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30 March 2024

The Royal Society of Arts.

Tag(s): History, Languages & Culture
I have been a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturing, and Commerce (RSA) for over 30 years. I was elected as a Life Fellow in 1995. This year, the Society is celebrating its 270th anniversary. It has been a remarkable history and there is no question that  life in the UK would have been completely  different in many respects had it not been in existence.

On 22nd of March 1754  11 good men and true -alas,  they were all men- assembled in Rawthmills coffee house in Covent Garden. When they emerged, the RSA had been born as the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce.  The Royal prefix came in 1908.  Over those 270 years, it has become an institution whose social innovation and change making have shaped and reshaped the world not once, but many times. I really think the world today would be unrecognisable without the RSA. Gone would be millions of trees, trade fairs, school examinations, iconic institutions such as the Royal Academy, Natural History Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, Science Museum, Royal Albert Hall and Royal College of Music, along with blue plaques in London, to name but a few.

But the history of the RSA is much more than its list of innovations. The mind, soul and heart of the RSA are its fellows, many of whom are particularly distinguished, and I will mention some of them later. But first let me give some examples of the differences the RSA has made. The restaurateur and Great British Bake Off judge Prue Leith, who was Chair of the RSA a few years ago., regularly took  taxis to RSA House on London's John Adam St. which would go past Trafalgar Square where she noticed the bare fourth plinth. It was her idea to make the RSA campaign for the plinth to be used to promote works of contemporary sculpture, and to oversee the idea trialled. Without those trials the Mayor of London might never have been inspired to make the Fourth Plinth Programme permanent. Nearby, there are many blue plaques commemorating famous individuals on the wall of the place where they lived for some time. The RSA initiated the Memorial Tablet scheme in the 1860s, not only to remind Londoners of their history, but also to prevent many of the buildings being torn down.

They ran similar campaigns in the 1920s and ‘30s to preserve older private dwellings, which many architects of the day would have knocked down, and much of the character of London would have been different. The RSA made significant contributions in the history of telecommunications. Their building was where Carl Wilhelm Siemens had first seen the remarkable insulating properties of a naturally occurring latex from the sap of a tree found in Malaysia - gutta percha - which was sent to London by one of the members  based in Singapore. Without that spark of inspiration, Siemens might never have gone into business with his brothers to insulate underwater electric telegraph cables. That led to near-instantaneous communications across continents and that might have been delayed by decades. The RSA was also an important meeting place for other pioneers of electrical inventions, hosting early demonstrations of William Fothergill Cooke’s electric telegraph and Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, and lectures on long distance radio by Guglielmo Marconi, as well as the first public demonstrations in England, of Thomas Edison's incandescent light bulb.

The RSA also introduced its programme of Student Design Awards. Over the course of more than a century a great many iconic designers, without that might never have had the same experiences and opportunities for research. Jony Ive, for example, might never have won his travel grant to San Francisco and fallen in love with it, and never ended up working for Apple. And so the ubiquitous iPod and iPad, which he designed might  never have  come into being.

Under  the leadership of  member Sir Henry Cole, the RSA introduced the Great Exhibition of 1851. That's a key moment in World history as it led to many conversations about standardisation and internationalisation which was a great boost to international trade. It also encouraged other countries to hold their own exhibitions, hoping to outshine the Great Exhibition’s Crystal Palace. In 1889 the entrance to the fair in Paris was the Eiffel Tower which might never have been built otherwise.

From 1760 onwards the RSA held the country's first dedicated exhibitions of contemporary art, precursor to the Royal Academy's annual exhibitions. Several famous artists are among its members.  In the 1840s, the RSA served as a hub for a community that experimented with and developed photography, and it had hosted the first exhibition of photography in 1853. That led to the formation of the Royal Photographic Society. From the 1750s onwards the  RSA awarded medals for tree planting in a bid to preserve the old oaks of England for warships. Some 60 million trees were planted by the winners of these medals. Britain would look very different without them.

The RSA created the Union of Mechanics Institutions, a network set up to support them, which breathed new life into the movement in the 1850s when they were widely thought to be in decline. That  would have meant the level of education for many workers would have been far worse without them. The RSA made an enormous contribution to education through encouraging public examinations, often trying new subjects before the government later adopted them. The OCR Exam board  was set up in the 1850s for the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, (the O and C), which had both been inspired by the R, (the RSA).  Maria Grey used the RSA as a platform to create the Girls’ Public Day School Trust which in the early 20th century was responsible for educating much of the first generation of women to attend British universities.

I said before that there have been many famous and distinguished  members (Fellows came in in 1914.) Here are a limited number of those in no particular order, but I could have added many more if I had the space.

Theodore Roosevelt, U.S. President, (1858 to 1919) Theodore Roosevelt was the 26th U.S. President, and a soldier, naturalist, historian and man of letters.  In 1910 the then former president was elected a life member by the Society for his commitment to progressive reforms, conservation, and strong foreign policy.

