Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Frith, William Powell
FRITH, WILLIAM POWELL (1819–1909), painter, born on 9 Jan. 1819, at Aldfield, near Ripon, Yorkshire, was son of William Frith, by his wife Jane Powell, a member of the ancient but decayed family of Fitz, Shropshire. Both parents were in the domestic employment of Mrs. Lawrence of Studley Royal. When the boy was seven years old his family moved to Harrogate, where the father became the landlord of the Dragon Hotel. He sent his son to a school at Knaresborough which appears to have been a 'Dotheboys Hall.' The boy next passed to a large school at St. Margaret's, near Dover, his master being instructed to encourage a gift for art which Frith senior thought he could discern in his son. Young Frith was allowed to spend most of his time in various grotesque performances with pencil and chalk. On leaving school he had a narrow escape from becoming an auctioneer. He finally entered Sass's Academy in Charlotte Street, Bloomsbury. After two years under Sass he won admission to the schools of the Royal Academy. While still an academy student he commenced portrait painting. Through an uncle, Scaife, who kept an hotel in Brook Street, he obtained a practice chiefly among well-to-do farmers in Lincolnshire, who paid five, ten, and fifteen guineas for heads, kit-cats, and half-lengths respectively.
In 1837 Frith's father died, and his mother set up house with her son in London, at 11 Osnaburgh Street. In 1839 he exhibited a portrait of a child at the British Institution. In 1840 he painted his first subject pictures, exhibiting at the Academy that year 'Malvolio before the Countess Olivia' and 'Othello and Desdemona.' From that time for many years he was faithful to subjects from Scott, Steme, Goldsmith, Mohdre, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Dickens, and the 'Spectator,' all of which gave him the opportunity of dressing up his models in picturesque clothes, and of incurring the odium of those young men who, as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, were presently to vilify his ideals. In 1845 ‘The Village Pastor’ secured his election as A.R.A. Among other well-known pictures which he contributed to the Academy during this middle period of his activity are: ‘English Merry-making a Hundred Years Ago’ (1847); ‘Coming of Age in the Olden Time’ (1849); ‘Witchcraft’; ‘Sir Roger de Coverley at the Saracen's Head’ and a scene from ‘The Good-Natured Man’ (commissioned by John Sheepshanks [q. v.]), now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. In 1853 Frith was promoted to fill the vacancy left among the academicians by the death of Turner. Into his diploma picture, ‘The Sleepy Model,’ the artist introduced a good portrait of himself.
Frith visited Belgium, Holland, and the Rhine in 1850. A year later he spent the summer at Ramsgate, a visit which led to an abrupt change in his subjects. His diary for 30 Sept. 1851 contains the following entry (Autobiography): ‘Began to make a sketch from Ramsgate sands which, if successful, will considerably alter my practice.’ The result of this sketch was the large picture ‘Ramsgate Sands,’ sometimes called ‘Life at the Seaside,’ painted in 1853, exhibited in 1854, and now in the royal collection. It had a great popular success. There followed, in 1858, ‘The Derby Day,’ now in the national collection at the Tate Gallery, and, in 1862, ‘The Railway Station,’ now owned by Holloway College, both of which eclipsed even the ‘Ramsgate Sands’ in popularity. These three famous paintings enjoyed, like most of Frith's work, an immense circulation in engravings. Frith's success led to invitations from Queen Victoria to paint the marriage of the Princess Royal, and the marriage of Edward VII, as Prince of Wales. The first offer was declined; the second was accepted. The last pictures in which Frith showed his own peculiar talent in marshalling a crowd were ‘Charles II's Last Whitehall Sunday’ (1867) and ‘The Salon d'Or, Homburg’ (1871). Another crowd, painted twelve years later, ‘The Private View of the Royal Academy’ (1883), was far inferior to its predecessors. Frith made two ill-advised attempts to rival Hogarth. The first of these moralities, ‘The Road to Ruin,’ in five scenes, was at Burlington House in 1878; the second, ‘The Race for Wealth,’ in five pictures, was shown at a private gallery in King Street in 1880.
Besides those already named, Frith's better pictures include ‘Dolly Varden’ and the portrait of her creator, Charles Dickens (painted in 1859), in the Forster collection at South Kensington; ‘Claude Duval’ (1860); ‘Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadman’ (1866, now in the Tate Gallery); ‘Pope and Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu’; and ‘Swift and Vanessa.’ ‘The Dinner at Boswell's Rooms in Bond Street,’ which was exhibited in 1869 at the Academy, was sold at Christie's in 1875 for 4567l., the highest sum then reached for a work by a living painter. Frith also painted many anecdotic pictures during his later career; of these ‘John Knox at Holyrood,’ exhibited in 1886, is a familiar example. But here his gift for marshalling a crowd and for painting it with some vivacity had little or no scope.
Frith visited Italy in 1875, and made a second tour in the Low Countries in 1880. In 1890 he joined the ranks of the retired Royal Academicians, but he survived for nearly twenty years, painting to the end. He was a member of the Royal Belgian Academy and of those of Antwerp, Stockholm, and Vienna. He was a chevalier of the Legion of Honour, and personally received the badge of C.V.O. from Edward VII at Buckingham Palace on 9 Jan. 1908, his eighty-ninth birthday (cf. Cornhill Mag. 1909). He died at his residence in St. John's Wood, London, on 2 Nov. 1909, and was buried at Kensal Green after cremation at Golder's Green. A small collection of his better works was exhibited at Burlington House in the winter of 1911. It was then recognised that the ‘Derby Day’ and the ‘Railway Station’ possessed pictorial qualities, which it had become the fashion to deny.
Frith married on 22 June 1845 Isabelle, daughter of George Baker of York. She died on 28 Jan. 1880. Of twelve children, five daughters and five sons survived their father. His son, Mr. Walter Frith, is a dramatist and novelist.
Frith's friends included not only the chief artists of the day but many men of letters, including Dickens. He published: ‘John Leech, his Life and Work’ (1891), which is a description of Leech's work rather than a biography; ‘My Autobiography and Reminiscences’ (1887); and ‘Further Reminiscences’ (1888).
Portraits by himself at the ages respectively of eighteen and seventy belong to the family. A third portrait was painted in 1854 by Augustus Egg, R.A. Another good early portrait painted by an academy student friend, Cowper, who died young, was sold after Frith's death. His own head figures in the right-hand corner of ‘Ramsgate Sands’ (1853) and he introduced himself as paterfamilias with all his family into ‘The Railway Station’ (1861). A cartoon portrait by ‘Spy’ appeared in ‘Vanity Fair’ in 1873.
[The Times, 4 Nov. 1909; Academy Catalogues; A. Graves's Royal Academy Exhibitors; private information; Mrs. J. E. Panton, Leaves from a Life, 1911; Mrs. E. M. Ward, Reminiscences, 1911; Frith's Autobiography 1887, and Reminiscences, 1888.]