Victorian Art & Design
William Powell Frith 1819-1909
Frith was a friend of the novelist Charles Dickens and painted a fine portrait of him, now in the V&A.. Like Dickens, Frith's most popular works were scenes showing the daily life of all social classes, not just the rich.. Frith painted three very popular scenes from "modern Life". The first, Ramsgate Sands, showed large crowds at the seaside. The second was Derby Day showing the crowds at the Derby, a famous horse race held every May. The third was The Railway Station, showing a crowded scene at London's Paddington Station.
Life at the Seaside, or Ramsgate Sands was based on Frith's holiday visit to the Kent seaside resort of Ramsgate in 1851. In his 1887 Autobiography he says, "I had determined to try my hand on modern life, with all its drawbacks of unpicturesque dress. The variety of character at Ramsgate Sands attracted me-all sorts of conditions of men and women were there/ ". Ramsgate Sands was immensely popular. Frith exhibited it at the Royal Academy in 1854. The art critic John Ruskin praised it and Queen Victoria bought the painting for the Royal Collection.
Before this Frith had painted mainly costume paintings, of models dressed as characters from history or literature, like Othello and Desdemona. now in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. He started this in 1840 and finished it in time to exhibit it at the Royal Academy in 1856.
In 1858 Frith exhibited another "modern painting" at the Royal Academy, This was Derby Day, which had nearly ninety figures. It now belongs to the Tate Gallery. The Manchester City Art Gallery has a second version. Frith admitted that he did not visit the Epsom Downs to study the horse race, but the "life and character" of those in the crowds who came to watch it. He painted a number of characters of bad repute and a wealthy family having a picnic in their carriage, watched enviously by some of the poor. One of Frith's fellow students at Sass's Art Academy was Jacob Bell. He had inherited a prosperous pharmaceutical business and Frith relied on his promise to buy the painting for £1,500. The art dealer Ernest Gambart agreed to pay Frith another £1,500 for the copyright, the right to print and sell engravings of the painting. He arranged for the painting to tour British and Australian cities to promote the sale of the engraving. Bell and Gambart both helped Frith while he was painting it. Bell paid some of the fees for the many models who were needed. Derby Day was even more popular than Ramsgate Sands. The Academy had to hire a Policeman to protect the painting from the crowds and then, at Bell's request, they had to place a railing round it for extra protection.
In 1862 Frith exhibited The Railway Station at the Royal Academy. It now belongs to the Royal Holloway and New Bedford College at Egham. It shows a large crowd of passengers at London's Paddington Station. In the centre Frith showed his own family saying goodbye to two of his sons as they left by train to go to boarding school. On the right he showed two famous detectives arresting a well known murderer. The purchaser L. V. Platow wanted to be shown as the engine driver, but the driver insisted that he must be shown with his engine, so Frith painted Flatow next to him. Frith did not exhibit The Railway Station at the Royal Academy as Flatow wished to display it at his gallery with one the engravings of the painting and a booklet about it which were for sale. Frith says that in seven weeks over 21,000 people paid to see it.
In 1858 Queen Victoria asked Frith to paint the wedding of the Princess Royal but he refused. Later, in 1863, she asked Frith to paint The Wedding of the Prince of Wales and he agreed to do it for £3000. It was a great deal of work as it included 139 portraits and some of the sitters were very difficult, especially the young Prince William of Prussia who got paint all over his face and yelled with fury. The Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool has Frith's smaller replica of the ten foot original in Buckingham Palace.
The last of Frith's large modern life paintings was A Private View at the Royal Academy,1881. This has over thirty figures. Frith showed Leighton, the President of the Royal Academy in the centre but he also showed Oscar Wilde "a well-known apostle of the beautiful, with a herd of eager worshippers" and "the aesthetic craze as regards dress" Wilde had attacked Frith's paintings and he got his own back in this painting, but he was not the only person to make fun of the aesthetes. George Du Maurier also mocked them in his drawings in Punch, and Gilbert and Sullivan mocked them in their comic opera Patience..
Frith also painted two series of morality paintings. These were similar in subject matter to Marriage a la Mode and The Rake's Progress, the series of morality paintings by the 18th century artist William Hogarth. Frith's villains, like Hogarth's, come to an unhappy end, in just retribution for their evil deeds. Just as Hogarth had increased the circulation of his series of paintings by reproducing them as engravings, so Ernest Gambart sold engravings of Frith's two morality series. The first in 1878 was The Road to Ruin. The first painting, The College, shows the student gambling with cards in his room at University. The next is Ascot which shows him losing more money gambling on horse races, Arrest shows two Bailiffs arriving at his home. Struggles shows his family living in one room in France and The End shows the gambler in a poorly furnished room about to kill himself.
The second morality series in 1880 was The Race for Wealth. This shows the shady financier, the Spider, who sells worthless shares to easily gullible Flies, people like widows and clergymen. The finest of the paintings is Judgement. This shows the trial of the Spider at the Old Bailey. The Judge is a portrait of Sir John Huddleston, the Judge in the Whistler v Ruskin libel trial, when Frith spoke as a witness for Ruskin. The last scene is Retribution. It shows the fate of the shady financier, the Spider, dressed in a convict's uniform with other prisoners in the exercise yard of Millbank Prison. The paintings are in the Baroda Museum in India but Birmingham City Museum www.bmagic.org.uk has a replica of Retribution.
Frith and Burne-Jones were witnesses for Ruskin when Whistler accused him of libelling his painting at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1878. Ruskin's lawyer asked Frith, whether he thought that Whistler's paintings were works of art. Frith replied, "I should say not". In his later life Frith wrote the story of his life and wrote articles for The Magazine of Art. He was somewhat reactionary and he called the Pre-Raphaelites "a ridiculous movement."
Other paintings by Frith include his fine portrait Annie Gambart at Harrogate, At the Opera, which shows a seated woman in the audience, at Preston, and Happy Returns of the Day, also at Harrogate. This shows a child's birthday party. Most of the figures were modelled on Frith's own family but Frith says that he modelled the old grandfather on a poor man, found in the Workhouse. Frith's painting The New Dress is in the Lady Lever Gallery at Port Sunlight, as Lord Leverhulme bought it to use in advertisements for his Pears Soap.
Quiz, Books on Frith