Derby Day

Derby Day by William Powell Frith, RA. [Original 1858 in Tate Gallery, London] Signed and dated 1893-94. 102.3 x 234.4 cm. City Art Galleries, Manchester. According to the museum site, "This version replicates a Royal Academy exhibit of 1858. It was commissioned by James Gresham of Stretford and was thought by Frith to be better than his original." The museum's entry further explains:

Derby Day was an established day out by the 1850s. The crowds of thousands came from all social classes for the colourful entertainments as much as the race. Frith's first visit to Epsom Downs was in 1856, when he was taken in by a thimble-rigging gang. A team of these con-men can be seen on the left. The Victorians were fascinated by phrenology, the reflection of social types in facial characteristics. This partly accounts for the success of and other crowd scenes by Frith and his followers.

Review in the Art-Journal (1 June 1858)

It is said that the present exhibition is the best that has been seen in the Academy for some years; but it is not considered that the works of the greatest pretension are the most worthy.

We have often had occasion to speak of the descending tone of subject-matter which characterises our exhibitions. This impression is this year more forcible in relation to the Royal Academy than we have ever before experienced it. The picture of the season is ‘The Derby Day’ by Frith; and when we remember that this work, directly and indirectly, picture and copyright, will return to the artist something like £3000, we cannot regard ‘The Derby Day’ otherwise than as an accurate indication of public taste. It contains the material for twenty pictures, and has cost the painter an inconceivable sum for models. It will be i advertised and exhibited in town and country, and will eventually return a rich premium to the print-publisher. Such is “the picture” of the exhibition; the tone of the subject is essentially vulgar, and no supremacy of execution can redeem. . . .

No. 218. ‘The Derby Day,’ W. P. Frith. It would be absurd to deny the popularity of this picture; it is a subject which our countrymen and country women understand: it matters not who approaches it, he or she can at once see a reflex of him or herself, whether it be in genuine enthusiasm for the race, or in utter repudiation of all the entanglements of the course. If you are old, there are your seniors; if you be young, there are even your juniors: if you bet, that man in the green coat, or the other in the light overcoat, or the lady in the white kid bonnet, will give or take any odds on any horse. The artist chooses the entr'acte — the time between the races — because presently the entire crowd will turn their backs upon us. Truly we find ourselves in creditable company! The thimble-rigsmen are active and vigilant: one youth turns from the table, having lost his all, even to his shirt-studs. There are acrobats, gipsies, vendors of correct lists, professors of prick-in-the-garter, mountebanks, jugglers, and adventurers of every complexion and degree. Again, in drags and carriages there is company of what appears a more select kind: the ladies are gaily attired, and the business of the half hour is with champagne, raised pies, and chicken sandwiches. Nothing has escaped the notice of the painter, nothing is forgotten; the technicalities of the picture are admirable, and the varieties of expression address us in language the most perspicuous. Yet the whole is without effect, still we cannot think that this can have been overlooked in its present state; every thing and person are circumstantially detailed, but there is this result, which amounts to a crying defect, — the black mass of hats and coats on the Grand Stand is not reduced to its proper distance — no atmosphere is allowed — the Grand Stand, therefore, comes across the course to us.

A century and a half hence this picture wrill be more interesting than it is now; the racecourse will remain, but it will be frequented by a generation much the same inwardly, but different in their outward guise, and they will look with curiosity on the costumes aud appointments of 1858. The desire of the public to examine the work is so earnest that it has been necessary to station a police constable to prevent accidents to it. We nave no recollection of any similar instance of “pictorial protection;” though when Wilkie’s picture, ‘Chelsea Pensioners reading the Gazette of the Battle of Waterloo,’ was exhibited, a rail was placed round it. For ourselves, however, we cannot rejoice that this subject has been painted; we shall always regret that so great and accomplished a master in Art did not select a theme more worthy — such, for example, as that to which we have just made reference. To enter fully into the topic is beyond our power at present, but we may do so hereafter; for the work must be frequently before us for some time to come, inasmuch as it is destined to make a tour of the provinces, where it will give much delight but no “teaching” — at least, none of that teaching which is the highest aim and holiest duty of Art.

Links to Details & Related Material


Bills, Mark, and Vivien Knight, eds. William Powell Frith: Painting the Victorian Age. New Haven & London: Yale Univ. Press, 2006. 180 + xi pp. Hardback, £40.00. Paperback, £20.00. ISBN 0-300-12190-3.

“The Royal Academy.” The Art-Journal 20 (1 June 1858): 161, 165.

Last modified 26 November 2019