William Edward Frost RA (1810-1877)

Willam Edward Frost was the most important follower of William Etty, and like him, was one of the few painters in England to dedicate himself to the nude. He was born in Wandsworth, London, and was encouraged by his parents to take up painting after showing an early talent for art. He was put to study under a local artist, a Miss Evatt, and at age 15 was introduced to Etty, by whose advice he was sent to Sass's School in Bloomsbury. After three years there, he entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1829. He established himself as a portrait painter, working at a pace that gave rise to some 300 completed pictures over the next 14 years. It was only in 1843 that he first started to exhibit the figural compositions that were to dominate his art henceforth. In that year he showed a Bacchanalian Dance, following this successful picture with a range of nymphs, sirens, goddesses - anything without clothes. The scale was from large, crowded narrative pictures - Chastity, Pan and Dancing Nymphs etc - through to miniatures, of which he painted a large number. In 1845 he painted a Sabrina, which when exhibited at the Royal Academy gave rise to extreme approval, and he was elected Associate of the Royal Academy in the following year, as well as winning the patronage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

Frost's creations became extremely popular in the form of prints and engravings, and some of them were reproduced in this way many times - P. Lightfoot was one of the most frequent engravers of Frost's work. His subject matter was rather neatly summed up in the contemporary literature as 'beautiful nymphs, either of wood or water, inhabitants of the pleasant groves of Arcadia, or drwelling in cool sea-caves with the tritons'. Even so, it was usual to be discreet when talking about the subject matter:

Etty's choice of subject, and even his manner of treatment was, and still is, the theme of much unfavourable comment. Barry, Stothard, and Howard before him, painted the heroines of Greek and Roman mythology, but were more scrupulous in their ideas of propriety than Etty cared to show himself. Frost could not have been ignorant of the rebukes administered to him whom he selected as his model, and yet he shrank not from pursuing a very similar course.'

Some of Frost's work was in fact attributed to Etty (not least because in more than one case a Frost picture was much later 'signed' with the name of Etty in order to command a higher price). But unlike Etty, who worked with a rapid brushstroke, Frost, despite his large output, seems to have painted with care and deliberation. His figures have a solidity and detailing somewhat different from Etty. Many of his pictures of single girls had a vaguely classical theme, and there were many compositions along the line of 'Venus and Cupid' or 'Diana and cherub'. He gave his girls roundish faces, slightly weak chinned, in an early 19th Century manner, and tended to the sentimental, the sweet and the coquettish.

For whatever reason, Frost was not elected full Academician until 1871. By the time of his death, his obituary wrote:

'Frost painted works of the nymph ideal, in which every leg, every finger,and every curve of impossible drapery - not to speak of every face and every bosom - had to be 'graceful', 'classical', and what not - and of course also 'chaste' and proper for the eyes of the British matron in her dining room... Pre-Raphaelitism, beginning in 1849, struck rapid and paralysing blows at the Frost style of painting.'

William Michael Rossetti, Pre-Raphaelite critic and brother of D. G. Rossetti, felt able to go further, writing that the Etty influence

'...in coming to be taken up, divorced from its greatness in colour, by a conventionalist like Frost, its arch disciple, has fallen into mere foppery and premature senility, and by this time into diserved disrepute'.
Since then, Frost's reputation has increased again, and today he is sometimes casually lumped in with the Pre-Raphaelites who were considered his nemesis.

One of Frost's best pictures, The Sea Cave, is in the collection of the Russell-Cotes Museum, Bournemouth. Mr Russell-Cotes himself, incidentally, also had several Etty nudes in his collection, so an interesting comparison may be made. The Tate Gallery has a Meditation in its collection, and a cartoon for Una Alarmed by Fauns and Satyrs is in the Victoria and Albert Museum. A Dream Life is in the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro, and a small oil sketch showing a girl in a forest is in the Nottingham Castle Museum. A collection of Frost's drawings have found their way to the Fogg Art Gallery in America.

Top of page

Other artists