William Powell Frith 2: Moral series

William Powell Frith (1819–1909), A Private View at the Royal Academy (1883), oil on canvas, 60 × 114 cm, Royal Academy of Arts, London. Wikimedia Commons.

With the success of his two earlier human panoramas showing Ramsgate Sands (1854) and The Derby Day (1856-58), William Powell Frith (1819–1909) set to work on his greatest painting, a similar human panorama showing the interior of one of London’s major railway stations. Sadly, as the original is now in the Royal Holloway, University of London, and a smaller copy is in the Royal Collection, usable images of them don’t appear available.

The best image that I can find of this major piece of Victorian art is a print engraved by Francis Holl, working for Henry Graves & Co, who bought the painting for over £16,000. Frith himself had been paid over £5,000 by the dealer who commissioned it, and that dealer made a handsome profit when he sold it on for Holl’s prints.

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William Powell Frith (1819–1909), engraved by Francis Holl (1866) The Railway Station (1862), original oil on canvas, this print mixed media engraving on wove, finished with hand colouring, 66 x 123 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

The Railway Station (1862) is set in a crowded and busy Paddington railway station in London. Frith was not only thoroughly modern and commercial in its exhibition – it wasn’t shown at the Royal Academy, but in a private gallery which charged one shilling (£0.05) per visit – but he used photographs in its execution. It is rich with little social vignettes, and among its many faces are associates and friends of the artist, including the dealer who paid for it.

Take, for example, the incident happening at the extreme right, where a man dressed in brown clothes is apparently in the process of being arrested whilst trying to board a train. We do not know what event has preceded or precipitated his arrest, nor do we have any inkling as to whether he will try to run off, or be taken into custody. Much as in later ‘problem pictures’, the viewer is left to endless speculation and absorption.

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William Powell Frith (1819–1909), Measuring Heights (Scene from Oliver Goldsmith’s “The Vicar of Wakefield”) (1863), oil on canvas, 53.5 x 68 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Frith continued to paint less ambitious literary works, such as Measuring Heights in 1863, which shows a scene from chapter 16 of Oliver Goldsmith’s novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766). Here Olivia Primrose and Squire Thornhill stand back-to-back to see who is the taller.

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William Powell Frith (1819–1909), Marriage of the Prince of Wales, 10 March 1863 (1865), oil, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Marriage of the Prince of Wales, 10 March 1863, completed in 1865, demmonstrates Frith’s skill at depicting crowds at a Royal pageant, under the watchful eye of Queen Victoria, who seems to be attracting as many eyes as the wedding in progress below her.

Late in his career, he turned to Hogarthian moralising series, in Road to Ruin (1878) and The Race for Wealth (1880), both of which were successful as prints. Sadly, good images of the original paintings and prints are currently unavailable.

Road to Ruin starts with its hero at college, playing cards all night with his circle of friends in a college room. The second painting shows him at Ascot, placing bets on the horse-racing there, and well on his way to ruin. The third shows him at the moment of his arrest by a bailiff, when in a gambler’s house. The fourth shows his struggles, after he has fled to France, where he tries to write a play whilst his wife paints watercolours to try to pay for their accommodation. The fifth and last shows his end, with him locking the door of a poor room, his play rejected, and about to blow his brains out with a pistol.

The Race for Wealth series was first exhibited in 1880, and attracted much attention. Unfortunately its prints were produced using photogravure, Frith considered them “far from satisfactory”, and did not attempt another narrative series.

Their story centres on a corrupt financier, the Spider. In the first, The Spider and the Flies, he is persuading prospective investors in an office in the City of London. In the second, The Spider at Home, he is entertaining in his drawing room, which is lavishly decorated with paintings. The third, Victims, shows one of the investors from the first canvas, a clergyman, devastated at his family breakfast when he learns that the company in which they invested their savings has suddenly collapsed. The fourth, Judgement, shows the Spider’s trial for fraud at the Old Bailey, with the ruined clergyman giving evidence.

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William Powell Frith (1819-1909), Retribution (The Race for Wealth, 5) (1880), oil on panel, 32.7 x 41.2 cm, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England. The Athenaeum.

The fifth and last, Retribution, shows the Spider exercising in the yard of Millbank Prison, during his imprisonment for fraud. This is one of only two images of the inside of a Victorian prison, the other being an illustration by Gustave Doré.

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William Powell Frith (1819–1909), For Better, For Worse (1881), oil, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

For Better, For Worse from 1881 is another Hogarthian work, contrasting an affluent couple departing for their honeymoon in a hansom cab, with a poor couple and their two children watching at the lower left, a theme which I’m sure Charles Dickens would have appreciated had he not died a decade earlier.

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William Powell Frith (1819–1909), A Private View at the Royal Academy (1883), oil on canvas, 60 × 114 cm, Royal Academy of Arts, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Frith’s last great human panorama is A Private View at the Royal Academy, which he completed in 1883. Although he was a Fellow from 1853 until his retirement in 1890, his can’t have been an easy relationship with the British art establishment. This work gives some insight into the frictions within the Academy, as Oscar Wilde is seen at the right holding forth about art, to the dismay of Frith’s friends nearby. Frith had opposed the Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic movements, and, like Frederic, Lord Leighton (shown in this painting), was a great traditionalist.

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William Powell Frith (1819–1909), Poverty and Wealth (1888), oil on canvas, 81.3 x 119.4 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Towards the end of his career, Frith spent his time making copies of his earlier paintings, but Poverty and Wealth from 1888 is another Hogarthian view of late Victorian London. A wealthy family travel down the street in a fine carriage, as the poor at the right queue for cheap rotting fish at the fishmonger’s.

William Powell Frith died on 2 November 1909.

His paintings may now seem archaic in comparison with those of the Pre-Raphaelites, the French Impressionists, or even Naturalists, who were his contemporaries. But only he, in his traditional realist style, really shows us Victorian life. He was innovative in his human landscapes, was probably one of the first major painters to incorporate photography into his workflow, and sent a clear message about urban deprivation and inequality.

For those – his unique human panoramas, in particular – we should remember him.