Royal Society of Arts


8 John Adam St, WC2N 6EZ


020-7930 5115



Opening times:

Mon-Fri 8:30-20:00

How to get there:

Tube: Charing Cross

Entry fee:


Founded in 1754 as the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, the RSA (as it now known), sprang out of the speculative coffee-house culture of the Strand, a patriotic pressure-group designed to recognise, accredit and reward hard-working entrepreneurs. Founder William Shipley, a drawing master from Northampton, wrote that his aim was ‘to render Great Britain the school of instruction as it is already the centre of traffic to the greatest part of the known world’. The Society mounted the first public art exhibition in 1761, the preface to its catalogue penned by Dr Johnson, and went on to help in the organisation of the Great Exhibition of 1851 and of the establishment of the National Training School of Music, predecessor of the Royal College of Music, in 1876. It also had a hand in the Festival of Britain in 1951.

In 1863 the Society instituted the annual Albert Medal for ‘distinguished merit in promoting Arts, Manufactures and Commerce’, the first recipient being Sir Rowland Hill for his part in setting up the Penny Post. Subsequent awards have gone to the discoverer of electro-magnetism Michael Faraday (1866), the pioneer of antisepsis Joseph Lister (1894), Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius (1961), ornithologist Sir Peter Scott (1970), architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner (1976), musician Yehudi Menuhin (1981), conductor Sir Simon Rattle (1997), and lager beer entrepreneur Karan Bilimoria (2004). In 1935, in conjunction with the Royal Academy, the RSA mounted the first important exhibition of industrial design, which led to the establishment of the Design Council and also the RSA’s own faculty of Royal Designers for Industry: among those appointed members are architect Sir Norman Foster, fashion designer Issey Miyake and the designer of the iMac, Jonathan Ive.


The Building

In 1770 the architect brothers John, Robert, James and William Adam began work on a sumptuous riverside development called the Adelphi, meaning ‘brotherhood’. Almost the only part of their original edifice now surviving is the home that Robert and James completed for the Society four years later at No. 8 John Street (now John Adam Street). Robert Adam’s elegant Palladian façade frames a large, arched Venetian window, surmounted by a stucco crescent of plaster, the epistyle of the entablature inscribed ‘Arts and Commerce Promoted’. In the entrance hall and grand stairwell, both re-modelled in the 1920s, the columns imitate the Adams’ front porch, and wall panels list those honoured as RDIs (Royal Designer for Industry), as well as the Presidents of the RSA, and recipients of the Albert Medal. The staircase, decorated with one portrait of Prince Albert and another of Queen Victoria looking over the plans for the Great Exhibition, leads up to the landing and the Great Room. Near the door sits the President’s Chair, a massive piece designed by Sir William Chambers in 1759, and still used by the current president when attending lectures or award ceremonies.


The Great Room

The Great Room, designed by Robert Adam as an assembly room for discussions, debates and presentations, is dominated by James Barry’s epic series of mural paintings, The Progress of Human Knowledge and Culture. Left and right within his scheme are portraits of two early presidents: Robert, Lord Romney by Joshua Reynolds and Jacob, Lord Folkestone by Thomas Gainsborough. In 1774 ten artists including Barry had been invited to undertake the decoration of the room, but all declined. Three years later Barry offered to do the job free of charge, in exchange for his board, canvas, paints and models. In his own ‘Account’ of the six pictures in the series, he writes that they were intended to ‘illustrate one great maxim or moral truth, that the obtaining of happiness, as well individual as public, depends on cultivating the human faculties’. Impressive to behold, their symbolism certainly seems to be at least as important as their art, a stirring allegory of the aims and objectives of the Society.

