William Powell Frith (19
January 1819 9 November 1909) was an English painter[
specialising in genre subjects and panoramic narrative works
of life in the Victorian era. He was elected to the Royal
Academy in 1853, presenting The Sleeping Model as his
Diploma work. He has been described as the "greatest British
painter of the social scene since Hogarth".
Life and career
Born in Aldfield, North Yorkshire, Frith was encouraged to
take up art by his father, a hotelier in Harrogate. He moved
to London in 1835 where he began his formal art studies at
Sasss Academy in Charlotte Street, before attending the
Royal Academy Schools. Frith started his career as a
portrait painter and first exhibited at the British
Institution in 1838. In the 1840s he often based works on
the literary output of writers such as Charles Dickens,
whose portrait he painted, and Laurence Sterne.
He was a member of The
Clique, which also included Richard Dadd. The principal
influence on his work was the hugely popular domestic
subjects painted by Sir David Wilkie. Wilkie's famous
painting The Chelsea Pensioners was a spur to the creation
of Frith's own most famous compositions. Following the
precedent of Wilkie, but also imitating the work of his
friend Dickens, Frith created complex multi-figure
compositions depicting the full range of the Victorian class
system, meeting and interacting in public places. In
Ramsgate Sands, Life at the Seaside (1854) he depicted
visitors and entertainers at the seaside resort. He followed
this with The Derby Day, depicting scenes among the crowd at
the race at Epsom Downs, which was based on photographic
studies by Robert Howlett. This 1858 composition was bought
by Jacob Bell for £1,500. It was so popular that it had to
be protected by a specially installed rail when shown at the
Royal Academy of Arts. Another well-known painting was The
Railway Station, a scene of Paddington station. In 1865 he
was chosen to paint the Marriage of the Prince of Wales.
His 1858 painting The Crossing Sweeper has been described as
breaking "new ground in its description of the collision of
wealth and poverty on a London street."
Later in his career he
painted two series of five pictures each, telling moral
stories in the manner of William Hogarth. These were the
Road to Ruin (1878), about the dangers of gambling, and the
Race for Wealth (1880) about reckless financial speculation.
He retired from the Royal Academy in 1890 but continued to
exhibit until 1902.
Frith was a traditionalist
who made known his aversion to modern-art developments in a
couple of autobiographies My Autobiography and
Reminiscences (1887) and Further Reminiscences (1888) and
other writings. He was also an inveterate enemy of the
Pre-Raphaelites and of the Aesthetic Movement, which he
satirised in his painting A Private View at the Royal
Academy (1883), in which Oscar Wilde is depicted discoursing
on art while Frith's friends look on disapprovingly. Fellow
traditionalist Frederic Leighton is featured in the
painting, which also portrays painter John Everett Millais
and novelist Anthony Trollope.
Frith lived a curious
domestic life married to Isabelle with twelve children,
whilst a mile down the road maintaining a mistress (Mary
Alford, formerly his ward) and seven more children all a
marked contrast to the upright family scenes depicted in
paintings like Many Happy Returns of the Day. Frith married
Mary on the death of Isabelle in 1880. In his later years he
painted many copies of his famous paintings, as well as more
sexually uninhibited works, such as the nude After the Bath.
A well-known raconteur, his writings, most notably his
chatty autobiography, were very popular.
In 1856 Frith was
photographed at "The Photographed Institute" by Robert
Howlett, as part of a series of portraits of "fine artists".
The picture was among a group exhibited at the Art Treasures
Exhibition in Manchester in 1857.
Frith was great uncle and
an advisor to the English school portrait painter Henry
Keyworth Raine (18721932 ).
Frith is buried in Kensal
Green Cemetery, London W10.
Exhibitions and legacy
The first major retrospective in Frith's native Britain for
half a century was staged at the Guildhall Art Gallery,
London in November 2006. It transferred to Mercer Art
Gallery in Harrogate, North Yorkshire in March 2007. Frith's
study for his last major work, The Private View, 1881, is in
the Mercer Art Gallery. Frith has paintings in the
collection of several British institutions including Derby
Art Gallery, Sheffield, Harrogate and the Victoria and
Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Portrait of a Lady with a Fan
Portrait of a Young Girl
Portrait of Two Girls
Poverty and Wealth
The Private View of the Royal
The Railway Station
The Rejected Poet
A Royal Princess
The Salon d'Or, Homburg
Sancho Panza Tells a Tale to the
Duke and Duchess (from Cervantes' 'Don Quixote')
Scene from 'A Sentimental
Scene from Laurence Sterne's 'A
A Scene from 'Le Bourgeois
Scene from 'The Spectator'