Monday 17 June 2019


By the time this History Girls post appears, a major and comprehensive bicentennial exhibition - WILLIAM FRITH: THE PEOPLE'S PAINTER - will just have opened at the Mercer Gallery in Harrogate, North Yorkshire. The exhibition runs until the 29th of September 2019. 

By then, living locally, I'll have called in with my notebook and scribbled thoughts on his detailed paintings because William Powell Frith's great crowd scenes, full of colour and life, are an excellent, if sanitised, visual resource for any writer of Victorian historical fiction.

William Frith – Wikipedia
Frith was born in Aldfield, a small village close by the Fountains Abbey Estate in Yorkshire. His father was an inn-keeper in the popular spa of Harrogate and ambitious for his son.

In 1835, aged 16, Frith was sent to the Royal Academy School in London. This was followed by further study at Henry Sass's academy where he suffered the tedious art-teaching approaches of 1830's, established "The Clique", a small rebelious group that included Richard Dadd. Even so, by 1840, Frith was regularly exhibiting paintings of idealised historical scenes and building a reputation in London.
However, by 1851, Frith had grown weary of costume and  pageant and "determined to try his hand at modern life with all its drawbacks of unpicturesqueness of dress". 

It is that very, detailed "unpicturesqueness" which gives interest and charm to his work todaay.
Frith went to Ramsgate Sands to work on studies of the holiday makers and also to try, unsuccessfully, to make use of "Talbot-typing" or photography. 

Frith worked on the painting for a further two years in his studio; the overcrowded beach at Ramsgate became Life at the Seaside and was a huge success when he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1854.

(Life at the Seaside. Detail from the Victorian Web)

Ramsgate Sands by William Powell Frith, RA

More panoramas followed. His next masterpiece showed the throng at the carnival that was Derby Day.  The subject was well-chosen: the popular social event happened close to London and was widely attended by all layers of society, which in turn would add interest to the whole as well as offering Frith ideas for groups of characters.

He later recreated these small group scenes with models back in his studio, but he had also taken along the photographer Robert Howlett, instructing him to "take photographs from the roof of a cab of as many queer groups of figures as he could see", even though Frith, like many, kept quiet on his use of photographic images. After fifteen months hard work, Derby Day was ready and exhibited to much acclaim in 1858. 

Frith was a master in choosing his subjects: he took the railway, the great topic of the age for his next "modern" work, showing the busy arrivals and poignant departures on view at Paddington in The Railway Station, which was exhibited to great acclaim in 1862, just four years later.  The large sweep of the painting, and the many small stories being played out within the whole, made Frith's work a great triumph: Ruskin praised the artist's "feat of organisation of all the details", although the details of railway travel had been rather tidied up in the painting.

File:Wedding of Albert Edward Prince of Wales and ...The success led to a highly profitable commission from a dealer to work on a series of three modern London Street scenes. Unfortunately, Frith had to put the wonderful idea on hold.

Queen Victoria invited Frith to paint The Marriage of the Prince of Wales in 1863, a request and honour that was impossible to refuse.

Despite what might have been thought the reward of the royal command, in truth Frith's aristocratic "models" proved far less easy to manage than his usual sitters, and the £3,000 fee he was granted was barely a third of what he has hoped for from his intended London series. Consequently, only a few early sketches exist for The Times of the Day, intended be Frith's own Hogarthian view of Victorian London.

Afterwards, he did complete a series of four paintings - The Road to Ruin - on the highly popular moral topic of the dangers of gambling, followed by a series of five pictures on the perils of Speculation, The Race for Wealth. Both subjects discreetly echoed scanadlous news stories of the time. He was certainly an artist with his finger on the nation's pulse.

Frith's last "modern" painting, Private View at the Royal Academy, showing the great and the good with what now seem like over-crowded walls of paintings behind them. It was exhibited in 1881. From then on, Frith returned to the familiar topics of his early paintings, and to smaller-scale works such as the birthday party of a four-year-old girl, titled Many Happy Returns of the Day which is still popular in card-shops today.

Frith was truly a people's artist. A known raconteur, and great friend of Charles Dickens, his work displays the same storytelling power: his canvasses are filled with characters from all levels of society, allowing Frith to reveal, rather slyly, the social tensions and complexities of his age. When his large paintings went on tour, rails were erected to keep the public back from the canvasses and extra staff brought in as protection. Furthermore, the mass-produced engravings of Frith's made him one of the most commercially-successful artists of the age, and copies of his works could be found hanging in parlours across the whole Victorian world. Frith, whose life was almost the same length as Queen Victoria's, even found the energy and time to write his own three-volume Autobiography before he dying in 1909.

William Powell Frith's "modern" Victorian scenes still have the power to attract, interest and nostalgically involve the viewer today and I am looking forward to seeing his work will be on display at the Mercer Gallery's bicentenary exhibition. 

I feel as if I half-know the crowds at Ramsgate, Paddington and Derby Day, who will certainly be there,  but I wonder who else I'll find when I go Victorian people-watching?

Penny Dolan

Thanks to the Mercer Gallery and to Christopher Wood's book on "Victorian Painting" for additional information and to the Victorian Web for the Life at the Seaside detail.

"William Frith: The People's Painter! by Jane Sellars MBE and Richard Green will be published to coincide with the Mercer Gallery exhibition.



Sue Purkiss said...

I hadn't heard of him, though I'm sure I've seen some of these immensely detailed paintings. Thanks, Penny!

Susan Price said...

I echo Sue's thanks. I knew Derby Day and the Academy painting but had never see the railway station. All the little events going on look fascinating -- I see somebody who looks as if he might be Scots (tam o'shanter on head) confronting a group of toffs in a carriage doorway -- while on the other side of the painting an elderly man is putting a lead on a collie. Is that a bridal party? There's a mother passionately kissing a small boy, who is presumably being sent away to school to become a psychologically troubled. There's a man dressed like a worker barging his way through the crowd and he may or may not be with the alarmed looking woman beside him... I wish I could see it on a larger scale.

Joan Lennon said...

He's new to me - luscious stuff - thanks, Penny!