The West Australian Society of Arts is the oldest art society in WA, tracing its beginnings back to 1889 when it existed as the Wilgie Sketching Club. The present Society was incorporated 1896. The founding members of the sketching club included Bernard Woodward, Lady Forrest (wife of the Premier), Herbert Gibbs, Henry Prinsep and George Temple-Poole. Early members of the Society included George Pitt-Morrison, H W Gibbs (father of May Gibbs of Gum Nut twins fame) Frederick Mathew Williams, Daisy Rossi, Kathleen O’Connor, Henry Van Raalte, Valentine Delawarr, James Linton (President 1919-1922). Another early member, Bernard Woodward was later to become the first director of the Museum and Art Gallery. Sir Winthrop Hackett, part owner of The West Australian Newspaper was President from 1911 to 1913.
The Society members were keen for WA to have an art gallery and encouraged the Government of the day and local business people to raise funds. The total value of the contributions was eleven thousand four hundred pounds, a very substantial sum in those days. A painting by foundation member James Linton was the first of many contributions by members of the society. The foundation stone for the Art Gallery of WA was laid by HRH the then Duke of York (later King George V in 1908.
The original charter stated;
“The West Australian Society of Arts exists to advance painting, sculpture, architecture and the kindred arts in the Colony; to associate its members together for mutual work and study; and to disseminate that elevating influence among the people that must result from a study of the true and beautiful.”
From 1896 to 1900 there was a period of intense activity for the Society with five exhibitions in Perth and many important works being completed and publicly shown. In 1905 the Museum and Art Gallery were opened. The Society thrived until the Second World War when membership dropped to fourteen.
In 1949 under the patronage Sir Claude Hotchkin and also the Governor of WA, Sir James Mitchell, membership increased to one hundred and eighteen and meetings took place in the Claude Hotchkin Gallery in Hay Street. A successful exhibition was held in Newspaper House, the catalogue showing the well-known names of Geoff Ridley (President), J Coacher, J Head, Ernest Philpot, Paul Rigby, Rolf Harris, Wm Boissvain, Walter Terrell, J Lunghi, G H Chesell and Ailsa Small. Past Patrons have included Sir Charles Gairdner, Sir Claude Hotchkin, Lady Trowbridge, Lady Kyle, Lady Hotchkin, Owen Garde.
On April 5th 2012 His Excellency the Governor Mr Malcolm McCusker AC CVO QC and Mrs Tonya McCusker accepted an invitation to become Joint Patrons of the Society.
In the sixties the Society held meetings in premises at the WA Art Gallery with a membership of two hundred and fifty and a two year waiting list to join. However, in 1985 it was no longer possible to use the WA Art Gallery for meetings as the new Art Gallery was under construction. The Society supported the project for the new Gallery by holding series of exhibitions to raise money for the purchase of paintings.
In 2003 the Society received a bequest of $10,000 from the estate of the late Victor Felstead, a long time member and an accomplished artist; and with the interest received from this sum, and to commemorate Victor’s memory, the Victor Felstead Memorial Award is made each year in conjunction with the Society’s annual award exhibition. This public exhibition is an important event with as many as 200 paintings exhibited each year.
The Society has always promoted the plein air tradition of landscape painting and this has led to the establishment of the ‘Lawrie Bennett Plein Air Award’. The late Lawrie Bennett was an active society member and a vice-president who helped establish the ‘Early Birds’ and we keep his memory alive with this annual award.
Over the years the Society has held occasional workshops, gallery crawls and organised painting trips to the Pilbara, Kennedy Ranges, Central Goldfields, the Fitzgerald National Park, Toodjay and York.
The Society today, is a vibrant entity with a membership of around 120 and still growing. Many of the members attend the monthly meetings and it is not unknown to have around 70 people at the monthly meetings.
In 2012 Alma Hotchkin, John Lewis, Bernice Wright and John Yull were made Life Members of the Society in recognition of their years of selfless service thus joining Jo Mc Mullan in this honoured position.
The Society’s motto is:
‘Encourage, Educate, Exhibit’ and in the spirit of this, emerging and experienced artists are all welcomed into the Society.