A group of painters met at Lincoln's Inn Fields on May 21st 1823, to form the 'Society of British Artists', whose manifesto stated, 'This organisation was not formed to rival existing societies but that every Member was to be at liberty to assist and support any other society.'
Artists at this time were the equivalent of the celebrity stars of today, feted by the aristocracy and royalty and collected by the powerful industrialists of the day. The elite amongst these were sometimes granted membership of the Royal Academy, but as the membership was limited to fifty members made up of sculptors, printmakers and architects as well as painters, the election of a new Academician was dependent upon the death or resignation of an existing incumbent. The birth of a new society was inevitable and £1000 was raised for such a purpose. The Society's new galleries were created in Suffolk Street only a short distance from the Royal Academy in Somerset House. These galleries were designed by the fashionable Regency architect John Nash.
The Society began with just twenty-seven members under the Presidency of Thomas Heaphy, plus a complement of five Honorary Members. It took until 1876 for the numbers to reach fifty.
The progress of the Society was hindered by financial problems caused by the innovative roof designed by the architect John Nash, which began to collapse not long after the galleries were opened.
Although the Society was granted a Charter in 1846 it was not until Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee Year of 1887, under the leadership of James McNeill Whistler, that the Society won the right to the prefix 'Royal'. Whistler raised the profile of the Society by setting standards of acceptance, which attracted the attention of not only London's aristocracy and fashionable society, but also of both Monet and Alfred Stevens, who became Honorary Members.
In the years that followed, the Society attracted many painters and sculptors of note including Walter Sickert, Philip de László, LS Lowry, Henry Moore, Peter Greenham, Sir Roger de Grey, Carel Weight and Colin Hayes.
In 1970 the RBA transferred its assets to become the main contributor to the Federation of British Artists at Mall Galleries.