illiam Powell Frith’s long life of ninety years spanned the period in which ‘being an artist’ changed from a labourers’ job, not far different from that of a house painter, to a position which brought not only gentlemanly wealth and status, but the possibility of being enobled by the Queen. He gained the first two goals, but not the third, and before his death in 1909 the outlook for artists changed again. They suffered a dramatic fall from popularity and another period of relative obscurity ensued until a revival of interest gradually gathered pace from the 1960s onwards.
Early life and training
Frith's self-portrait, aged about 19. [Click on
all the images to enlarge them, and for
more information about them.]
W.P Frith was born in Yorkshire on 9 January 1819, the son of an innkeeper, four months before the birth of the future Queen Victoria. As a boy Frith had no intention of becoming an artist. However his father saw promise in his son’s drawings and took him to London to study under Mr Sass, who could train him for the Royal Academy School. Frith, then aged sixteen, found London dirty and unattractive and was rather bored by his new life and the rigorous work schedule. However he persisted and was awarded a medal by the Society of Arts in 1835. Two years later he became a student at the Royal Academy where he formed a sketch club, later known as The Clique, with some fellow students who all remained good friends until their deaths. Frith himself found that painting portraits, even if he sold them for as little as five pounds, was a way of making money in what was a difficult environment.
Frith’s father died in 1837 and his mother came to London to live with her son. The fashion of the day was to illustrate scenes from literature so Frith tried his hand at Walter Scott and Shakespeare, to only moderate success. It was not until 1842 that he had his first break-through at the Royal Academy, when his painting of a subject from The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith (a novelist especially popular with Victorians) was well hung and sold for 100 guineas on the first day. Frith looked round for other literary subjects and settled on the works of Dickens; his painting of Dolly Varden earned him a letter from the great man who asked for two companion pictures. Gradually Frith began to gain more notice as an artist and he was elected ARA in 1845. He was twenty five.
Frith's depiction of Dolly Varden, c. 1842-49.
Frith’s autobiography, published in three volumes in 1887 and 1888 (when he was 68 and still had 22 years left to live) gives the details of his early life and continues with a most interesting overview of Victorian society during its artistic heyday. Among many anecdotes, related in a chatty and very readable style, he mentions all his friends and acquaintances in the artistic world, especially those in The Clique, Augustus Egg, Richard Dadd, Henry O’Neil, John Phillip, Edward Ward and Thomas Creswick. The works of the elderly but much admired Turner are also discussed, but the Pre-Raphaelites did not meet his approval in spite of Ruskin’s praise. Frith outlived them all: it was unusual at the time to reach the age of seventy and his best friend Egg (who painted a delightful portrait of him in the 1840s and another in 1850) died in 1863 aged only 47.
Frith's arrival on the artistic scene
As a young and struggling artist Frith lived in Osnaburgh Street but on his marriage to Isabelle Baker in 1845 he moved to Charlotte Street. Soon after he moved again to 13 and then 12 Park Village West and by the early 1850s he and his wife, now with three children, were living at 10 Pembridge Villas, a moderately sized house on a corner plot near Westbourne Park. Here vast swathes of land west of Hyde Park were being developed with new terraces and villas built especially to attract the newly monied middle classes. These proved very desirable, particularly with artists who wanted more space for their studios and a cleaner environment to work in; Creswick, Phillip and Egg all settled nearby. Some streets in the area had their house numbers changed during the 1860s, with No 10 becoming No 7 Pembridge Villas: the census of 1861 is missing but Frith's self-portrait as The Artist in His Studio (1867) clearly shows him installed there. He and his family (eventually twelve children in all, of whom ten survived to adulthood) were recorded living here in 1871 and 1881.
Left: 12 Park Village West. Frith moved into this house, from next door, in November 1848. Right: 7 Pembridge Villas in 1909 (author's postcard). Frith and his growing family had moved here by the early 1850s. He enlarged this house several times. First he constructed bay windows and a glass covered entrance on the front facade, then added two wings at the sides. Next a whole extra floor was built on top with a new ‘painting room’ and extra bedrooms. Finally he changed his former studio, the projection on the right hand side, into a Billiard room.
