William Powell Frith (1819-1909) is principally remembered, when he is remembered at all, as a pillar of the Victorian art establishment – a tediously circumstantial painter of the nineteenth century social scene, whose most famous work, Derby Day, although a blockbusting sensation in its time, has long since been relegated to the status of a mere period piece. Now, almost a hundred years after his death, a new exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery seeks to rekindle interest in Frith and all his works. Curated by Vivien Knight – who has also co-edited the exemplary book-length catalogue – it is an absorbing show, which reveals this much neglected artist to have been both a more subtle painter, and a rather more complicated man, than his current obscurity might suggest.
At the peak of his fortunes, Frith was arguably the most successful British artist ever to have lived. When he first exhibited Derby Day, at the Royal Academy’s annual exhibition in 1857, the picture attracted such a crush that a railing had to be set up to protect it from the crowds (a number of elderly academicians were so consumed with jealousy, Frith noted in his later Reminiscences, that they took to their beds for several days in a collective funk). Nearly two decades later, in 1875, his relatively slight and anecdotal illustration of a scene from Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Before Dinner at Boswell’s Lodgings, sold at auction for what was, at the time, the highest price ever realised for a work of art by a living painter.
By the economic standards of the day, he had become a multi-millionaire. At the time of Frith’s greatest prosperity he lived, with his wife Isabelle and their large brood of children, in Pembridge Villas, part of what was then a prosperous westerly suburb of London. Their house was so positively palatial that the accommodation comprised no fewer than twelve bedrooms, two dressing-rooms, a fitted bathroom – a novelty at the time – a pair of conjoined drawing-rooms, a large conservatory, a dining room, a billiard room, a library, a boudoir, and a vast forty-foot long east-facing studio. Not bad for a man whose father had been House Steward at a minor stately home, and whose mother was descended from a family of gentleman farmers. One of the principal themes of Frith’s painting was the disconcerting social fluidity of nineteenth-century Britain – a thrusting, recently industrialised society, where at times it seemed as though new ways of making (and losing) money were turning the traditional hierarchies of class and status on their head – and he was himself a near perfect exemplar of the trend.
If not quite a rags to riches story, Frith’s career might certainly be described as a classic example of how far a man might rise, in Victorian England, through his own industry, ingenuity and determination. He was a fearsomely prolific and indefatigably entrepreneurial painter, who took much of his inspiration from the prior example of William Hogarth – not only did he follow Hogarth’s lead in focussing on what the earlier artist had termed “modern moral subjects”, or scenes from modern life, rendered as painted parables of good and evil, but he also followed Hogarth’s commercial example in creating pictures designed directly for the mass-market, via engraving. The sums which Frith derived by selling the copyright in his pictures to the leading printsellers of his day far exceeded the sums – astronomical though they seemed to his contemporaries – realised by the paintings themselves. As a painter of scenes drawn from everyday life, calculated to appeal to the widest possible audience, he now seems as much a part of the history of popular culture as of fine art – a forerunner of soap opera, as well as an heir to Hogarth and the older Dutch traditions of genre painting.
Frith’s commercial ambition might be said to have predated his sense of artistic vocation. As a young man, he wanted to be an auctioneer, but was persuaded instead to pursue the career of an artist by his father – who was himself something of an amateur painter, as well as a collector of prints and pictures. So Frith went to London at the age of sixteen and enrolled in the school run by an undistinguished artist named Henry Sass. The students were instructed to copy casts after antique statuary as well as designs derived from the works of Old Masters such as Michelangelo and Guercino, but Frith also set himself the task of drawing the studio furniture – he later said that he wanted to be able to depict “chairs, tables, stools, etc., because if a man can’t draw a chair, how can he draw a head, when one is so much more difficult than the other?” He made himself the master of a safe, tight, albeit unspectacular manner, which proved well suited to Victorian tastes – like his friend Dickens, he was well placed to cater to the nineteenth-century appetite for vivid descriptions and depictions of the seemingly bewildering, teeming world of the industrial age.
Frith’s father died while the painter was still in his teens, forcing him on to his own resources earlier than might otherwise have been the case. At the outset of his career, he made his living principally as a portrait-painter, embarking on two lengthy tours of Lincolnshire – he had originally been invited there by one of his early patrons – during which he developed a lucrative line in portraits of the wives and daughters of well-to-do gentleman farmers. His work in this vein is solid but less than inspiring, as he himself soon realised, remarking to a friend that it was important to paint at least one large composition a year “for the sake of upholding and advancing my reputation”. His early essays in narrative art were drawn not from the present but from the past. He painted scenes from Shakespeare and from the principal Englsih poets and first made his mark, in 1847, with a painting entitled An English Merry-Making a Hundred Years Ago. Fiddlers fiddle as rustic dancers promenade under the spreading boughs of a great oak, the whole scene washed with the golden light of nostalgia. It is a somewhat saccharine, dewy-eyed vision of the past, depicting imagined country festivities on some imagined village green in the middle years of the eighteenth century – althought Turner liked it well enough to call it “beautifully composed, well drawn, and well coloured”.
