Restaging the 1820s Exhibitions

Fine Art Exhibitions at the Bristol Institution

From June to August 1824, the Bristol Institution for the Promotion of Science, Literature and the Fine Arts hosted its first temporary exhibition of pictures for the benefit of the local public. An entrance fee was charged (a shilling – around £5 today).

Between 1824 and 1831, the Bristol Institution’s Sub Committee for the Fine Arts hosted at least six exhibitions of pictures.

Following in the footsteps of the British Institution (founded in London in 1805, disbanded in 1867), the Bristol Institution either hosted exhibitions of pictures by ‘Old Masters’ or ‘Contemporary British Artists’.

Over the past 200 years, these categories have been called into question, with the exclusiveness of the term ‘Old Master’ being increasingly challenged. In Opulent Origins, we revisit these early exhibitions.

Thanks to archive records, we know a lot about the Sub Committee for the Fine Arts and how they organised these early exhibitions. 

All of the pictures loaned to these early collections were privately owned by some of the wealthiest men in Bristol, and indeed the country, at the time. In 1818, John Evans noted 26 impressive private collections of pictures and other specimens in Bristol.

Informative catalogues were produced for sale to accompany these Late Georgian exhibitions. Some of these catalogues still exist and can be found in public archives such as the National Art Library in the V&A.

The word ‘proprietor’ (owned) appears many times throughout these catalogues and points to the power of the local businessmen who held shares in the Bristol Institution. An index of the proprietors’ business interests seeks to approach our objects with transparency and continues ongoing work to address the colonial histories of our collections.

Please note that unless explicitly stated, the paintings included in this display approximate the 1820s art exhibitions hosted by the Bristol Institution. Not all of these artworks were actually displayed in the Bristol Institution in the 1820s.