Judi Dench, actress, (1934 -) Dame Judi Dench has enjoyed an illustrious career in film and television and on the stage. Since her 1957 debut,  she has collected an Academy Award and eight further nominations, two Golden Globes, seven Olivier Awards and six BAFTAS.

Henry Cole, Inventor, ( 1808 to 1882) I mentioned him above in connection with the Great Exhibition, of which he was the chief architect. But he was also a civil servant and inventor. He promoted postal reform, was instrumental in creating the National Training School for Music and helped progress working conditions on ships. It was said of him that, “ his enterprise, energy and perseverance stimulated its proceedings and supplied much of the driving force that gave the Society a new importance in the land”.

Bernadine Evaristo, Author (1959-) Bernardine Evaristo is a British author and academic. Her books have been awarded Book of the Year 60 times, and her novel Girl, Woman, Other jointly won the Booker Prize in 2019, making her the first black woman to claim the prize. She has received numerous honours and was made an OBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours list in 2020. Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2004, she became its president in 2022.

Alexander Graham Bell, Inventor and Scientist, (1847-1922) Alexander Graham Bell gave two demonstrations of his telephone to the Society in 1877. In 1878, he was elected an honorary life member and was presented with the Albert Medal in 1902.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Civil engineer (1806 -1859) An exceptional civil and mechanical engineer, Brunel designed the first transatlantic steamer, built more than 1000 miles of railway, constructed innumerable ships, buildings and infrastructure. He was a member of the Committee of the Society.

William Wilberforce, Politician and abolitionist (1759-1833) William Wilberforce was a British politician and philanthropist, and a leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade. He was elected an independent MP for Yorkshire in 1784 and quickly became a leading abolitionist, heading  up the parliamentary campaign against the British slave trade for 20 years until the Slave Trade Act, (which abolished the British slave trade), was passed in 1807.

Thomas Edison, Inventor ( 1847- 1931) Thomas  Edison, inventor of the lightbulb and phonograph, was honoured with the Albert Medal in 1892 for his numerous inventions. The Society’s Great Room hosted the first demonstration in England of Edison’s incandescent light bulbs.

John Howard, Philanthropist and reformer, (1726-1790) John Howard was a prominent philanthropist and English prison reformer. He advocated for a prison system that maintained its toughness but ensured a healthy environment for inmates. The Penitentiary Act of 1779 saw the construction of two prisons in accordance with his ideas. He also forced through the abolition of discharge fees. His name appears in the first signature book of the Society of Arts.

Nick Park, Filmmaker and animator (1958-) Creator of the famed animated film series Wallace and Gromit, Nick Park has received four Academy Awards since Creature Comforts won him his first Oscar in 1989. He is the brains behind a host of globally successful animations, including Chicken Run, the highest-grossing stop motion animated film, Shaun the Sheep and Early Man. Park was appointed a CBE in the 1997 Birthday Honours List for services to the animated film industry.

William Hogarth, Painter (1697 – 1764) William Hogarth is considered by many to be the father of English painting. He is one of the earliest members of the Society of Arts, elected in 1755. Along with Thomas Gainsborough and Richard Wilson, he presented portraits to decorate the Society, and his name appears in the original signature book in the archives. Hogarth’s Act, created in 1735, secured copyright for works of art.

Charles Dickens, Writer (1812 – 1870) Charles Dickens became a member of the Society in 1849. He appears in the archival minutes of several meetings, contributed to journals and in 1864 read a paper at the Society entitled “A Poor Man's Tale of a Patent”.

John Millais, Painter (1829 – 1896) A founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Sir John Millais was an English painter and illustrator. He won a gold medal from the Society in 1846 for an original historical painting and a gold medal in 1847 for an original composition and exhibited at the Chicago Exhibition in 1893 and the Exhibition of Modern Illustration in 1901. In 1896 he served as President of the Royal Academy.

Deborah Meaden, Entrepreneur and investor, (1959-)  Deborah Meaden is a business owner and celebrity investor, having first appeared on the popular TV show Dragon’s Den in August 2006. In addition to appearances on numerous TV shows, (including as a contestant on dancing competition programme Strictly Come  Dancing),since 2022 she has co-presented The Big Green Money Show for BBC Radio. The series discusses actions being taken by businesses and individuals in response to climate change.

David Attenborough, Broadcaster and biologist, (1926 - )With a career spanning eight decades, Sir David Attenborough is a naturalist known for hit TV shows made with the BBC Natural History Unit. He rose to prominence presenting Zoo Quest in 1954 and is the only person to win BAFTAS in black and white, colour, high-definition, 3D and 4K.  His beloved presenting style has earned him three Emmy Awards and he has used his celebrity to progress environmental causes.

Vivian Westwood, Fashion Designer (1941 – 2022) Dame Vivienne Westwood was an English fashion designer and businesswoman, credited with introducing punk and new wave fashions to the mainstream. She designed clothes for the boutique she ran with Malcolm McLaren, then expanded worldwide.