Like Dickens, Frith was simultaneously fascinated and appalled by the modern world, and a large part of him yearned for the perceived stability, the slow unchanging rhythms of another, slower, more innocent time. But he soon realised that to make his name, and his fortune, sooner or later he would have to turn to the painting of contemporary life. He did so, decisively, in what may be considered his breakthrough painting – the first of his large scale social panoramas – a work to which he gave the title At the Seaside. The picture had its origins in a holiday that Frith spent at Ramsgate, with his family, in 1851, and although it might strike modern eyes as having something of the school photograph about it – massed ranks of holiday-makers artfully arranged on a stageset beach – it was also, in its time, a new departure in British painting. Frith was among the first artists to paint the relatively new phenomenon of seaside bathing. As well as capturing the thoroughly Victorian bustle of the scene – row upon row of crinolined ladies seated in sturdy mahogany chairs, perilously close to the sea, watching as timid young children flinch at the icy water; bl;acked up musicians belting out a number to anyone who will listen; a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat – he caught what seemed new and disconcerting about the experience to many of his contemporaries. It is a picture of thronged humanity, a quite literal depiction of how mass tourism, even at the moment of its inception, had begun to shrink the gap traditionally separating the social classes.
Having hit his stride, Frith soon went on to paint Derby Day, in which the High Victorian crowd seems not only more numerous than ever before, but also more threatening. This most manically detailed of Frith’s paintings offers so compendious a view of the English at play, in fact, that it might be seen as a pictorial equivalent to that other great Victorian enterprise, the Oxford English Dictionary – a one-man attempt to map English society as thoroughly as the lexicographers were to map the English language. The scene is Epsom Downs and the immediate impression is that all life is (must be) here. A gaggle of disorientated gentleman carouse with prostitutes on top of a carriage as thieves and pickpockets wend their way through the crowd beneath, picking off their marks. A comatose drunk sleeps, hat over his face, as a fight breaks out at a nearby gaming table. A raffish aristocrat gazes into mid-air as his consort – mistress, presumably, rather than wife – sist slumped in boredom beside him.
There is an air of anomie and of a palpable, seething disorder – albeit potential rather than actual, an undercurrent rather than an outright fact. Frith seems to have encapsulated, in this picture, the widespread Victorian fear of the crowd – a phenomenon tainted by association with mass political unrest elsewhere across Europe and above all by the events of the French revolution more than half a century before. Frith may have felt licensed to paint this dangerously suggestive scene precisely because Derby Day was itself insitutionally recognised, in mid-nineteenth-century Britain, as a kind of state-sanctioned bacchanalia – a day when all social distinctions might be allowed to collapse, but only temporarily, in a communal letting off-of steam. It was the only true national holiday in the entire calendar, and was seen as a sort of one-day revolution allowed to prevent the real thing ever happending. In the words of the Illustrated London News, “Liberty, equality and fraternity” were “very strongly insisted upon on the Derby Day … the day when poverty elbows pride, and wretchedness stalks cheek-by-jowl with wealth … the snob pushes by the gentleman, and the cad insinuates himself among the cream of the land.”
Frith himself was a less than conventional character and there is more to his frequently ambiguous art than meets the eye. He was a freethinker who detested organised religion, which might not be easily guessed from his several sentimental paintings of mothers at prayer with their innocent-looking children. He was a virulent republican, although he agreed, for the purposes of self-advancement, to spend the best part of three years of his life painting an enormous state portrait of the marriage of the Prince of Wales - a commission from Queen Victoria herself, to which he responded with a work of such stultifying tediousness it might almost have been meant as a calculated comment on the hollowness of the rituals of royalty. And he was an inveterate bigamist – in all but name – who sired eleven children by his long-suffering wife, while simultaneously installing a much younger woman in a house round the corner – a woman with whom he had a further seven children, and whom he married almost as soon as he had become a widower. The knowledge of his infidelities certainly casts a new light on a picture such as Many Happy Returns – the depiction of a five-year-old’s birthday celebrations, in which Frith, despite his adultery, cast himself and his wife in the roles of blissfully wedded husband and wife. Look closely enough into his eyes, as he raises a glass, and there seems something glassy, false and fixed about the cheerful smile on his face.
At his best, which really means in those grand, set-piece performances with which he set out to stun and amaze his contemporaries, Frith puts the uneasiness centre-stage. The finest of his works remains The Railway Station. It is a depiction of the throng at Paddington Station, mildly allegorised as if such a scene might also symbolise the different ages of man. Children are readied for borading school by their attentive parents, a bride is about to leave with her groom on honeymoon, but a thief has reached the terminus of his career, as two detectives step in to issue him with the papers of his arrest. But the painting’s real subject is time, and the way in which any attempt to control and order society – to turn life into a parable – suddenly seems doomed to failure. At every point, newspapers – Frith’s preeminent symbol for the faster-turning world of modern times - are present. Two paper boys thrust into the crowd to distribute the latest daily rags, while the gentleman ensconced in the train behind the thief spreads the pages of his own paper wide – as if to encompass the thief himself, who is after all just about to become tomorrow’s news story. Frith’s paintings can look merely anodyne, from a certain perspective, because they are so jam-packed with incident and character that they seem to lack focus. But that, here, seems exactly the point. The ostensible order of the scene falls apart, the composition of forms and figures whirls outwards, just like a crowd dispersing on a railway platform. And at the centre of it all stands Frith himself – another self-portrait, this time as a father seeing his children to the train – with an expression of perfect inscrutability on his face.