Sunday, 12 July 2015

The Double Life William Powell Frith: a New Breed of Victorian Artist

Looking back at the past we judge what we see by what we know now. To the modern eye, the crowd scenes painted by William Powell Frith are delightfully detailed and evocative of a bygone age, but they are anything but controversial.
Self portrait of Frith in his 80s.
However, to the Victorian eye, when Frith’s “new type” of painting was first revealed it was lambasted as “a tissue of vulgarity” and “a piece of vulgar Cockney business unworthy of being represented even in an illustrated paper.” Ouch!

So what was it that caused such a volley of offence? The scenes which the Victorian critics found so disturbing were those showing ordinary people enjoying themselves. The critics disliked the paintings on so many levels: they depicted the hoy-polloy, the pictures could be read like a story, and many believed them in bad taste.

In short, the choice to not paint wealthy people looking their best, but to mirror real life was nothing short of revolutionary – and didn’t meet with instant approval.

Ramsgate Sands

Indeed the picture which triggered this reaction was Frith’s “Ramsgate Sands”. Here he showed a lot of middle class Victorians enjoying a day out on the beach complete with Punch and Judy Show, donkey rides, children paddling, women reading newspapers, and a boy with a mouth organ.

Life at the Seaside, Ramsgate Sands
by Frith
The scene Frith recorded was a relatively new innovation, the day trip – brought about by the new railway allowing ordinary people to escape for a day to a pleasant location. But the big question was: Is ordinary life worthy of art?

Fortunately for Frith, it seems Queen Victoria approved (despite the critics). Perhaps because she remembered Ramsgate from her childhood, she fell in love with the picture and bought it.

So a fashion began for “gazing” or recording the ever more mobile antics of the ordinary Victorian person.

Derby Day

As a leader in his field, Frith decided to tackle a crowd of epic proportions in his painting “Derby Day”. The race on the Epsom Downs had become an unofficial public holiday and Frith was fascinated by the “kaleidoscopic aspect of the crowd”.  Aristocrats, ordinary people, gypsies, pickpockets, prostitutes, tricksters, and politicians all rubbed shoulders at this spectacular event and Frith was determined to capture it. As the Illustrated London News described the event:
“[The upper classes] positively to hob and nob with those palpably of inferior to them in station.”

Or as one French visitor put it,
“[Derby Day was] an outlet for a year of repression.”
Derby Day

Unlike Ramsgate Sands, this picture was a commission, and Frith was encouraged to hire models for his work. His patron had extensive contacts and reputedly asked Frith about the models:
“What is it to be this time? Fair or dark, long nose or short, Roman or aquiline, tall figure or small?”

The picture took 18 months to complete, but was an instant success. When exhibited at the Royal Academy, the crowds had to be held back behind an iron screen. Indeed, Queen Victoria and her husband, Albert, visited. Both praised the work but whereas Victoria was effusive in her enthusiasm, Albert was constructively critical and suggested ways to improve the painting!

The Railway Station

Frith strode forward with his next work which depicted travellers at Paddington Station, London. On the right of the painting two detectives arrest a pickpocket, the former based on two actual policemen of the day who posed for Frith. For this painting Frith used his family (or one family…more of this shortly) as models. The lady with a paisley shawl, seeing off her son, is actually Frith’s wife Isabella.
The Railway Station
Double Life

However, Frith was not all he seemed. A seemingly devoted husband to Isabella and father to their twelve children, what his wife didn’t know was that Frith kept a mistress.
Just a mile or so distant from the family home, Frith had a duplicate family with his mistress Mary Alford, with whom he had seven children. (It is believed Mary was the model for Frith’s painting, “The Rejected Poet”.)
Frith's mistress was the model
The story goes that for years Isabella was ignorant of this arrangement. But one day she spotted her husband posting a letter – and the game was up. How come?

Well the letter was a loving letter from her husband saying how much he was enjoying himself on a short break by the sea. He was rumbled. Society became aware of the double standards of the artist, and whilst a blind eye was turned, his misdemeanours meant he was never officially recognized by one of his biggest fans, Queen Victoria.

When eventually Isabella died, Frith went on to marry Mary, but his lasting legacy was the abundance of paintings which laid open for all to see, the wide and varied nature of Victorian life.

1 comment:

  1. 19 children! No wonder that is paintings are so thickly populated! He could have found enough models in his own families.


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