In Britain in the early eighteenth century there was no organised public official patronage of the arts, aside from commissions for specific projects. There was no established body to compare with the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture that Jean-Baptiste Colbert had established in France, and no public exhibitions of recent paintings along the lines of the Paris salons, held every other year.
The closest approximation to an academic life-drawing class was established in Great Queen Street in 1711 under twelve directors, with Sir Godfrey Kneller as its governor. George Vertue, a founder-member, describes it as "the Academy of Painting", although there is no evidence that any painting was ever done there. Sir James Thornhill took over from Kneller in 1718, but a few years later, after a period of infighting, he started a new academy, conducting life-drawing classes from a room he added to his own house in James Street, Covent Garden, from 1724 while a faction led by John Vanderbank and Louis Chéron set up what they advertised as "The Academy for the Improvement of Painters and Sculptors by drawing from the Naked" at premises in St Martin's Lane. It proved popular, but failed after a few years when the subscriptions were embezzled by the treasurer. Thornhill continued his life-classes until his death in May 1734, but had little success in finding subscribers. Hogarth, (who was Thornhill's son-in-law) attributed its failure at least in part to the competition from Vanderbank and Cheron.
It was Hogarth who established the St. Martin's Lane Academy in 1735, using the equipment from Thornhill's studio, and he remained its central figure. It is sometimes referred to as the "Second St Martin's Lane Academy", to differentiate it from that of Vanderbank and Chéron. Hogarth wrote an account of its formation in about 1760, in which he takes credit for the democratic principle that all should contribute an equal sum to the Academy's expenses and have an equal vote, "attributing the failure of the previous academies to the leading members having assumed a superiority which their fellow-students could not brook." Thus the academy abandoned hierarchic seventeenth-century precedents and was formed on the basis of a club. The members of the academy took turns to "set" the model – that is decide his or her pose – rather than having this done by a paid director of the sort employed in French academies. Hogarth was opposed to copying from pictures, but there may have been casts to work from, inherited from Thornhill's studio. The premises of the Academy were a large room in Peter's Court, entered from St Martin's Lane through a low vaulted passageway.
The membership of the academy was formed from an informal, club-like circle that was in the habit of meeting at Old Slaughter's Coffee House, which had been at 74 and 75, St. Martin's Lane since 1692, when the neighbourhood was still distinctly suburban. It was known as"Old" Slaughter's Coffee House after 1742, when a new Slaughter's Coffee House opened, at no. 82 (more recently the site of Westminster County Court).
Hogarth seems to have had some assistance in running the academy.George Vertue noted early in 1745 "The academy for the study of painting & other artists [sic] is carryd on and conducted by several, Ellis, Hayman, Gravelot, Wills— &c..." Of these four named by Vertue, the most obscure is James Wills (working c. 1740–1777), later the Rev. James Wills. In 1754 he made a
translation of du Fresnoy's stilted and old-fashioned Latin poem on the art of painting, De arte graphica, which did not meet a successful reception. but which apparently identifies Wills as the "Fresnoy" who published bitterly sarcastic invective at Sir Joshua Reynolds and artists like Zoffany who had left the Society of Artists to join the newly founded Royal Academy. His conversation piece The Andrews Family (signed "J. Wills pinxit" and dated 1749) is in the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum. Edward Edwards' continuation of Walpole's Anecdotes of Painters (1808:55) notes that Wills had painted some portraits and historical subjects, "but not meeting much success in his profession he quit it, and having received a liberal education, took orders. He was for some years curate at Cannons, Middlesex, where the prominent cabinet-maker of St. Martin's Lane
William Hallett had built a residence on part of the foundations of the great demolished house. In 1772 Wills was appointed to the living at Canons by Hallett's grandson, the subject, with his wife, of Gainsborough's The Morning Walk (1787).
Hogarth's involvement with the academy began to decline in 1753, following the circulation by its secretary, Francis Milner Newton, of a letter calling a meeting with the intention of electing 24 artists as professors of a putative public academy. Hogarth had long been opposed to the idea of such an institution. Newton's plans came to nothing, and the academy continued, under Francis Hayman and George Michael Moser. Moser moved the school to Pall Mall in 1767, and it closed four years later, when he became the first keeper of the Royal Academy.