York Art Society – 100 years ago – by Richard Bell
For the York Art Society Centenary Calendar, I thought it would be fun to paint a portrait of the Society’s first Chairman, William Foxley Norris, Dean of York. After searching the internet for reference photographs of him, I began to have second thoughts. Most of the photographs were black and white, showing him in rather stern, stiff poses, typical of early1900s portrait photographs. Eventually I managed to find a colour photograph showing him looking a bit more relaxed with a hint of a smile. For my version of his portrait I show only the head and a suggestion of the plain black clerical clothes he probably would have worn at Art Society meetings.
William Foxley Norris came to York Minster as Dean in 1917 and left in 1925 to become Dean of Westminster. He was a talented amateur artist. Some of his watercolours and pencil drawings can be found on the internet. During his time at Westminster Abbey he took part in the coronation of King George VI, was honoured with the KCVO and became Honorary Chaplain to the Royal Academy.
The York Art Society was founded in March 1921 at a meeting in the Exhibition Rooms (now part of York Art Gallery). The Dean of York was one of the founders and was elected the Society’s first Chairman. According to research in the City Archives by Society Secretary, Pat Harlington, the other founders of the Society were Brigadier General Horatio Mends CB (elected the Society’s first President and another talented artist); Mrs Dakin; Dr Sanderson Long (Treasurer); Mr Arthur Rowntree and Mrs Rowntree.
In the early years, status within the Society was rather formal. Potential new members were required to submit works for approval by the committee. There were three grades of membership. Advancement from member to Associate was by nomination only. Members needed to have their work regularly assessed by attending meetings where paintings were prepared. Only Associates could display their works at exhibitions. Thankfully such formalities have long gone, and York Art Society today is much more egalitarian. New members are welcome. There is only one class of Membership for all. Meetings are now social occasions for the pleasures of working together and learning from experts.
By 1939, membership of the Society had grown to 60 and by the late 1990s, it had reached 200, with a long list of people waiting to join.For the first 50 years or so of its existence, the Society’s exhibitions were held mainly at the York Art Gallery. After that, they moved to the Guildhall for the next 30 years or so. By the early 2000s, availability of the Guildhall had become difficult and the Society began to use other prestigious venues in the city. In the past 20 years the Society has held exhibitions in the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall, the De Grey Rooms, the York Medical Society Rooms, and most recently in the Church Hall of the Central Methodist Church in St Saviourgate.
The aspirations of the Society’s founders were that the Society should “promote and encourage the practice of art in York and the surrounding area, hold occasional private and public exhibitions of members’ work and organise lectures for interested parties.” Those aspirations remain much the same today.