In 1948 six local artists decided to hold an exhibition of their work and invited other artists working within a certain radius of Axminster to participate. The response was immediate and enthusiastic and resulted in a very successful exhibition being held in the Church Rooms in Axminster which was attended by over 1,000 people. It was apparent from this that there was a place for meetings at which artists might discuss their work and exchange information about techniques and artistic subjects. So Mr William Gill and Colonel Tyte, with others, held a meeting in July 1948 to form the Axminster Art Society. The aims of the society were to further interests in the fine arts and crafts excluding photography. Perhaps it was felt that the latter was too mechanical to be of appeal to artists!
Mrs L M Robertson, Chairman of the U.D.C., became the first President and continued for the amazing period of 30 years. She was obviously a very energetic and enthusiastic person and one of her first ideas was to invite the great and the good to become vice presidents; this position held no executive duties other than to try to further the interests and objectives of the Society. There was an excellent response and several Lords of the Manor and Church dignitaries became vice presidents, including Viscount Sidmouth, Vice Admiral Sir Francis Pridham and Geoffrey Roper of Forde Abbey. The membership grew to 79 by 1950 and then, rapidly, to 120; it reached a maximum of 170 in 1972.
In the early years there were two levels of membership and the subscription was ten shillings and sixpence for full members and five shillings for associate members – quite a lot of money in those days! At this time the nearest art society was in Exeter, unlike today when almost every town has a society of its own.
One of the most interesting members of the Society was Mr. William Gill, he was not a president but did a great deal for the society. He was a local baker, working with his father and brother in a family business. The family also ran cafes in Axminster, Honiton and Chard and grew the vegetables for these in the garden behind their cottage. Somehow he found the time to paint and exhibited 6 or 7 times at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Tragically he died in 1959 at the relatively young age of 52, but was so well thought of that a memorial exhibition of his work was arranged by the Society, which was very well attended.
Associate members were not allowed to exhibit but could attend meetings and courses; the reason was to ensure the quality of exhibits. Certainly the society was conscious of its standards and subsequently all applicants were required to submit three examples of their work to determine whether they should be admitted. This practice has been discontinued in recent years as it was considered that beginners should be encouraged and support given to all who wished to join the society. All members were able to attend demonstrations and lectures by well-known artists such as Patrick Larking (who was also a member), Edward Wesson, Ronald Jesty, Allan Cotton and latterly Michael Morgan, John Lines, Ray Balkwill, Michael Stride and John Coleman.
In the early days members had the luxury of a printed catalogue. In this exhibition of 1961 there were 183 exhibits, nearly twice the number of today's exhibits, and all priced in guineas!
A number of catalogues and cuttings have survived and in one a Mr. Jackman recalls an "outstanding" visitor to the 1956 exhibition. “ He was a rather dirty, greasy old tramp with a matted beard, carrying a sack and a bottle in his pocket. I had unworthy thoughts about him and kept my eye on the cash box. However he stood entranced for a long time before The Judgment of Paris. After shuffling around and viewing the other exhibits, but with far less interest, he gave me 4d, and slept off the effects of the show on a seat in the churchyard.”
Today, with the formation of more art societies in the area, the membership stands at approximately 60. Two exhibitions are normally held each year, the main one being the two day event in our own marquee at the prestigious Axe Vale Festival in June. This event has a large local following and Members' paintings have been sold to visitors from all over the world.
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