Frith continued his successful line of pictures in period costume and gradually moved up the artistic hierarchy for election to the coveted position of RA in 1853. At this time contemporary dress was thought ugly and ungainly, not a fit subject for painters. Classical drapes were preferred by the great Sir Joshua Reynolds, but Frith was more interested in modern life and costume. He wrote ‘I now approached the time when the desire to represent everyday life took an irresistible hold on me’ and by 1851 he had begun Life at the Seaside, or Ramsgate Sands as it is usually known. This involved a great deal of work with many groups of figures, each of which could be read as stories in their own right. It was not exhibited until 1854 but it was this groundbreaking panorama which really made his name: it was bought by Queen Victoria who subsequently became an enthusiastic supporter.
Ramsgate Sands, 1854.
Frith’s reminiscences are augmented by his daughter Cissie’s autobiography, Leaves from a Life, published in 1909. Cissie, who became Mrs Panton, was his third child and second daughter. She reveals much about life in a typical big Victorian family, a subject ignored in Frith’s reminiscences, and wrote at length about her father’s friends in the artistic community - Ansdell, Creswick, Elmore and Mulready who lived close by, as well as Henry O’Neil and John Phillip. Several of them used Cissie as a model and she modelled for her father too, and also for George du Maurier, claiming that she and her sisters appeared often in the pages of Punch. Other celebrities such as Sir Francis Grant, Leighton and Millais lived not far away and were subject to her sharp eyed comments.
Cissie also writes about her rather chaotic family, among whom she describes plenty of exciting happenings, parties and entertainments, with holidays taken at the seaside. Ramsgate was one of her favourite places, where the Calderons, du Mauriers and Burnands, all of whom had large families, liked to gather. Everyone clearly enjoyed themselves to the hilt and it seems that Victorian children were not at all repressed, but lively and opinionated. Cissie’s mother was the centre of this life with a new baby arriving every year, something rather resented by the elder children, but her father floated above it all, a much loved but distant figure. He did not mind what they did as long as he was not troubled.
Cissie did not hesitate to reveal the faults in her father’s character and clearly championed her mother when it came to domestic disagreements. Never clearly set out in either autobiography was the fracture at the heart of this family: Frith’s relationship with Mary Alford, his mistress who bore him seven children and lived only a short walk away from his home in Pembridge Villas. Frith married her after Isabelle died in 1880 but Cissie never forgave him or befriended the second family. His male friends all knew of the situation but none made any public comment: this is probably the reason why Frith, in spite of the fame and wealth he accrued over the years, never received the coveted knighthood. Queen Victoria might admire his art, but she was a stickler for marital fidelity.
Frith’s next picture after Ramsgate Sands was of a much smaller crowd, only thirteen figures, all his own family except for the addition of an elderly model as grandfather. Titled Many Happy Returns of the Day it showed his daughter Alice’s birthday party and was exhibited in 1856. Although Cissie, who was born in 1848, does not refer to this picture in her memoirs it perfectly illustrates the comfortable middle class life that she describes so well. However Frith was disappointed in its reception and began to cast around for a suitable subject for another panorama.
Study for Many Happy Returns of the Day, 1852.
Derby Day and The Railway Station
Frith began his next big crowd scene, Derby Day, the same year. This was on a larger scale than Ramsgate Sands (which, seeing what a stir it made, is surprisingly small) and involved an immense amount of labour. Frith had to locate people from all walks of life who he persuaded, or bribed, to pose in his studio. He also employed a photographer to help with the figures, a practise used by other artists although there was reluctance to admit it. Exhibited at the RA in 1858 the painting was an instant success, attracting such large crowds that a rail had to be erected round it for protection. Queen Victoria was again admiring and congratulated the artist for his ‘wonderful work.’ Frith sold the copyright and profited greatly from the huge sale of engraved prints which popularised the painting. He was now a made man, admired and feted by all. His pictures, and the morals of each group of people in them, were all earnestly discussed.
Another exhibitor at the RA that same year was Frith’s close friend Augustus Egg with his three linked paintings known as Past and Present. These showed the grim fate which awaited an unfaithful wife, a sad moral tale which found favour with those who turned a blind eye to masculine infidelities such as practised by Frith, Wilkie Collins, George Cruikshank, and doubtless many others. Cissie posed for one of the children in Egg’s painting but said she had no idea what it represented.
