We are all aware of the growth and number of coffee shops around the world. Almost every high street can boast a Starbucks, Costa or Nero to name but a few. They may seem to be a modern phenomenon but coffee houses can trace their history back for hundreds of years. And they have also been more than influential in forming some of the major business and cultural institutions we find today. These include the London Stock Exchange and the insurer, Lloyds of London.
But the one I want to highlight is a centre for the arts today. It is the Royal Academy of Arts. Ale houses and taverns had existed long before the advent of coffee houses. People met at these establishments but if you wanted to discuss topics of business or social subjects, it was quite a challenge. Drunkenness and open prostitution were a normal part of the character of these places.
But coffee houses were different and brought a new proposition to the table. It allowed businessmen to discuss the news of the day or the local gossip. But in those days, only men were admitted. Women could work there or even own the establishment, but not partake. Old Slaughter’s Coffee House was a bit different in as much as it catered to the artists and theatricals of the day. It was located at the edge of Covent Garden at 75 St Martin’s Lane and first opened its doors in 1692. At this time Covent Garden was the centre for the arts and those of an intellectual disposition.
Regular customers at Old Slaughter’s included the artists William Hogarth and Thomas Gainsborough, the architect Robert Adam and the furniture designer John Linnell. In 1735 they formed a group located at the coffee house called the St Martin’s Lane Academy. It encouraged new artistic talent and offered classes in drawing technique.
Over the years, their influence grew and in 1767, they changed the name to the Royal Academy and moved to new premises in Pall Mall, not far from where Buckingham Palace is located. Today the Royal Academy of Arts can be found in Piccadilly where a variety of art exhibitions are put on throughout the year.
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