William Powell Frith: Painting the Victorian Age
About the Artist
William Powell Frith
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 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.
The William Powell Frith Chronology can also be found in the teachers pack