Frith had first made acquaintance with Dickens in 1842 and they remained good friends until the famous author’s death in 1870. His portrait of Dickens in middle age was shown at the RA in 1859 and is one of the best representations of the writer. Through Dickens Frith met other authors and literary critics, as well as members of the Punch circle of journalists and illustrators. Of these John Leech was a favourite and his premature death in 1864 aged 46 was much mourned by all his friends. Leech had encouraged Frith to paint scenes from modern life and gave him ideas for his figures: a chapter in Frith’s memoirs is devoted to him as well as writing a full biography, not published until 1881.
Frith began work on his third great panorama, The Railway Station, in 1860 and it was exhibited in 1862, not at the RA but in a dealer’s gallery. This time the artist, who found the constant search for willing models tiresome, again used members of his own family - himself, wife and four children - for the central group, and a photographer for many of the station details. Once again the picture was a great success, with 83,000 people estimated to have seen it. The painting went on tour and was eventually engraved, bringing him more riches.
The Railway Station, 1862.
The Marriage of the Prince of Wales and The Salon d'Or
In 1862 Frith received a commission directly from the Queen to paint the marriage of the Prince of Wales. This was another large crowd picture and it caused Frith more trouble than any of the others, as he had to deal with aristocratic sitters who were clearly surprised and affronted by the idea that they should come to pose in the house of someone who many still thought of as a lowly tradesman. However the members of the Royal family were willing to oblige, as were bishops and foreign dignitaries. There were still a lot of difficulties which delayed the work, so the Queen invited Frith to Windsor in 1863 to finish some of the individual portraits. Here he remained for seven weeks and found nearly all the princes and princesses posed happily, except for Prince Wilhelm, Queen Victoria’s nephew, who was very tiresome. When the great picture - ten feet long and seven feet high - was finally ready in 1865 to go to the Academy the Queen paid Frith a visit at Pembridge Villas. This was an exciting event for everyone but especially for the Frith children who, Cissie tells us, danced for joy after the royal retinue had departed. It garnered both rave and critical reviews but Cissie later wrote ‘I am sure my father lost hundreds of pounds over the picture of the Marriage, and what it cost him in wear and tear of nerves, time and temper, no one will ever know.’
After all this labour critical opinion was mixed and Frith rather lost his appetite for big panoramas. He returned to painting costume pieces in 1867 with King Charles II’s last Sunday, which delighted public and critics alike - once more a rail had to be put round the picture - and caused him to concentrate again on historical and literary subjects. These he turned out with facility and profit, but after a pause he began to hanker after another modern-life painting. He eventually settling on gambling, which was a risky and most contentious subject at the time, as the Victorians abhorred the practice, ranking it next to adultery. In 1869 Frith set off to Homburg in Germany, a fashionable spa, where he visited the Salon d’Or which he found sufficiently shocking, not in a rough way, but because of the quiet business-like attitude of the well-heeled gamblers. The resulting painting was over eight feet long and full of figures, with Frith again making extensive use of photography. When exhibited at the RA in 1871 it proved highly popular, although the painting is not well known in England, as it now resides in America, at the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence.
The Salon d'Or, 1871.
Series paintings, copies, portraits etc.
Frith had always admired Hogarth and he now decided to paint a series of five pictures, based on Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress, which he called The Road to Ruin. This was very favourably reviewed in 1878, with emphasis naturally placed on the moral lesson. Like the Salon D’or painting, these pictures are in a collection abroad. In 1880 he exhibited another Hogarthian series, The Race for Wealth, which is now in the Baroda Museum, India. Reviews of this were again favourable, the Times writing, ‘We are glad to be able to congratulate the veteran painter on a work which shows not only unimpaired but enhanced power.’ Frith at sixty one was now quite old by the standards of the time; although his work still attracted the art loving public the winds of change were blowing. The opening of the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877 and the rise of the Aesthetic Movement had ruffled establishment feathers; French Impressionists, even more despised by the traditionalists, were also showing their work in London.
In between his bigger works Frith continued painting pictures of all kinds, including portraits and copies of his own productions; several variants of the big panoramas were made. These sold readily which was fortunate as there were still two large families to support. This busy period lasted through to the 1880s and by 1875 Frith had spent some of his earnings on significant enlargements to 7 Porchester Villas, adding bay windows and a top story with new ‘painting room,’ as well as a billiard room, that essential adjunct to a gentleman's residence. By now Cissie was grown up and knew about the marital situation: she deplored the changes to her beloved home as well as lamenting ‘the crumble and fall of our once happy and distinguished household.’