On the west wall, left upon entering the room, the first painting, Orpheus, shows ‘the founder of Grecian theology’ with his lyre, surrounded by ‘people as savage as their soil’, their cave-dwelling children prey to wild beasts. Barry defended his depiction of a woman shouldering a dead deer by reminding his more delicate readers that ‘the value and estimation of women increases according to the growth and cultivation of society’. All the paintings emphasise struggle and competition as fundamental characteristics of progress. The second painting, Thanksgiving to the Rural Deities, is perhaps the least portentous. It depicts a ‘Grecian harvest-home’, with Ceres and Bacchus looking down upon an Arcadian group happily dancing around Sylvanus and Pan. But as Barry points out: ‘It is but a stage at which we cannot stop, as I have endeavoured to exemplify by the group of contending figures in the middle distance, where there are men wrestling.’ The third painting, Crowning the Victors at Olympia, runs the full length of the north wall facing the door and was originally the backdrop for the Society’s own award ceremonies. Representing the climax of Ancient Civilization, the composition features many famous faces from the Golden Age of Greece, and some too from Barry’s own time: Pericles appears as William Pitt the Elder, and the artist Timanthus as a younger version of Barry himself. The next painting blends myth and reality more boldly: Commerce, or the Triumph of the Thames shows Father Thames being borne along by tritons in the shape of the great navigators Drake, Raleigh, Cabot and Cook. The white cliffs of Dover can be seen in the background, behind a strange landmark monument added by Barry in 1801: ‘a combined mausoleum, observatory and lighthouse which the Tritons have erected in tribute to the first Naval Power’. The penultimate painting, The Distribution of the Premiums in the Society of the Arts, features many of the people involved in the early years of the Society standing in front of Chambers’ Somerset House with the dome of St Paul’s in the background. Founder William Shipley sits in the bottom left-hand corner, the instrument of the institution in his hand; Dr Johnson ‘points out Mrs Montagu to the Duchesses of Rutland and Devonshire as worthy their attention and imitation’; William Locke and Dr Hunter look over a youth’s promising drawings; the agriculturalist Lord Arthur Young, who had quarrelled with Barry, is shown in unflattering profile.

The final painting, Elysium or the State of Final Retribution, running the length of the south wall, shows a gathering of ‘those great and good men of all ages and nations, who were cultivators and benefactors of mankind’. A pelican in her piety (feeding its young with its own blood), a symbol of Christ’s love and sacrifice—perhaps also a reminder of Barry’s ardent but necessarily covert Catholicism—here apparently ‘typifies the generous labours of those personages in the picture, who had worn themselves out in the service of mankind’. Among the 150 or so personages included are Archimedes, Descartes, Copernicus, Galileo, Columbus, Hogarth and, in Barry’s words, the ‘glorious sextumvirate of Epaminondas, Socrates, Cato, Lucius Junius Brutus, Marcus Brutus and Sir Thomas More, which Swift so happily brought together in his account of the island of Glubbdubdribb’. Swift himself appears in the company of Erasmus and Cervantes. Among the legislators, Alfred the Great stands proudly centre stage with William Penn and Trajan looking over his shoulder. In the bottom left-hand corner are the dark shades of Tartarus, with a volcano vomiting flames and men, an uncomfortable home for a ‘malicious whisperer’, a vain man wearing the Order of the Garter, a worldly Pope and ‘a wretch holding the Solemn League and Covenant’, the Scottish protestants’ oath against King Charles I.


The Tour

In the 20th century the RSA’s house expanded into Nos. 6, 4 and 2 John Adam Street, and the tour includes other Adam rooms, their correct proportions preserved and several featuring doors and fireplaces rescued from Bowood House in Wiltshire. The Romney room in particular has been carefully restored to its original colour scheme, with ceiling panels showing ‘Pan celebrating the feast of Bacchus’ by the school of Antonio Zucchi and his wife Angelica Kauffmann. The Shipley Room also has a fine decorative ceiling. The back yard of No. 8 was converted in the late 1980s into a glazed atrium and staircase (Green Lloyd) leading down to the 18th-century brick vaults. In the Durham Street Auditorium, the mid-19th-century street running down to the river from the Strand has been exposed and preserved.

The RSA also holds one of the largest single collections of paintings on loan from the Arts Council Collection. These include works by Lucien Freud, Norman Adams, Elizabeth Frink, Frank Auerbach and Gillian Ayres. Specially commissioned by the RSA in 1991 to commemorate 50 years of royal patronage, Justin Mortimer’s portrait of the Queen displays an unusually fresh but not irreverent approach to its subject. A portrait by Stuart Pearson Wright of HRH Duke of Edinburgh, commissioned in 2002 to celebrate the half-century of his presidency, did not find favour: ‘As long as I don’t have to have it on my wall,’ the Prince is reported to have declared.

