Rye has always been a magnet for artists. In the 17th century the Flemish artist Anthony Van Dyck drew some of the earliest and most detailed surviving views of the town. Turner gave the Victorians and posterity his romantic landscape views of Rye and Winchelsea. One of the 20th century’s most singular painters, Edward Burra was born here. Paul Nash lived in East Street and John Piper was a frequent visitor as he moved out across the marshes to paint his famous watercolours of the marsh churches. His painting of the Watch House and the former Rose Cottage in Rye Harbour was created in 1931. Edward Burne-Jones designed one of the stained glass windows for St Mary’s Church. The Pre-Raphaelites were a presence in Winchelsea as John Everett Millais lived and worked there, Lucien Pissarro was a regular summer visitor moving between Rye and Hastings.
The Rye Arts Club was formed in the early 1920s based at Lamb House, with Henry James listed as an early president. Between the wars the club had a tantalising roll-call of members including Augustus John, Dame Laura Knight and Edward Burra, even though Burra described Rye, none too flatteringly, as 'Tinseltown'.
Post World War II, saw an influx of artists to Rye applying the principles of the new British modernism, most dramatically showcased at the inspirational Festival of Britain in1951. This visionary and idealistic moment inspired a nation devastated by war, particularly in the fields of art, architecture and design. In the same year a new group of 8 artists appeared in Rye and launched their own” “visionary moment.” Originally calling themselves RX8 – a reference to local fishing boat registration – they held their first selling show during Rye Festival Week, an exhibition of paintings, lithographs and sculpture at the Mermaid Street School in Rye (now the Boys Club) on Friday August 3. Exhibitors in that first show included Geoffrey Bagley, Margaret Barnard and Walter Cole.
In 1952, a second exhibition was being planned when word got round that another similarly motivated group were planning a show of their own to follow on from the RX8’s. So, this newer group who were 8 mostly younger artists including Ken Townsend, always referred to as Young Kenny by Wally Cole, and RX8 got together and thus the Rye Society of Artists began. From the 1953 catalogue, the first in the collection of Rosemary Bagley’s RSA ephemera, a watercolour by Young Kenny cost a modest £4.4s but a Bath stone carving of a hawk by Wally Cole would have set you back £15.
The RSA is made up of practising artists living and working within a 15 mile radius of Rye with an evolving membership of painters, sculptors, printmakers, ceramicists and more recently, photographers. More than half a century since its inception, the RSA show is still held every summer; now in its new venue at the Dance Hall on Conduit Hill and is a big attraction for visitors to Rye.
The group has included several Royal Academicians and both Fred Cuming RA and Gus Cummins RA are currently members. Our first elected photographer was Fay Godwin and John Ryan of Captain Pugwash fame was a member for many years.