The New Frock, 1889.
Frith’s married Mary Alford in 1881, a year after his first wife died. He had often used Isabelle as a model in pictures but nothing is said in his autobiography about either of his wives - nor has posterity found out much about them - but in the light of his personal affairs it is somewhat ironic that Frith chose to paint a wedding scene, ‘For better for worse’ which was exhibited in 1881. Weddings were a popular subject but this is the only depiction of a departing couple at a smart London location, in this case the Frith family’s local church in Bayswater. The picture was not much liked by reviewers who damned it with faint praise. Very likely they knew about - but did not mention - the irregularities in Frith’s private life.
Frith’s last large modern-life group painting was A Private view of the Royal Academy, which he exhibited in 1883, and was intended as a satire on the Aesthetic movement. Frith was by now showing signs of ‘old fogeyism’: he not only disliked aesthetic dress but despised the leader of the movement, Oscar Wilde, who had been rude about him in print. This picture shows a scene still familiar today, the opening party of the annual exhibition at the Royal Academy, where the fashionable crowd are more interested in each other than the pictures on the walls. (Frith carefully put in each individual painting, so they can all be named.) Here the President, Sir Frederic Leighton, is in the centre wearing a brown coat, but he cuts a less impressive figure than Oscar Wilde, the taller figure on the right with orchid buttonhole, who is holding forth to a group of admiring ladies. Numerous celebrities can also be identified which makes this painting a special delight for historians of the period. It also pleased contemporaries and the picture was so popular that - once again - a rail had to erected to protect it. Frith was able to write proudly ‘I may perhaps be pardoned for recording the fact of this picture being the sixth painted by me that has received this special compliment.’ However the critics disliked it and took no notice of the intended satire. New fashions in art were already gaining ground and Frith had passed his peak.
The Later Years
Frith sold 7 Pembridge Villas in 1885 and moved with Mary to south London, Forest Hill, near the re-erected Crystal Palace, and it was probably there that he began working on his reminiscences. These not only give fascinating glimpses into the lives and manners of his contemporaries but his disclosures about patrons and dealers shed light on the workings of the art world and the money-making treadmill. Frith had a good memory and a large store of amusing anecdotes: his easy flow of talk and bonhomie was kept up to the end of his life and any remaining old friends probably heard the stories many times.
When Mary died in 1895 Frith returned to live in London, not in the Kensington or Bayswater areas where all his old friends were now dead, but further north in St John’s Wood, a favourite location for a younger generation of artists. He settled at 114 Clifton Hill, a very modest dwelling compared to Pembridge Villas, where he lived quietly for the next fourteen years, although he continued painting and exhibited at the RA every year until 1902. There was one final surprise: an article published about the aged artist in the Cornhill Magazine reminded King Edward VII of the painting of his own wedding and the failure of the Queen to reward the artist with anything tangible: in 1908 he summoned Frith to Buckingham Palace to be invested with the CVO.
Frith’s children arranged a big party for him on his ninetieth birthday in January 1909. King Edward sent a telegram of congratulations, and according to one guest, Marion Sambourne, wife of the Punch cartoonist, ‘Mr Frith looked wonderful and handsome in his old age.’ Frith died in November that year, two months before his ninety-first birthday, and was buried in Kensal Green cemetery. In 1887 he had written ‘I know very well that I never was, nor under any circumstances could have become, a great artist but I am a very successful one.’ He certainly was, but even before he died his output was consigned to the scrap heap, along with all the other artists of the period. A century of neglect followed but a recent revival of interest hails him as the great portrayer of human life in all its aspects and seeks to place him in the pantheon of Great Victorians.
Frith, W.P. My Autobiography and Reminisences. London: Richard Bentley and Sons, 1887.
_____. Further Reminiscences. London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1888.
Nokes, Aubrey. William Frith: Extraordinary Victorian Painter. London: Jupiter, 1976.
Panton, Jane Ellen (Mrs). Leaves from a Life. London: E Nash 1908.
Wood, Christopher. William Powell Frith: A Painter and his World. Stroud, Glos.: Sutton, 2006.
Created 20 November 2022