The original work of wildlife artists was not readily available in the late 1950’s and yet this was a time of widespread and growing interest in natural history. With a society of artists in mind which might seize such an opportunity, Robert Gillmor and Eric Ennion, with the enthusiastic support of Peter Scott and Keith Shackleton, organised an exhibition of contemporary bird paintings in the Reading Art Gallery in 1960. Maurice Bradshaw, then Director of the Art Exhibitions Bureau, joined the organising committee and as a result the Bureau took this exhibition on tour for a year.
Such was the interest shown by provincial galleries that the tour was extended for a further year, and during this time R.B. Talbot-Kelly and Maurice Wilson joined the organisers to plan a society to build on this interest, and they began inviting founder members. The inaugural exhibition of the Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA) was held in London and opened by James Fisher in August 1964. The exhibition featured 149 works by 35 founder members, eight of whom are still members. By 2009 there were 359 works selected for the annual exhibition in the Mall Galleries, London and the Society had 73 elected members and 7 Associate Members.
From the outset the SWLA was one of eight member societies comprising the Federation of British Artists (FBA) which was founded in 1960 and which had grown out of the Art Exhibitions Bureau. The FBA is a non-profit making organisation and Registered Charity which provides a central forum and administrative body for all the societies, and is responsible for subscriptions, commissions, submission fees and other dues and general administration resulting from their activities, and provides an excellent exhibition space in the heart of London at the Mall Galleries.
In 1990 the Society of Wildlife Artists became a Registered Charity with the charitable purpose of fostering and encouraging all forms of visual art based on or representing the world’s wildlife. Through art, the Society actively seeks not only to generate an appreciation of and enthusiasm for the natural world, but also to advance the interest, education and concern of the public in the conservation of wildlife. In pursuit of these objectives the SWLA undertakes various activities to support and promote arts based objectives of other conservation and wildlife charities.
Through a sponsorship agreement with Lloyds Private Banking, a joint Bursary scheme was established in 1993 and ran for ten years. Sponsorship was subsequently taken over by Capmark Europe (formerly GMAC – Commercial Mortgage Europe) whose support of the Bursary scheme and a major art prize awarded at the annual exhibition ran for five years until 2008. Since the conception of the Society of Wildlife Artists Bursaries over 50 grants of between £150 and £500 have been awarded and they continue to help young artists keen to develop their knowledge and skills in wildlife art. From 2002 the age limit was increased to 30 years for the individual Bursaries of up to £750 towards travel, education or the cost of materials.
The focus of the Society’s work is the annual exhibition featuring all art media and is held in the Mall Galleries in late October and early November. Included with the work of members from the UK, mainland Europe, North America and Russia is that of successful Bursary applicants, as well as a selection of work from non-members. The Annual exhibition of the SWLA is the foremost event in British wildlife art calendar.
A number of awards are made each year at the exhibition. They include the Birdwatch Artist of the Year Award sponsored by Swarovski Optik, the Terravesta Prize for the best work exhibited, the RSPB Fine Art Award, Birdscapes Gallery ‘Conservation through Art’ Award, Mascot Media ‘Nature in Print’ Award, the Langford Press Award and the Dry Red Press Award
The Society of Wildlife Artists Registered Charity No 328717