Into the archives: how the RBSA promotes regional art history

For almost 200 years the RBSA has been supporting living artists in Birmingham. Less well-known, however, is the Society’s vital role in preserving a record of the region’s rich artistic heritage through its archive.

Birmingham’s historic art scene is of national significance due to its longstanding proclivity for going against the cultural grain. It was, for instance, one of the last bastions of Romanticism, moving against the rising tide of Modernism in the late 19th century.

Our Permanent Collection holds more than 850 artworks in every kind of media – paintings, sculptures, prints, jewellery, ceramics and more – mostly by artists who have been Members and Associates of the Society.

Betsy, Oil paint on canvas 59cmx50cm

Teresa Clarke, Portrait of Betsy – Teresa was the first female Member of the RBSA

The Collection and Archive is managed by our team of enthusiastic volunteers, made up of Members and Friends as well as sixth form and student interns. As part of its promotion of local art history, the RBSA frequently exhibits selected works from the Collection.

New acquisitions

We’re excited to have recently acquired new and important additions to our Permanent Collection, including a donated painting by the late Arnold Bray Webb ARBSA.

Webb painted in oils and watercolour, with subjects ranging from landscapes, cityscapes and portraits to abstract compositions.


Arnold Bray Webb, Corner Shop, Poplar Road, Oil, 1986.

The donated painting, Corner Shop, Poplar Road was the winner of the RBSA’s Paint the City exhibition. Staged in 1989, the exhibition celebrated the centenary of Birmingham achieving city status. Webb was also given the Civic Award Medal for the painting.

Arnold was born in Rugby and educated at Birmingham College of Arts and Crafts. After two years of National Service in the Royal Army Education Corps, he worked for five years as a Technical Illustrator at the Ministry of Power before teaching in schools in London, Birmingham and Warwickshire. He was elected as an associate of the RBSA in 1997 and his art has been exhibited nationally.

Vibrantly colourful and busy, the painting is an apt representation of the ‘City of a Thousand Trades’. Corner Shop, Poplar Road is a welcome contribution to our wider collection of historically significant works.

Historic works…

Other notable pieces held in the collection include Joseph Southall’s The Old Portico. This painting is a brilliant record of the RBSA’s second gallery in New Street, which was sadly demolished in 1912 under the pressures of economic recession as well as the establishment of the City Art Gallery.


Joseph Edward Southall PRBSA (1861-1944) The Old Portico, 1912. Pastel, pencil and charcoal on paper, 1912.

The Corinthian-style building, based on the remains of the Temple of Jupiter Stator in Rome, was completed in 1829 and was designed by two members of the original Birmingham Society of Artists, Thomas Rickman and Henry Hutchinson.

Southall himself was a leading figure in Birmingham’s pioneering Arts and Crafts movement. He became President of the Society in 1939 and stayed in this post until his death in 1944.

Industry in Art

The RBSA’s archive collection is also significant for reflecting wider trends in social history. The Society was founded at a time of great societal upheaval which saw Birmingham rapidly transformed from a market town into a major industrial centre.

The city was built on a unique model of skilled labour in small-scale workshops, specialising in metalworking but also many artisanal crafts including jewellery and glassmaking. The tradition of craft-oriented arts is continued at the RBSA today.

The Permanent Collection holds a number of artworks depicting this transition to industry in Birmingham and the wider Midlands.

chattock, richard, tabbing at the blast furnace, 2005x76

Richard Chattock (1825 – 1906), Tabbing at the Blast Furnace, Etching, c. 1872.

In the work of Richard Chattock we see such classic themes as the power of technology, loss of connection to the natural landscape, and hard labour in the new industries.

Many artists inspired by radical politics took a sympathetic view of the workers. It was around this time that socialist humanist William Morris, who helped form the ideology of the Arts and Crafts movement, wrote:

“History has remembered the kings and warriors, because they destroyed. Art has remembered the people, because they created.”

More recently, the RBSA has adopted a donation policy for its Members, to ensure a vibrant record of its output is kept for future generations.

By Alfie Hancox RBSA Blog Volunteer

#ArtAcquisitions #birminghamarthistory #historyofartuk #RBSAGalleryinBirmingham

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