The Great Room Papers, 1 of 2: A Room of One’s Own
Renovation of the RSA House is well underway: the Great Room has been sealed off, and along with it the Barry Paintings, The Progress of Human Knowledge and Culture. The panels are often overlooked, but over the course of two posts I hope to illustrate the relevance of one particular painting to the RSA Fellowship today.
The Distribution of Premiums depicts founders, Fellows and non-members of the Society involved in valuable social projects (this may sound a little familiar). Alongside William Shipley, the Society’s founder is an interesting feature: women. Not Goddesses or Nereids, but regular, down-to-earth, exceptional women. That statement alone makes for an exasperatingly unremarkable slice of art criticism for sure, but there is a more interesting meaning, I assure you: the Society included women from its early days.
Ladies as well as gentlemen are invited into this subscription, as there is no reason to imagine they will be behindhand in a generous and sincere regard for their good of their country.
In his Scheme for Putting the Proposals in Execution (1753), Shipley wrote ‘Ladies as well as gentlemen are invited into this subscription, as there is no reason to imagine they will be behindhand in a generous and sincere regard for their good of their country’. And he was right. In the panel, Mrs. Elizabeth Montagu can be seen recommending the work of young person to the other members of the society. She joined the RSA in 1758, and was part of a club called the Bluestockings, which was run by educated, intellectual, conservative women who tried to raise the moral, intellectual and cultural standards of their time. The Bluestockings’ Social Reform agenda involved creating philanthropic institutions aiming to help women (often widows with children) become economically self-sufficient.
Earlier this year, FT columnist Mrs. Moneypenny delivered a lecture at the RSA outlining the ways in which women can negotiate the challenges society throws at them. She argued that women currently face much more exacting pressures from society than men, and overcoming these obstacles requires confidence developed through education. It’s a very general gloss of her lecture, but even then it’s easy to draw some salient parallels between her and Montagu. Both argued that the empowerment of women (or people in general) depends on educational measures that foster confidence. Indeed, the RSA’s ambition to close the social aspiration gap obtains to this very point, and our Fellowship and Projects continue to address it. For example, Fellows meeting through our Women Speakers’ Network recently organised debates exploring the reasons why more women aren’t as prominent in public debate as men. They use it as an opportunity to create a positive expectation: women should be respected and confident contributors to public discourse, and indeed can be.
Both argued that the empowerment of women (or people in general) depends on educational measures that foster confidence.
In recognising the achievements of women, the RSA hasn’t limited itself to exclusively considering women’s rights and education. All through its long history, the RSA has rewarded women for attempting to close the social aspiration gap. For example, Mrs Elizabeth Wyndham, wife of the Earl of Egremont, won a silver medal in 1796 for ‘her method of using the power applied to cross bar levers for raising large weights’. And the first woman to receive the Albert Medal was Madame Curie in 1910, ‘in recognition of the services rendered to the world by her discovery of Radium’. 101 years later, Albina Ruiz collected her Albert Medal and spoke about the need for communities to manage their waste better.
The Great Room’s renovation should be complete by the summer and the Barry paintings will once again be on display, reminding us that women have played such a significant part in the RSA’s history. We want continue this wonderful tradition and believe we can make great strides in addressing issues with your help. If you’d like to be a part of this rich heritage, then please get in touch with one of us in the Fellowship department.
Four ways Fellows can engage with the RSA are as follows:
Support the renovation here:
Gurmeet Singh is a Fellowship Recruitment Researcher. You can contact him on email@example.com