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 and 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 in Church Square. The Pre-Raphaelites were a presence in Winchelsea as John Everett Millais lived and worked there and 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 the writer 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 ‘Tinkerbell Town’.
After the Second World War there was an influx of artists to Rye and in1951 a visionary and idealistic new group of eight artists appeared in Rye and launched their own modern movement which was mirrored in the opening of the Festival of Britain in the same year.
This group of artists called themselves RX8 (referencing a local fishing boat) and they held their first selling show during Rye Festival Week. This exhibition of paintings, lithographs and sculpture was shown at the Mermaid Street School in Rye which went on to become the Boys Club. Exhibitors in that first show included Geoffrey Bagley, Margaret Barnard and Walter Cole.
In 1952, RX8 merged with a newer group which included Ken Townsend and Wally Cole and the Rye Society of Artists was born.
From the 1953 catalogue, a watercolour by “Young Kenny” as Wally called him cost a modest £4.4s but a Bath Stone carving of a hawk by Wally Cole would have set you back £15.
The society is still artists-led and has gathered many professional artists as members and includes several Royal Academicians. Our first elected photographer was Fay Godwin and John Ryan of Captain Pugwash fame was a member for many years.
More than half a century since its inception, the RSA show is still held every summer in its new venue at the Dance Hall on Conduit Hill and is an inspiring cultural fixture in the Rye calendar.