Painting the town red with the Royal Tunbridge Wells Art Society

Bertha Moran

Art is a big part of culture in the town – just ask Carol Anne Slater, publicity officer at the Royal Tunbridge Wells Art Society, which has been promoting local art for more than 80 years. We find out how the group continues to educate a new generation of painting practitioners. Fred Latty reports…

Tell us about the background of RTWAS
The society is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, in Kent. It was founded in 1934 and is unique inasmuch as it has its own premises in the lower Pantiles, as well as a track record of well-known artists being involved in the past; Winston Churchill displayed at one of the summer exhibitions. It started in the 1930s with 18 members and a very typical Victorian approach, but it’s totally different now – we’ve got 170 members and it’s run by a committee.

Are you a practising artist?
I got involved about four years ago. I have a healthcare background and used to be a chief executive at the local hospice, but I’ve always been interested in art and started to pursue that full-time about ten years ago. My medium is oils and I display in The Pantiles, as well as at exhibitions in Lewes and the surrounding areas.

What events have you got on at the moment?
There’s an incredible amount of art going on here; every day there’s something, whether it’s portrait painting or lectures by eminent people. We have a summer exhibition, a winter and a spring exhibition. In June on The Pantiles is an interactive art show for the organisation, where the local public can come into the lower Pantiles and ‘make their mark’ on a display board in Sussex House.

How are you funded?
We’re a subscription society because we need to pay for the premises, so we’re breaking even, as it’s purely on membership. It’s a non profit-making society and has an objective to promote the arts in the broader sense and engage the population of Tunbridge Wells. One of our aims this year is to become more visible, because we want to share more than we have done in the past. We would like to encourage people to come to the free exhibitions.

Might there be alternative streams of revenue available?
Not many art societies have their own premises. We’ve got a library of our history and works, but I’m looking for sponsorship in terms of working with promotional companies. We’ve got our venue where we have our exhibitions, but if there are other venues in Tunbridge Wells, we’d like to have a selection of our artists profile their work there.

Can you explain a bit more about how the society is run?
On Tuesday afternoons, external speakers and professional artists come and do demonstrations. They’re quite eminent artists, some of whom belong to the Royal Art Society. That’s quite unique inasmuch as we have a whole shopping list of things that happen. We meet every day for life drawings and critiques, so it’s very interactive. We’ve got a dedicated set of eight or nine volunteers to run it, who all have roles and responsibilities.

What’s your approach to teaching?
It’s vibrant and there’s quite a mix of talent within the group, but we aim to be friendly and get people to be the best they can be; we want people to express themselves and enjoy the experience of art by giving them free expression. But we do take themes within some of the workshops to look at how we can learn from the masters and the way artists do things, so we can move our skills further forward and engage with what has gone in the past.

In what ways has the group developed in recent years?
The society’s really looking to become more visual and to share what we’re doing with the people in Tunbridge Wells and the surrounding villages as well, because there’s a lot of amazing work happening there. In the past, we haven’t been so visual, we’ve just concentrated on our art, but there’s a place for becoming more engaging and interactive.

Is there a big market for art in the town?
If you look back at the history of Tunbridge Wells, there have been a lot of people involved in the visual arts. It’s a very cultural town, so people are looking to see what they can get out of it. People come to Tunbridge Wells from far and wide; it’s not just the local population, so we want to offer them something to actually come to. What we’ve got is something quite unique and we’re very happy to open our doors.

Could the town’s art scene be improved?
There are a lot of venues in Tunbridge Wells that could be customised, so we could all join together and have a jamboree of art, whether it’s visual, paintings or music. I’m not that clued up on what the council is doing, so I wouldn’t like to run them down, but there are always opportunities and they have a role there to promote. If you think about all the technology we have these days, perhaps we should get into the 21st century in Tunbridge Wells and use all of these tools, so, although we’ve got this wonderful track record, we can also be very contemporary as well.

Any ideas on how to achieve this?
Perhaps we should be partnering with the London scene. It’s about making connections and saying, ‘This is what’s happening in Tunbridge Wells’ to promote our unique selling point and how we can attract the Londoners down here. The hook is the town because people come here and know about it, but once they’re here, they need to know what there is to do. There needs to be a rolling programme of what’s happening in Tunbridge Wells.

Are we thriving culturally as a town?
It has an amazing track record that goes back hundreds of years, so it has a profile nationally and internationally. It’s not a new town, but from a marketing perspective, it should have a rolling programme of art and culture. There’s a lot going on and we could be more visible; we have a unique selling point and if it was marketed more for the younger population and if we interacted more with the up-and-coming youth, then they can understand what’s going on, what they can get out of it and what they can contribute. It’s a two-way process.

Where do you see the society going in the future?
We want it to be secure so it continues to exist going forward, because it has such a history, but we also want to make sure we’re in the real world of art. We want to engage with what’s happening in the art scene, so that we know, from a contemporary perspective, what’s happening, how people view art and what the new schools of art coming out are. It’s about exploring a wider geographical area and looking at what’s happening.

Finally, why is art so important to our local culture?
I’ve been a member of other groups, but nothing like this. It’s so exciting; you come away very uplifted and it’s something you can’t buy. I’m an advocate of art and expressing yourself through it. Although we have a subscription and a certain standard, anybody can paint and express themselves – it’s not a question of painting in a certain style. Once they do that, they focus on it and other things go away, out of their mind. That’s quite healing – if you’ve got something emotional happening in your life, it takes you out of that for an hour or so, and when it all floods back again, it doesn’t seem so bad.

Royal Tunbridge Wells Art Society
Founded: 1934
Address: 61 The Pantiles, Tunbridge Wells, Kent TN2 5TE
President: Andrew James RP |
Chairman: Jane Gray
Committee members: 15
Artists: 170
Volunteers: 8-9
Annual memberships: £90
Annual exhibitions: 3 (spring, summer and winter)
Exhibition submission fees from: £2

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