William Powell Frith

(19 January 1819 - 9 November 1909)


William Powell Frith was the greatest British painter of the social scene since Hogarth. His panoramas of nineteenth-century life broke new ground in their depiction of the diverse London crowd, and they are now icons of their age. Frith’s popularity in his lifetime was unprecedented; on six separate occasions special railings had to be built at the Royal Academy to protect his paintings from an admiring public.

William Powell Frith was born in 1819 in Aldfield, a village in North Yorkshire. His father was the house steward at Studley Royal. However, he soon moved on to become a hotel manager in Harrogate. The young William's artistic talent caught his father's attention and it was he who encouraged the boy.

At 16 years of age Frith found himself down in London at the Sass Academy and in three years he gained a place at none other than the Royal Academy. His need for money meant that, whilst studying, he worked as a portrait painter.

In 1838 he had his first picture exhibited in London at the British Institute and two years later "Twelfth Night" was shown at the Royal Academy of Art. For the whole of his life he enjoyed painting literary and historic scenes including Shakespeare.

He was greatly influenced by others such as his friend David Wilkie, who painted "The Chelsea Pensioners". He admired the works of the novelist Charles Dickens. These men inspired him to branch out into larger composite pictures which soon gained him fame.

He always loved to paint the human form and it was the careful observation of people in everyday situations that lead on to his larger works. He was always amazed when fellow artists told him that they painted from memory. He relied entirely on painting actual people. He liked to use ordinary people as models but they often turned up drunk and had no sense of responsibility. So, as well as professional models, Frith placed friends and family in his work.

His first triumph, a picture bought by Queen Victoria herself, was 'Ramsgate Sands' (Life at the Seaside) completed in 1851. It was inspired by a holiday taken there with his wife and family. He wanted to paint contemporary life instead of the set poses of portraits. This work took him a long time and to begin with he was uncertain if it would be popular. However, it sold for 1,000 guineas.

This picture was followed in 1858 with "The Derby Day", showing one of the great events in the horse racing year. Again he painted the mix of 'types' that public events attract - some good, some bad. It took him 15 months to complete it and he took the novel step of hiring a photographer to aid him, by taking photographs at the race course. When the picture was first shown rails were needed to keep the viewers back.

In 1862 Frith used Paddington Station as the subject of "The Railway", a third large composition. His family and servants all stood as models and he even placed himself in the picture. The piece took a year to complete. Prints of his paintings made his work hugely popular.

His personal life was happy, though secretive. Frith and his wife had 12 children whom he loved and spent time with, unlike many Victorian fathers. You can see this in "Many Happy Returns of the Day", a picture of his daughter's birthday party.

However, a mile down the road lived his mistress with seven more children. Upon his wife's death he married her and all became public -- something which scandalised his children by his first marriage.

There were many more pictures -- moral tales, portraits of the famous, royal events. His popularity faded in the 1880s. He blamed the new impressionist movement which did not to his mind show the care in painting of his works. Frith had no time for the Pre-Raphaelites.

He died in 1909 following an illness of 4 days and was cremated, as was his wish. He saw himself not as a great artist but as one who achieved success.

© Copyright Ownership harrogate.gov.uk

Interesting note:
Queen Victoria: 24 May 1819 - 22 Jan 1901
William P. Frith: 19 January 1819 - 9 November 1909

Mouseover to Enlarge Images
Princess of Wales* Prince of Wales Marriage
The Shy Model The Sleeping Model
*Princess of Wales posing for her and Prince of Wales Marriage painting; Frith using this sitting to paint her likeness into picture.

Mouseover to Enlarge Images

'Derby Day' Epsom Downs (1858) depicts the panoramic view of Epsom Downs. The Derby is one of the great events in the British horseracing calendar. Named after Lord Derby, the founder of the race, it is held every year on Epsom Downs, about 15 miles from London. It was possible to travel by coach to London, see the race and then travel back again on the same day. Poorer people came on foot. The arrival of the railways made it easier to get to Epsom. What attracted Frith to this subject was that, like his earlier painting of Ramsgate Sands, it gave him the opportunity to pain a picture that show a panoramic mix of different "types" and classes of people. Although the picture is set on the racecourse, depicting the horses and the race was for Frith a secondary consideration. He was much more interested in the people and how they interacted.

A Private View (1881), exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1883. It depicts a group of distinguished Victorians visiting the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1881, just after the death of the Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, whose portrait by John Everett Millais was included on a screen at the special request of Queen Victoria (visible in the archway at the back of the room).

Frith worked on the painting through much of 1881 and 1882. He later said in My Autobiography and Reminiscences, published in 1887, that "Beyond the desire of recording for posterity the aesthetic craze as regards dress, I wished to hit the folly of listening to self-elected critics in matters of taste, whether in dress or art. I therefore planned a group, consisting of a well-known apostle of the beautiful, with a herd of eager worshippers surrounding him."

'Many Happy Returns' (1856) is the most important painting by Frith in the collection of the Mercer Art Gallery in Harrogate. The subject of this painting is a little girl's birthday party and it is actually a depiction of Frith's own family seated around the table celebrating the sixth birthday of his daughter Alice.

Paddington Station is the setting for "The Railway". It was the London terminus of the Great Western Railway built by the great Victorian engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, between 1850 and 1852. Trains ran to Exeter, Plymouth, Bristol, Cardiff and the West Country. It was a new exciting and modern building built with cast iron and glass and lit by gaslight.

Frith spent nearly 3 years working on "Ramsgate Sands" (1851-54). There are over 100 figures in it. It is arguably the greatest painting of the period showing Victorians on holiday at the seaside. Queen Victoria loved it and paid over 1,000 pounds to Frith for it. Now in the Royal Collection of Queen Elizabeth II.