History Timeline



Long before 1823, when the RHA was granted its royal charter by King George IV, Irish artists had campaigned for a permanent space in Dublin where they could display their works and promote greater public interest in the arts. The city also lacked a painting school to match the great academies of London and Paris. These aims came together in the Royal Hibernian Academy of Arts. Despite its modest budget, and Ireland’s declining economic and cultural fortunes, the new institution sought to assert Dublin as a hub of artistic excellence on the European stage.

Architect Francis Johnston (1760 - 1829) © Art UK
By the end of his career architect Francis Johnston was a wealthy man. He formed a collection of paintings, sculpture, books, objets d'art and curiosities, which became well-known and was much visited.
- Source: Dictionary of Irish Artists (dia.ie)



Among the 14 founding academicians were the celebrated landscape painter William Ashford – the Academy’s first President – and the architect Francis Johnston, who provided the RHA with a house and exhibition gallery in Lower Abbey Street at his own expense. The first exhibition took place at Academy House in May 1826, with 402 exhibits from 91 artists; it became a cherished yearly event. Even as the institution was beset by funding problems and internal discord as the century wore on, the RHA’s Annual Exhibition was embraced as one of the great celebrations of contemporary art in Ireland.



Amid the turbulence of the early 20th century, the Academy was lucky to have as its president the charismatic and dynamic painter Dermod O’Brien, who held the position from 1910 to 1945. With family ties to both Irish nationalists and Anglo-Irish aristocracy, O’Brien steered the RHA through the choppy waters of Irish independence, establishing a positive relationship with the new political order. He also negotiated the devastating loss of its premises, staging Annual Exhibitions at the Metropolitan School of Art or the National Gallery, before eventually finding a new home for the RHA in 1939.

Portrait of the artist Dermod O'Brien PPRHA in his studio (1934) by Margaret Courtney-Clarke



By 1916, the Academy was agitating for a new home south of the river. Then came the Easter Rising. On the morning of 27 April, a piece of shrapnel shattered a window at Academy House, narrowly missing the Keeper, Joseph Kavanagh, who was busy at his easel. As fire spread through the building, Kavanagh grabbed his chain of office and some essential Academy documents and fled to safety. The entire Annual Exhibition, along with the library and Kavanagh’s life’s work, was destroyed. As the country plunged deeper into political turmoil, the Academy found itself without a home.

Academy House, Lower Middle Abbey Street, Dublin. 1916



The RHA had accepted women artists as honorary members since the late 19th century, but it wasn’t until 1919 – the year after women in Britain and Ireland were first allowed to vote – that its council considered electing female associates and full member artists. The artists Sarah Purser and Mary Swanzy were duly added to the candidate list; Purser eventually became a full academician in 1924. “The dissenting members of the board of the RHA might consider what the world will think if they persist in excluding women,” wrote Thomas McGreevy in 1923. “It will think it is because the women are better artists than themselves.”

Life Class Nude by Sarah Purser
Self Portrait by Sarah Purser
The Irish portraitist and stained glass artist Sarah Purser was born in Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin, in 1848. Purser enrolled to learn drawing and fine art painting at the Dublin School of Art. In 1872, she exhibited several works at the Royal Hibernian Academy of Arts. After this, aided finanicially by her brothers, she studied in Paris at the Academie Julian. In about 1880, Sarah Purser returned to Dublin and set about earning a living from portrait art. Among her sitters were: WB Yeats, Jack B Yeats, Maud Gonne, Roger Casement and James MacNeill.
- http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/



After 1916, the RHA lacked a permanent premises for 23 whole years, but that was just one of its many challenges. The art market was in decline. Young artists were gravitating towards newer art schools. And, as modernism flourished – upending the conventions and certainties of the previous century – the Academy swam against the tide, allowing other institutions to seize the moment. Its reputation for conservatism hardened and decades would pass before the RHA regained its progressive voice.

View to Sackville Street, Dublin City Center, 1890's



In 1939, after two decades without a home, the RHA crossed the Liffey and settled into the house and garden of 15 Ely Place. The location was viewed as favourable, being right at the very heart of Dublin’s cultural quarter. But the arrangement was temporary as the building – a Georgian townhouse, refashioned in the Arts and Crafts style – lacked modern gallery spaces, and the Academy had no budget to develop the extensive garden. As a result, the Annual Exhibitions continued to be held offsite for another half century.

Academy House 1938-1967, Ely Place, Dublin 2.



The quest to construct a new, purpose-built gallery at 15 Ely Place took decades to complete and was plagued by difficulties. In the 1950s, Dublin Corporation lobbied to turn the site into a car park. The developer Matt Gallagher, who committed himself to financing the project, died in 1974, leaving a funding shortfall. The project’s architect Raymond McGrath, a modernist, passed away three years later. The building was finally completed by Arthur Gibney and opened to the public in 1985 for the 156th Annual Exhibition – the first the RHA could hold on its own premises in 69 years.

One of the most adventurous exhibitions in recent years...there are enough contemporary, if not experimental pictures, to give excitement to this year's selection.
- The Irish Independent, 1954



The RHA closed for extensive renovations in 2007. When it reopened two years later, with a magnificent new Portuguese limestone exterior, the rejuvenated building now housed a drawing and painting school – bringing education back to the Academy for the first time since 1942. To this day, two large open-plan spaces and four light-filled studios accommodate learning courses and residency programmes, while the RHA also administers offsite residencies around Ireland.

Life Drawing at the RHA School, 2021.
RHA Studios, 2009. Photography Donal Murphy.



Today the RHA prepares for its bicentenary celebrations in 2023 – a triumph for an artist-led organisation that has shown the most diverse, challenging and awe inspiring art on offer in Ireland over the past 200 years. The upcoming 192nd Annual Exhibition, Ireland’s largest and longest-running open submission show, is now displayed both digitally and in the five galleries in RHA’s building.

RHA Gallery, Ely Place, 2009. Photography Donal Murphy.

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