On the 22nd of March, 1754, the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce was founded in London, aiming to promote and improve agriculture, manufacturing and commerce by giving premiums, that is, pecuniary rewards to the prize winners. From the start, the Society also provided premiums for drawing, and was thus the first institution in England to publicly promote drawing by holding competitions. The premiums were soon expanded to include other polite arts such as printmaking and oil painting. In 1760, the Society even held the first exhibition of contemporary English art. Unlike the more prestigious Royal Academy of Arts, members of the Society of Arts came from various walks of life, whose subscriptions and donations provided the funds for premiums. However, due to changes in the art world and certain trends in mainstream art historiography, the Society’s promotion of the arts has long been undervalued.
By investigating contemporary publications and the Society’s archives, this article gives a comprehensive analysis of the Society’s polite art premiums, thus opening up a new perspective on the development of drawing, printmaking and oil painting in England in the second half of the eighteenth century. It also highlights how the growth and decline of the Society’s polite art premiums reveals the development of artistic ideas and the changing system of the arts in English society during the period.