Bristol Art Tour: RWA – Bristol’s oldest art gallery, Ellen Sharples and Rolinda Sharples

Self portrait of Rolinda Sharples and her mother Ellen in the background (source: Wikipedia)

Following the introduction at Clifton Suspension Bridge yesterday, day two of my tour around Bristol brings me to the RWA and Bristol School of Art, which was Bristol’s first art gallery.

This Victorian building was built in 1858, and currently as well as the RWA (the Royal West of England Academy) which houses its own art collection, and hosts temporary art exhibitions, it’s also home to the Bristol School of Art which is part of Stroud and South Gloucestershire College, and runs full time and part time art classes.

RWA, Bristol’s oldest art gallery, Queens Road, Bristol. Source: Wikipedia

This building came about because of significant donations and influence from various different groups of Bristol-based artists and influential individuals. One of the people I want to focus on today in this blog is artist Ellen Sharples, who on her death:

she left £2,000 to the Bristol Academy for the Promotion of Fine Arts. This sum, together with an earlier gift from her and money donated by other supporters, enabled the erection of a fine building in 1858 to house the Academy. This was to be Bristol’s first art gallery.’ (RWA website, page visited Feb 2021)

It was unusual at the time for a woman to have any money of her own, and also to donate a significant sum to an art’s institution such as what is now known as the RWA (Locallearning.org, page visited Feb 2021). I think in many ways this can be viewed as an notable example of female empowerment, subverting gender norms of the time. I think it’s inspiring that a donation in 1858 to help create this building can still benefit people hundreds of years later (I have personally attended short pottery and enamelling courses at the Bristol School of Art – it was my heaven to be in a building dedicated to art and craft in every room! I’m still grateful to Ellen Sharples and others for pushing for this idea for an art-focused building, all those years ago!).

I think in another way, Ellen Sharples career as a portrait artist did reflect the attitudes of the times, as much of her portraits were copies of her husband James Sharples’ portraits of ‘noble men and women’ (Pastellists, 2020). I would argue it could be viewed as slightly derogatory to assume that she couldn’t simply paint a portrait of someone from the person sitting in front of her (the classic way to paint a portrait) rather than from another man’s paintings, but that’s just my opinion.

I think the career of her daughter Rolinda Sharples is also incredibly significant to Bristol’s art history. Rolinda Sharples achieved commercial success in her day, although this hasn’t often been talked about in a lot of art history, which I think is notable in itself (History Hoydens, 2009). Some of Rolinda Sharples most famous paintings include ‘The Cloakroom, Clifton Assembly Rooms’ set in the Clifton, Bristol, and ‘The Stoppage of the Bank,’ set in a fictional road called Guinea Street, with some of the buildings in the painting based in ones found in Corn Street in Bristol (Art UK, page visited Feb 2021).

I first randomly came across some of the Rolinda Sharples‘ crowd scene paintings mentioned above when I visiting an exhibition in the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery a few years ago. The styles of the two paintings ‘The Cloakroom, Clifton Assembly Rooms’ and ‘The Stoppage of the Bank,’ struck me as very different style to any other paintings I’d seen in that gallery at that time, as her use of emotions and engagement between each person in the painting brought a sense of humour to the painting, as well an astute level of observation, that I really admired.

‘The Cloakroom, Clifton Assembly Rooms,’ Rolinda Sharples, 1817. Source: Wikipedia

Some argue that if you look closely at the crowd scenes, you can see that Rolinda Sharples has painted herself as one of the people in the crowds of some her paintings, looking directly back at you as the observer. This gives the impression that both you and her are ‘in on the joke’ that the scenes of the crowds depicted are often arguably quite ridiculous. There was a certain level of honesty in the way that she painted the scenes that from my perspective, really made them stand out in a gallery setting.

From a classical art perspective, some have argued that her paintings are not of very ‘high standard’ compared to some artists at the time, and also may not have been viewed with such high esteem as some of her artist contemporaries, as she was often paintings scenes of the ‘everyday’ (Jane Austen blog, 2011). I would personally argue that this is just one view through a particularly stylised lens, and actually I would argue that Rolinda Sharples’ commercial success at the time was down to her ability to develop her own style as an artist, not her ability to try and perfectly replicate any artist already out there. Personally I think this can be applied to the way I see all art. Everyone’s got their own style, and personally I’ll always see this as something positive.

I’m proud to live in a city such as Bristol with such a rich history of artists, particularly in this case, female artists, such as Ellen Sharples and Rolinda Sharples, both of which I think have fascinating stories, and have produced really interesting and really important artwork, that’s stood the test of time. You can watch a video on IGTV of me visiting the RWA and talking about this more here.

If you’d like to read more about the artwork that I’ve produced in the 9-part series called ‘Bi in the 2000s™’ you can read more about it on my Instagram page @annafranceshealing and my blog post here.

You can also buy merchandise here: anna-frances.com/shop

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