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Details below are taken from our Blue Guide Museums and Galleries of London.  This is a 2005 title, here generally updated for website address and opening times, with useful comments from some of the museums themselves.  More recent information is given in Emily Barber's magisterial new Blue Guide London, "Exceptional update to a classic and useful guide to this amazing city" (Amazon reader review).

FULL LISTING of CURRENT EXHIBITIONS in London from Apollo Magazine »

Emily Barber recommends five major London museums »

Please do share your comments and updates with us via the form below the entry for each museum.


National Maritime Museum
Wimbledon Windmill Museum
Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum
2 Willow Road (National Trust)
William Morris Gallery
Whitechapel Gallery
Westminster Abbey Museum
Wesley's Chapel
Wellington Arch (English Heritage)
Wallace Collection
Victoria & Albert Museum
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Tower of London (Historic Royal Palaces)
Tate Modern
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Sutton House (National Trust)
Spencer House
Southside House
South London Art Gallery
The Courtauld Institute of Art (Somerset House)
Sir John Soane's Museum
Shakespeare’s Globe
Serpentine Gallery
Science Museum
St Bride’s Crypt Museum
St Bartholomew’s Hospital Museum
Saatchi Gallery
Royal Society of Arts
The Royal Mews
Royal London Hospital Museum
The Faraday Museum
Royal Hospital Chelsea
RCM Museum of Music
Royal Academy of Music Museum
Royal Academy of Arts
Red House (National Trust)
Ranger’s House (English Heritage)
Ragged School Museum
The Queen’s Gallery
Prince Henry’s Room
The Photographers’ Gallery
Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology
Osterley Park (National Trust)
Orleans House Gallery
Old Operating Theatre, Museum and Herb Garret
Natural History Museum
National Portrait Gallery
National Gallery
National Army Museum
Musical Museum
World Rugby Museum
Museum of the Order of St John
Museum No. 1 (Royal Botanic Gardens)
Museum of London
Garden Museum
Museum in Docklands (Museum of London)
The Royal Observatory
The Queen's House
Old Royal Naval College
Marianne North Gallery (Royal Botanic Gardens)
Marble Hill House (English Heritage)
Mall Galleries
Lord’s Tour and MCC Museum
London Transport Museum
London Fire Brigade Museum
London Canal Museum
18 Stafford Terrace – The Sambourne Family Home
Library and Museum of Freemasonry
Leighton House
Kingston Museum
Kew Palace (Historic Royal Palaces)
London Museum of Water & Steam
Kenwood House (English Heritage)
Kensington Palace (Historic Royal Palaces)
Keats House
Jewish Museum
Jewel Tower (English Heritage)
Jerwood Space
Imperial War Museum
ICA Institute of Contemporary Arts
Hunterian Museum
Horniman Museum
HMS Belfast (Imperial War Museum)
Hayward Gallery
Handel House Museum
Hampton Court Palace (Historic Royal Palaces)
Ham House (National Trust)
Guildhall Art Gallery
Guards Museum
Grant Museum of Zoology & Comparative Anatomy
Geffrye Museum of the Home
Fulham Palace
Freud Museum
Foundling Museum
Forty Hall & Estate
Florence Nightingale Museum
Firepower: The Royal Artillery Museum
Fenton House (National Trust)
Fashion and Textile Museum
Fan Museum
Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art
Eltham Palace (English Heritage)
Dulwich Picture Gallery
Dr Johnson’s House
Dennis Severs' House
Danson House
Cutty Sark
Contemporary Applied Arts
Chiswick House (English Heritage)
Chelsea Physic Garden
Chartered Insurance Institute Museum
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Carlyle’s House (National Trust)
Camden Arts Centre
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Buckingham Palace
Brunel Engine House
Brunei Gallery SOAS
British Optical Association Museum
The British Museum
The British Library
Bramah Museum of Tea and Coffee
Black Cultural Archives
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Bethlem Museum of the Mind
Benjamin Franklin House
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