THE SOCIETY OF TWENTY-FIVE PAINTERS
''Though it cannot be said that the members collectively represent any particular phase or school of modern art, their work shows a certain community of feeling and displays many of the best qualities of English painting of today". - The Studio Magazine November 1925,
It is a common misconception that The Fine Art Society is a ‘society’ proper, at least not as the term is commonly understood. This is to say we are a commercial gallery and not an organization created for a specific activity – not one that can buy or be elected into at least. This notwithstanding, from the time when we first opened our doors 145 years ago, we have welcomed many groups and societies to exhibit in our galleries. Since 1882 when we hosted the First Annual Exhibition for the Society of Painter-Etchers, the gallery has hosted some well-known, and some lesser known, groups including: The Society of Country Painters (1909); The Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolours (1911); The Society of Animal Painters (1919; and The Royal British-Colonial Society of Artists (1923). One of the more elusive companies of artists amongst these was The Society of Twenty-Five Painters. Originally founded in 1905 under the name the 'Society of Twenty-Five English Painters' its early members – mainly English as the name suggests - included Glyn Warren Philpot, Gerald Moira, and Robert Anning Bell. From 1907 onward, due to the inclusion of the Scottish artists such as the Glasgow-born James Whitelaw Hamilton, the group dropped ‘English’ and became 'The Society of Twenty-Five Painters'.
Early on, critics began to recognise that the group stood out significantly above their contemporaries. Their work reflected the very changes that were being experienced in British artistic currents, particularly those overarching influences still being exacted by European Impressionism. The change was a political one, and one that was considered by the critic of ‘The Studio’ magazine early in their conception. He recognised how the unity within the group was defined by each painter having quite dissimilar motives and styles, ‘as something more than the mere agreement of twenty-five individual painters’. He wrote of how ‘Modern art in the various recognised forms ... assumed almost as many diverse shapes as religion.’ ‘Hence’, he went on, ‘there is something attractive in the society which allows to each of its twenty-five members a point of view entirely of its own.’
This individuality was key to the society’s allure to both critics and members: attracting artists who were often outsiders or defiantly independent. This in turn provided the society with a diversity of talents. Unlike many artists’ societies of the time, which were composed mainly of men, this group included several female artists, among them Clare Atwood, Isobelle Ann Dods-Withers and Constance Rea. Of the three, Clare Atwood was perhaps the most mercurial and unconventional. A student of the Slade, Atwood exhibited early on with the New English Art Club under James McNeill Whistler and Walter Sickert. It served, much as the Twenty-Five, as a platform for artists influenced by Impressionism, and whose work was largely rejected by the conservative Royal Academy. Like Sickert, Atwood’s love of theatre penetrated much of her early work which can be seen in Dawn Breaking at Old Billingsgate (1910). In this picture, Atwood deftly captures the feverish movement of the market, beneath the towering industrial architecture and monumental fluted columns that soar above the melée. Such allusions to Billingsgate market as a place of urban theatre abound in this work. The vertiginous perspective and the vista created by the steel columns and transverse beams around it, form a metaphorical ‘proscenium arch’ that frames the drama as if we are watching a play unfold from ‘the Gods’. The influence of Impressionism is seen in the strength of light and her dramatic use of colour. Here, the intensity of the sun’s rays is picked out in thick daubs of orange paint, whilst simultaneously she creates depth using thinly scumbled layers of green and black to shape forms shrouded in almost complete darkness.
The Studio critic was keen to point out – in rather dramatic terms - how artists such as Atwood each show ‘themselves distinctly “on the side of the angles” – of light! They are all impressionists, meeting Nature outside the ancient landscape garden from which impressionism was the gate.’ One such artist who wasn’t afraid of getting out in the wilds and wilderness was the Ayrshire born George Houston. Houston’s beautiful and tranquil paintings of the lowlands and west coast of Scotland were, according to the Royal Scottish Academy‘s eulogy on his death, “amongst the finest landscapes produced in Scotland”. His distinctive vision was “…direct and simple and was interpreted with a technique baffling in it apparent ease’. 
In his work there is much emotional force and feeling. ‘His vision develops more profound and penetrative…becoming more accomplished with his hand, his heart - his soul if you like - is taking a great share of the work.… He never fails to excite the liveliest admiration by his handling of the artist material. There was never a stroke of the brush that was not essential to the general affect. His hand seemed never to hesitate, never to be in doubt, never to go “a kennin’ wrang”  This confidence with painting en plein air was common in his output and can be seen in both The Heralds of Spring (currently on view at The Fine Art Society, Ediburgh) and his views of Iona. The Heralds of Spring was exhibited in his third one-man show at the Warneuke’s Gallery in Glasgow in January 1913.
Other oils exhibited included extensive landscapes of Ayrshire, Glenn Goil, Glenn Orchy and Iona in the summer. These works are significant as children, often Houston’s daughters Jeanie and Agnes, begin to appear: one with the Scarlet Bonnet in the foreground, the other perched on a tree branch.
Like his pastoral landscapes, his paintings from Iona, a result of his annual trips out to the island from 1898-1909, reflect the tranquil and sweeping vistas of the Hebridean island. They were praised for their 'extraordinary fidelity' with which his fluent and spontaneous brushwork portrayed the sands, rocks, and colours of the sea. Houston received critical acclaim during his lifetime, particularly for his remarkably serendipitous tour around the world following a trip to Japan in 1911.
Houston was not the only member of the Twenty-Five to have visited Japan, and to have been influenced by the landscape and its people. In pursuit of this taste for Japonisme – made popular in Britain by the likes of James McNeill Whistler, Christopher Dresser and E. W. Godwin - fellow Scotsman Edward Atkinson Hornel travelled to Japan in 1893, ‘to see and study the environment out of which this great art sprung, to become personally in touch with the people, to live their life, and discover the source of their inspiration’. 
Its impact on his output was enormous, but by 1896 Hornel had begun to exhaust his Japanese studies and he returned to subject matter closer to home and his adopted town of Kirkcudbright. Here he captured idyllic scenes of children in nature, often shown to be enchanted by the flowers and butterflies that surround them. He reinforces this by integrating them into their background of flowers and foliage. Girls and Swans (soon to be on view at Harbour Cottage Gallery, Kirkcudbright), was executed in 1901 around the time that Hornel moved to Broughton House, Kirkcudbright, where he created a Japanese garden, extending the interest in Japan. This garden and his fascination with it can be seen in his paintings and, although he was known to have used photographs like Walter Sickert, like many in the Twenty-Five, he also painted en plein air.
In each of these artists’ work it is not difficult to see their high regard for the great tradition of composition. Their work is a departure from the consciously scientific attitude towards nature, as well as the overt imitations of nature and the landscape that appear cold and lack lyricism in their pallets. Although there remained some activity within the members of the society until it disbanded in 1928, their exhibition in 1924 at The Fine Art Society was to be the last of The Society of Twenty-Five Painters. The influence these artists had on the post-impressionist movement was widely felt and their position in the history of British art is undeniable. They helped instate a movement that separated itself from the formalism of late Victorian painting; taking up creative ideals instead of the interpretive ones and challenging the viewer with new, if a little recondite, perspectives of the much altered and advancing world around them.
 Euan Robson, George Houston: Nature's Limner (Atelier Books 1997) p. 1
 Ibid. Quoted from The Scottish Herald p.31
 Bill Smith, Hornel (Edinburgh, 1997) p.89
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