William Powell Frith RA (1819-1909)

Frith in his early 80s

A most successful genre painter, important in that he produced pictures that encapsulated contemporary Victorian life. He was born in Aldfield, a village near Ripon, Yorkshire, and the family moved to Harrogate when he was 7 years old. His father encouraged his artistic talents, and he studied at Sass's Art School in London in 1835 (a contemporary student there was Edward Lear), and then won a place at the Royal Academy Schools in 1837.

His first exhibited picture in London was at the British Institution in 1838, and his first at the Academy was in 1840 - Twelfth Night, after which he exhibited more or less continuously at the Academy until his death more than 60 years later. His early work was mainly scenes from the classics, from more modern literature and history paintings, and to some degree he carried on with these subjects all his life. However, he found his metier with Ramsgate Sands (Life at the Seaside) (1851), the first of many panoramas of contemporary life. The two most famous were Derby Day (1858) and The Railway Station (1862), the latter showing a scene in Paddington Station. Among many others, we may mention The Marriage of the Prince of Wales (1865) and A Private View at the Royal Academy (1883). Much of his work was widely engraved, and Frith himself sometimes produced more than one copy of a picture.

Frith was elected ARA in 1845, and became RA in 1853. For some years he was one of the most popular of all British painters. However, his type of painting went out of fashion eventually, although he himself continued to produce similar work for the rest of his life, notably declining after the 1880s. He decried the Pre-Raphaelites and those inspired by the Impressionists alike, writing articles against them in the Magazine of Art.

Because Frith's work now seems so characteristic of the age, it tends to be on the walls of the galleries rather than in store. Derby Day is at Manchester, with a smaller version in the collection of the Tate Gallery. The Railway Station is at Royal Holloway College, with a small version in the Leicester Museum and Art Gallery. Ramsgate Sands is in the Royal Collection, and a small version is in Bournemouth.

There are several works by Frith in the Victoria and Albert Museum, including a sketch for Derby Day and the much-reproduced A Village Merrymaking in Olden Times, as well as works from literature. The Duel Scene in Twelfth Night is at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. Frith's self portrait is at the National Portrait Gallery. Abroad, the important The Salon d'Or at Hamburg is in the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

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