[1] William Powell Frith RA, The Sleeping Model, oil on canvas, 1853.
© Royal Academy of Arts, London.

[2] William Powell Frith RA, Study for The Sleeping Model, charcoal and pencil, 1853.
© Royal Academy of Arts, London.

[2] The Private View at the Royal Academy in 1881, after William Powell Frith, RA, photogravure, 1885.
© Royal Academy of Arts, London.

[3] William Powell Frith RA, Self-portrait, oil on canvas, 1883.
© Royal Academy of Arts, London.

Artist of the Month - May 2009


William Powell Frith RA (1819-1909)

William Powell Frith was an immensely successful and popular Victorian artist, best known for his vivid portrayal of contemporary life, from the hustle and bustle of crowds on Derby Day or the fuss and flurry of passengers boarding a train at Paddington Station to sympathetic portraits of household servants and of close friends.

Frith was born at Aldfield, near Ripon, Yorkshire, in 1819, the son of Thomas Frith, a hotel landlord and amateur artist. With the encouragement of his parents, he spent much of his early life drawing, at the expense of other subjects at school. In 1835 he began to attend Henry Sass's drawing school, from which he successfully graduated to the Royal Academy Schools two years later. While he was a student at the Royal Academy Frith fell in with the artists Richard Dadd, Augustus Leopold Egg, Alfred Elmore, Henry O'Neill and John Phillip, who formed a sketching club known as The Clique. They met weekly to draw a specific subject, usually of a historical or literary kind, and then criticised each other's work.

Frith's reputation was really made after his completion of the first of his ambitious contemporary-life subjects. A visit to Ramsgate in 1851 seemed to be all that Frith needed to inspire his first painting of contemporary life, Ramsgate Sands: Life at the Seaside (1852-54; Royal Collection), although it took him three years to capture the variety of characters who visited the seaside resort.

In 1853 Frith was elected a Royal Academician and presented The Sleeping Model [1] as his Diploma work. Female artists' models were regarded as morally suspect in the Victorian period, even those who posed fully clothed. Securing suitable sitters was often difficult for artists, and they frequently resorted to persuading attractive shop-girls and other poorly paid women to sit for them. In his autobiography William Powell Frith described discovering the orange-seller who posed for this picture:

'Being in the habit of keeping my eyes pretty well open as I walked along the streets, they were one day gratified by the sight of an orange-girl of a rare type of rustic beauty. Her smile as she had offered her oranges was very bewitching, and had no doubt assisted her in creating a taste for oranges on many occasions.'

Despite the initial thrill of his find, Frith encountered many problems when he asked the orange-seller to visit his studio. Firstly, as a devout Catholic she insisted that he gained permission from her priest. The priest refused but Frith persisted until he won her over. Secondly, not being a professional model, she kept snoozing during sittings and the intended picture of a laughing model became 'The Sleeping Model'.

In the painting the perplexed artist is shown trying to make the best of a bad situation when his exhausted model is reduced to a mere studio prop. Her lifeless figure is echoed by the stuffed dummy, which has collapsed into the arms of an equally inanimate suit of armour. Frith's preparatory study for this picture [2] may suggest his frustrations - the orange-seller's head is sketched four times with varied expressions. However these repeated drawings convey an interest in modern-life subjects and physiognomy.

Following on from the popularity of Ramsgate Sands, Frith went on to paint two more major compositions of contemporary life: Derby Day (1858; Tate, London) and The Railway Station (1862; Royal Holloway, University of London). Both works demonstrate his great skill in grouping large numbers of people into paintings that the public found easy to 'read'. Frith continued to paint highly successful works from the 1860s to the early 1880s. No less than six of his works were so popular at the Royal Academy's Annual Exhibition that iron rails had to be placed around them with a policeman standing guard to stop the crowd pressing up against the paintings and damaging them.

Frith's last and final rail was for Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881 which was exhibited in 1883. A large scale photogravure of this painting was published in 1885 [3]. The Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition traditionally opened at the beginning of May and signalled the start of the London Season, which ended in July with the Goodwood Races. The exhibition had always been a popular social attraction, but the Royal Academy's move to Burlington House, with its purpose-built, spacious galleries, meant that the number of visitors grew. In 1881, the year Frith depicts in his painting, nearly 390,000 people flocked to the exhibition, an average of about 5,000 a day. Frith did not choose to depict one of the days when visitors flooded in, but instead the more select day of the private view.

In My Autobiography and Reminiscences Frith recorded that his motive for painting was to depict distinguished and famous people and to satirise the foibles of fashion, in particular the Aesthetic Movement. Flourishing in the 1870s and 1880s in both the fine and applied arts, the Aesthetic Movement promoted 'art for art's sake' and rejected narrative or moral content in order to concentrate solely on the beauty of the work itself. In the foreground on both sides of the painting, Frith includes two groups of Aesthetes. On the left a woman in flowing robes with a sunflower pinned to her dress gazes rapturously at a painting. On the other side Oscar Wilde, a lily in his buttonhole, stands in the midst of a group of Aesthetes on the right, and interprets the pictures to his coterie. On the extreme right is Sir John Everett Millais who stands with a man who is examining a work by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. To the left of Millais, though, his fellow Academicians Philip Hermogenes Calderon, Henry Stacy Marks and Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm all gaze with disbelief at Wilde.

Apart from the Aesthetes Frith includes a host of eminent figures, including such literary figures as Anthony Trollope and Robert Browning, as well as statesmen, judges and luminaries of the stage, such as Henry Irving, who managed the Lyceum Theatre, and the actress Ellen Terry. Lily Langtry, or the 'Jersey lily', the mistress of the Prince of Wales, is dressed in white and appears prominently in the centre of the painting. Frith includes himself in the picture, leaning slightly forwards, directly below the portrait of Disraeli by Millais, which had been especially placed on a screen in the gallery by special command of the Queen. Standing beneath the arched entrance to the gallery is the President of the Royal Academy, Lord Leighton. Although he is turned away from us, he appears to be the pivot around which the groups of people swirl.

Frith married his first wife Isabella Baker (1823-1880) in 1845 and they had twelve children. However, his domestic life became more complicated in the mid-1850s whe he embarked upon an affair with his children's nursemaid Mary Alford (1834/35-1895), and installed her as his mistress close to the family home in Bayswater. In 1855 Mary had the first of her seven children with Frith. He married Mary in 1881, the year after Isabelle died, although he did not acknowledge his children with Mary in his will. Interestingly, however, his Self-portrait, [4], painted when he was sixty-four, is inscribed to Ronald Alford, Frith's second son by Mary.

Frith retired as a Royal Academician in 1890 but continued to exhibit at the Academy until 1902. In later life, Frith's large family meant that he needed to maintain his income, and he turned with great success to writing. My Autobiography and Reminiscences was published in 1887 and Further Reminiscences followed in 1888. Both volumes revealed his gifts as a raconteur and won him some very favourable reviews.

W.P. Frith's painting, Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881 is on loan to the Royal Academy and is on display in the John Madejski Fine Rooms at the Royal Academy until 29 November 2009 as part of the exhibition High Life: Celebrating the Loan of W.P. Frith's Private View at the Royal Academy 1881.