The Royal Watercolour Society

From: Old and New London: Volume 4. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878:

“Extending eastward from the southern end of Her Majesty’s Theatre to Trafalgar Square, and skirting the northern end of Cockspur Street, is Pall Mall East…

At No. 5 are the rooms of the old Society of Painters in Water-Colours. Externally the building possesses nothing to call for special mention, excepting, perhaps, a new and elegant doorway, which was erected in 1875; this, alike in design and workmanship, is worthy of the gallery to which it gives access.”

James Faure Walker, Honorary Curator, Royal Watercolour Society posted on 22 Jul 2018 at

“The Royal Watercolour Society was founded in 1804 by artists who felt slighted by the Royal Academy. John Varley, a founder member, is known for his elegiac landscapes that followed sketching tours in Wales.

They were not records of actual places. Nature was there to be ‘cooked’ in the picturesque manner. Wales must glow like Italy. The Claude glass, a small darkened convex mirror, was the Photoshop filter of its day. It ‘antiqued’ the scenery. Varley was a capable astrologer, pressing you for your star sign. Visiting his ailing friend John Sell Cotman in Norwich, when the doctor had given him days to live, Varley exclaimed, ‘Pooh! Nonsense!’ He predicted he had another 20 years. In fact, there were 17. Cotman is buried close to Lord’s cricket ground.

It was in Varley’s house that William Blake drew his portrait of a flea – a portrait from his mind’s eye. A small group, the Ancients, gathered around the elderly sage. Among them was John Linnell. In 1824 he brought along the young Samuel Palmer. (Linnell was to be his father-in-law). Palmer was later to remark: ‘It pleased God to send Mr Linnell as a good angel from heaven to pluck me from the pit of modern art’.

I have recently become the honorary curator of the Society. Here I am offering a few footnotes to what can be seen on the web. Thumbnails have a purpose, but they don’t give you the smell of the originals, the stories, the characters, the intrigues. Some of today’s practitioners have roots that go back into this history, but it is a hidden history. Watercolours have to be protected from light, shut in boxes for much of the time. Tate Britain rotates a selection of its Turners and William Blakes, but many watercolours remain out of sight. In 2020 the RWS collection, along with its archives, will be housed in new premises in Whitcomb Street, next to The National Gallery, close to where the Society began…”

Lucy Watson wrote for the Financial Times of January 31 2020:

“I was invited to tour a new residential development recently, in what I have always suspected to be the worst place to live in London: Trafalgar Square. Situated in the middle of one of the city’s busiest tourist destinations (and thus anathema to actual Londoners), Hobhouse Court on Whitcomb Street is made up of 23 luxury rental apartments…

The original buildings on Whitcomb Street, demolished by Alaska Property Group, may well have been designed by Nash, and one architecture critic did threaten to chain himself to them to prevent their demolition, according to Alaska’s CEO Alan Hay. But they were former warehouses, described in 1974 by the then-listing body as “extremely sparsely windowed”, which darkened an already tight street.

It is not 1974 any more, and Pall Mall is no longer in need of industrial storage…

Part of the development deal — the reason why Historic England withdrew its strong objections to the demolition of Nash’s buildings — involved gifting the original home of the Royal Watercolour Society back to the society, and funding its refurbishment…”

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