William Powell Frith
Biography of Victorian Genre Painter.

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The Railway Station (1862)
Royal Holloway College,
University of London.

William Powell Frith (1819-1909)


Early Life and Work
Life at the Seaside
Derby Day
The Railway Station
The Private View of the Royal Academy
Later Years
Retrospectives and Collections
Other Famous Victorian Painters

Paintings by William Frith are
also widely available online
in the form of poster art.

For an idea of the pigments
used by William Frith, see:
Colour Palette Nineteenth Century.

For the greatest genre-painting, see:
Best Genre Painters.


One of the best English painters of mid-19th century, and an important contributor to English figurative painting, William Frith was among the first modern artists in Victorian England to specialize in large-scale genre painting: mostly panoramic works filled with archetypal characters of the day. His greatest genre paintings include: Life at the Seaside (aka Ramsgate Sands) (1854, British Royal Collection); Derby Day (1858, Tate Collection); and The Railway Station (1862, Royal Holloway College, University of London). A favourite of Queen Victoria, Frith was elected a full member of the Royal Academy in 1853. Although his reputation declined after his death, it revived considerably after World War Two. He is now seen as an important figure in Victorian art - indeed, some art critics regard him as the finest painter of the English social scene since William Hogarth (1697-1764).



Early Life and Work

Born in Harrogate, William Powell Frith was the son of an innkeeper; he studied at Sass's evening school (1835-7) in Bloomsbury, and after two years he was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools. He began his career as a painter of portrait art which he first exhibited at the British Institution in 1838. In 1840 he showed subject pictures, and he became an Associate Member of the Royal Academy five years later. Frith visited Belgium, Holland and Germany in 1850, and in 1853 he became a full Academician, after the death of the legendary JMW Turner (1775-1851). Many of his early pictures depicted scenes from Shakespeare, Goldsmith and Scott, which corresponded with contemporary taste.

In 1837, he declared his intention to paint scenes from everyday life, and although he continued to engage in history painting, his greatest works fall into the former category. His diploma picture, The Sleepy Model (1853, London, Royal Academy), a portrait of himself and a model in a studio, is a good example of his less ambitious works in that vein.

Life at the Seaside

On 30th September 1851 Frith began to make one of many sketches of the seaside at Ramsgate, and with foresight he wrote: "If successful (it) will considerably alter my practice." The finished picture, Life at the Seaside or Ramsgate Sands (1854, Royal Coll.), became immensely popular when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy, and it is amongst the best pictorial representations of the Victorian age. Queen Victoria, who purchased the painting, later asked Frith to paint a picture of the marriage of the Princess Royal, as well as another of the marriage of Edward VII, then Prince of Wales. The first offer was declined, and the second was accepted.

Derby Day

Derby Day (1858, London, Tate Gallery) was a later picture in the mode of Ramsgate Sands and was equally successful. The eminent Victorian art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) described it as "a kind of cross between John Leech and David Wilkie, and a dash of daguerreotype here and there and some pretty seasoning with Dickens's sentiment". The profusion of detailed anecdotal incidents in his paintings probably accounts for their extraordinary contemporary appeal. Derby Day, for instance, was so popular when it was hung at the Royal Academy, that barriers were erected to protect the pictures from admiring crowds - a protective measure previously necessary only for the display of Chelsea Pensioners (1822) by David Wilkie (1785-1841).

The Railway Station

In 1862, Frith painted another major work, The Railway Station, (Royal Holloway College) - a scene of Paddington station, itself an icon of Victorian architecture in London. It was commissioned by Louis Flatow, an art dealer, who paid a record price for it, but made a fortune from exhibiting it privately, to over 21,000 paying spectators, and from engravings of the canvas. It took two years to paint, and Frith employed a combination of photographs and specialist assistance to create the setting. The architectural artist William Scott Morton helped with the background details of Paddington Station, while the image of the train came from a photo of the "Sultan" steam engine. Frith inserted portraits of himself and his family in the centre of the painting, but the main talking point of the composition was the detail on the right hand side, where a fugitive was being arrested by detectives.

For a contemporary of Frith's, active in France, see the miniaturist genre painter: Ernest Meissonier (1815-91).

The Private View of the Royal Academy

After visits to Italy in 1875, and to Belgium and Holland in 1880, he completed The Private View of the Royal Academy (1883, United Kingdom, private collection), which contained many portraits of well-known figures of the day. Frith strongly disliked the Pre-Raphaelites and the Aesthetic Movement, which he ridiculed in the painting. Oscar Wilde is depicted pontificating on art while Frith's friends observe disapprovingly. Frederic Leighton (1830-96) is also featured in the painting, as is John Everett Millais (1829-96). Another Royal Academician, who like Frith exemplified Victorian values, was the romantic English painter Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-73), best-known for his sentimental paintings of dogs.

Frith charged high prices for these pictures - Derby Day, for instance, was bought by Jacob Bell for £1,500 - and, with the sale of their copyright for engravings, he became quite wealthy.

Later Years

During the later part of his career he painted two series of five paintings each, illustrating moral stories in the tradition of William Hogarth. These works included the Road to Ruin (1878), on the danger of gambling, and the Race for Wealth (1880) on the problems of financial speculation. He retired from the Royal Academy in 1890 but continued showing until 1902.

Apart from being a member of "The Clique", a group of artists that included Richard Dadd, John Phillip and H.N.O'Neill, Frith counted amongst his friends many of the best-known painters of the day, as well as several writers, including Charles Dickens. His ability to respond to general taste, and his immediate success, besides the overtly bourgeois nature of his style, did nothing to endear Frith to the more avant-garde aesthetes. Nevertheless, Frith's greatest modern paintings are splendid depictions of life in Victoria's reign, and his memoirs - My Autobiography and Reminiscences (1887) and Further Reminiscences (1888) - written when he was over 70, contain amusing and interesting insights into the artistic circles of the time.

Retrospectives and Collections

A major retrospective of Frith's painting was held at the Guildhall Art Gallery, London, in November 2006. It travelled to Mercer Art Gallery in Harrogate, in the Spring of the following year. Paintings by Frith can be seen in several of the best art museums in Britain, including the British Royal Art Collection, the Tate Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Derby Art Gallery, and Harrogate Art Museum.

Other Famous Victorian Painters

Richard Parkes Bonington (1802-28)
Alfred Stevens (1817-75)
George Frederick Watts (1817-1904)
Ford Madox Brown (1821-93)
William Holman Hunt (1827-1910)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82)
Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98)
William Morris (1834-96)
Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912)
John William Waterhouse (1849-1917)

• For biographies of other Victorian artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For more details of genre paintings, see: Homepage.

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