Mary Portas, Creative director and presenter, (1960 -) A leading figure in retail and branding, Portas became creative director of Harvey Nichols in 1989 and in 1997 launched a creative advertising agency, going onto create TV shows and write extensively on branding in retail.

Herbie Hancock, Jazz Musician, (1940 -) Jazz musician and composer Herbie Hancock has collected 14 Grammy Awards throughout his career, including Album of the Year in 2007 for River: The Joni Letters. He was part of the Miles Davis Quintet and experimented widely with sound, particularly on his album Head Hunters. He is a professor at the University of California and Chair of the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz.

David Puttnam, Film Producer, (1941- ) Lord Puttnam is a British-Irish film producer whose productions include Chariots of Fire, The Killing Fields, Midnight Express. He received a BAFTA in 1982 and the BAFTA Fellowship in 2006. He was appointed Knight Bachelor in 1995 and a life peer in 1997 and was granted a seat in the House of Lords in 2007, from which he retired in 2021.

Michael Faraday, Scientist, (1791 – 1867) Michael Faraday was a member of the City Philosophical Society whose work contributed greatly to the understanding of electromagnetism. He made several groundbreaking contributions to science, including the invention of the world's first electric generator. A chairman of the Chemistry Committee for 11 years, he was awarded the RSA's Albert Medal in 1866 “for discoveries in electricity, magnetism and chemistry”.

Dame Zarine Kharas, Co-founder, JustGiving (1951 -)  Kharas co-founded JustGiving, the world's leading online fund-raising platform. She grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, studied law at Cambridge and, eventually, became a corporate law solicitor. She launched JustGiving with co-founder Anne-Marie Huby in 2000,raising more than £4bn cumulatively before leaving the organisation in 2017. In 2015, She was made a Dame Commander in the Queen's Birthday Honours List.

Colin Powell, Soldier and politician, (1937 -2021) An Army general and statesman, Powell was the 65th US Secretary of State. He won numerous US and foreign military awards, as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom, twice, and the Congressional Gold Medal.
Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland (1944 - ) Mary Robertson became the seventh President of Ireland in 1990 and served until September 1997. She was the first woman and the first independent to hold the country's highest political office. Following her time as President, in 1997 Robinson became the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. She has received praise for her work in the fields of sexuality, contraception and gender equality. 

Karan Bilimoria, Businessman, (1961 - ) Lord Bilimoria is a British-Indian businessman and member of the House of Lords. He founded the brand Cobra beer in 1989 and turned it into a global success with a multi-million-pound turnover, before it was partially acquired by drinks giant Molson Coors. Bilimoria is a crossbench member of the House of Lords,  Chancellor of the University of Birmingham and Vice President of the Confederation of British Industry.

Timothy West, Actor, (1934-) Timothy West is a British actor with a decades-long career spanning stage, screen and radio. He has played Macbeth twice and King Lear four times, as well as characters in long-running British soap operas EastEnders and Coronation Street. With his wife, actress Prunella Scales, he is a patron of the Lace Market Theatre in Nottingham and the Kings Theatre in Gloucester. He was awarded a CBE in 1984.

Tim Berners-Lee. Scientist, (1955 -) Sir Tim Berners-Lee is known for inventing the World Wide Web to accelerate information sharing between scientists in different institutions. He was knighted in 2004 and received the Turing Award in 2016. He chairs the W3C consortium, which oversees development of the web, is a senior researcher at MIT, a trustee of the Ford Foundation and  President of the Open Data Institute.

Benjamin Franklin, Statesman, (1706-1790) A well-known American polymath, Franklin had a longstanding association with the Society of Arts. He corresponded often and, while resident in England, was actively involved with the Society through supporting the Premium Award Scheme.

Nelson Mandela, Politician and campaigner (1918 – 2013) Nelson Mandela became the first president of South Africa in 1994, just four years after being released from a 27-year prison term. Dedicated to dismantling apartheid-era policies, he received more than 250 honours including the Nobel Peace Prize.

Karl Marx Physical theorist and economist, (1818 -1883). Famous as an architect of modern social science, Marx’s best-known publication is The Communist Manifesto, published in 1848, which expanded on the labour theory of value. His 1862 letter accepting membership of the Society survives in the RSA Archive to this day.

Marking the occasion Andy Haldane, Chief Executive Officer at the RSA said “Had the RSA not existed, the world today, would, without question, be a poorer place in mind, soul and heart. Indeed, given the problems facing the world today - economically, societally, environmentally - We would almost certainly be convening in a Covent Garden coffeehouse (with a more diverse team of 11) to create something RSA-like were it not to exist. The RSA is of the past. But it is also very much for the future. Happy anniversary to us, and here's to the next 270 years.”

Source: RSA Journal Issue 1 2024

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