Art Societies featured in colonial Tasmanian culture after the 1843 visit to Hobart of British artist, John Skinner Prout. The first leader of an Australian art movement, he gave public lectures, tutored an active artist group and popularised landscape painting. In 1845, an art exhibition was held in the Legislative Council Chambers – the majority of the 276 works were British oils and watercolours removed from parlour walls for public viewing, with local art represented by Prout, Bock, Bishop Nixon and Simpkinson de Wesselow. Drawing was a respectable activity for young middle-class women in the 1850s, with the Drawing Class for Ladies the most successful activity at the Hobart Mechanics' Institute.
Art classes and societies proliferated in the 1880s and 1890s – with Hobart woman Louisa Swan a catalyst. In 1884 she and Maria Evans formed a sketch club in Hobart known as the Art Association, which later became the Art Society of Tasmania. It was established to advance art in the community through fostering both emerging and established artists, and regularly presenting public exhibitions. Exhibitions were held in various locations until 1948, when the Lady Franklin Museum in Lenah Valley became its permanent home.
Likewise in the north, the precursor to the Launceston Art Society was the Launceston Drawing Club, with Louisa Swan the honorary secretary. Its thirty members were 'a select art society of ladies who love to devote their leisure moments to the fascinating companionship of their easel and colour-box, and the enjoyment of that sweet influence which an affection for the study of the fine arts affords'. Its first exhibition in 1891 comprised drawings, oil paintings, watercolours, photographs and 'bric-a-brac', and male contributors were contributing by the second exhibition. The Society played an important role in broadening the spectrum of art available to locals by encouraging mainland and southern artists to contribute to its annual exhibitions, circulating art publications and holding art lectures.
Both societies maintained a close association in the early years, exhibiting at counterpart shows, compiling an album of sketches for the 1901 royal visit, and exhibiting in San Francisco in 1914. Still thriving, both groups have enjoyed the support of distinguished patrons, and included among their members many prominent artists.
Arts and crafts were a notable feature of exhibitions from the late 1890s – fostered through the Hobart Technical School's popular Arts and Crafts Department and the formation of the Tasmanian Arts and Crafts Society in 1903. The movement flourished until the outbreak of war in 1914 nd dwindled in the interwar period.
Many art societies have come and gone over the years. The Colour Circle, formed in Hobart in the late 1950s from an Adult Education art class, is still active. Other contemporary groups include the Calligraphy Society of Tasmania, the Tasmanian Art Group, the Miniature Art Society of TasmaniaF the Burnie Coastal Art Group, and the recently-formed Arts Alive Community Art Access Space in Launceston.
Further reading: P Bolger, Hobart Town, Canberra, 1973; Mercury, 10 October 1990; J O'Keefe (ed), The Art Society of Tasmania Inc, Hobart, 1999; QVMAG, The Launceston Art Society in retrospect 1891–1983, Launceston, 1983.