The Society was founded in 1920 by a group of artists that included Philip Hagreen, Robert Gibbings, Lucien Pissaro, Gwen Raverat and Eric Gill. They held an annual exhibition that attracted work from other notable artists such as David Jones, John and Paul Nash, Paul Gauguin and Clare Leighton. The group thrived until war broke out, disrupted the demand for their work and cut the supply of materials. In the years that followed, there was a return to the annual exhibition but the group and the cultural context had changed.
After a decade in which there were no exhibitions, the SWE was revived in the early 1980's and has built up an international reputation for excellence. The two main, regular activities of the Society are its annual touring exhibition and newsletter. The exhibition, stringently selected from an open submission, visits about eight venues each year, showing the best of current work from Britain and other countries. The newsletter is currently published six times a year.