is history...

Ever since the late 18th century British artists had painted the mountains and rivers of north Wales, when political unrest abroad had made the Grand Tour more hazardous than the Welsh roads.

In the late 19th century, the Conwy valley was home to the first artists' colony in Britain that emerged from the summer sojourns of David Cox in Betws-y-Coed between 1844 and 1856. By 1881 the valley was renowned as a home and destination for large numbers of professional and amateur artists arriving by train from Manchester and Liverpool now more able to carry their easels and paints to access these landscapes.

The seven men who launched the academy were associated with the artists' colony, but the group soon expanded to include like-minded Welsh artists. In 1881 this newly-formed group called themselves the Cambrian Academy of Art and held their first exhibition in Llandudno. Although they had no permanent gallery they continued to flourish. They circulated their prospectus to other artists in Wales and their numbers grew.

Official recognition came quickly when Queen Victoria commanded that the Academy be styled as 'Royal' in 1882. To further their reputation they made four eminent British artists honorary members and organised major exhibitions in Cardiff in 1884 and 1885.

In 1885 local landowner Lord Mostyn offered them the lease of his neglected Elizabethan mansion Plas Mawr, in Conwy, partly occupied then by a junior school. Their achievement here was to restore Plas Mawr, retaining this outstanding example of Elizabethan architecture and occupying it as their permanent home.

Plas Mawr gave style to the social side of the Academy's activities, but proved not to be ideal for art exhibitions. From 1896 they extended their hanging space by building an annexe, the Victoria Gallery, in which the Annual Summer Exhibitions were held and included work from non-members.

We have fewer long white beards these days, and sadly, hardly any top hats. But we are a long way from 1891 when the RCA Council was unanimous that it was "not advisable to entertain applications from lady artists".
Gilly Thomas RCA, 2021

In 1934, Augustus John became the first Welsh president of the Academy. After the Second World War the Academy went from strength to strength, eventually outgrowing its home at Plas Mawr.

With the enthusiasm of presidents Jack Shore and Ray Fields, in 1994 the Academy pursued its greatest opportunity for development by relinquishing responsibility for the historic Plas Mawr. Plans were approved to refurbish the disused Capel Seion next door as a dedicated art gallery to become the new home of the RCA.

Under his second term of presidency from 1992, Sir Kyffin Williams the eminent Welsh artist, approached other distinguished artists from the south and north of Wales to become members to fulfil its constitutional aim to represent the best of art in Wales.

Today, a long way from the early 'men only' days, the Academy has its first woman president, printmaker, Ann Lewis, elected in 2020.

The Academy holds nine exhibitions per year and has an extensive and lively education programme. The Academy is honoured to have HRH Prince of Wales as Patron and Honorary Artist Member of the Royal Cambrian Academy.

Roll of Honour

Presidents of the Royal Cambrian Academy from 1882 to the present day.

  • Edwin Arthur Norbury 1882-1885
  • Henry Clarence Whaite 1885-1912
  • Sir Cuthbert Cartwright Grundy 1912-1933
  • Augustus Edwin John 1934-1937 First Welsh President
  • Richard George Hinchcliffe 1938-1942
  • James Scringeour Mann 1942-1946 Maritime Artist
  • Owen Bowen 1946-1954
  • Henry Percy Huggill 1954-1957
  • Samuel John Milton Brown 1958-1960 Maritime Artist
  • E Grainger Smith 1960-1961
  • Alfred Peter Burgess Sharrocks 1962-1962 Book Illustrator
  • William McAllister Turner 1962-1967
  • Alfred Peter Burgess Sharrocks 1967-1969
  • Kyffin Williams 1969-1976
  • Jack Shore 1977-1983
  • Ray Fields 1983-1992
  • Sir Kyffin Williams 1992-2006
  • Maurice Cockerill 2006-2010
  • Ivor Davies 2010-2014
  • Jeremy Yates 2014-2020
  • Ann Lewis 2020- First Female President

Archive material

The RCA has exhibition catalogues dating back to its foundation in 1881, many of which are available elsewhere on this website. The Academy would be happy to try and assist with any research or queries you might have about a particular artist or painting, please contact the gallery with your query.

More extensive archive material is held at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, including details of paintings sold. National Library of Wales

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