By the seventeenth century, paintings with a great many small narratives had fallen out of favour. Although there may be some exceptions, my next examples are taken from the nineteenth century, when they became popular again.
William Powell Frith (1819–1909) was quintessentially Victorian. His paintings captured the spirit and substance of the period in a way that no other British artist did. In the late 1830s, he was a member of a group of artists who called themselves The Clique, which placed high value on what had been termed rather disparagingly genre scenes, and took their lead from the work of William Hogarth and David Wilkie.
Frith’s early paintings started to incorporate groups of figures, often in scenes with literary links, such as his rustic An English Merrymaking a Hundred Years Ago (1847). Here Frith offered a quotation from John Milton’s l’Allegro in explanation:
When the merry bells ring round,
And jocund rebecks sound
To many a youth and many a maid
Dancing in the checquered shade,
And young and old come forth to play
On a sunshine holiday.
As he finished that painting, Frith started work on what was to prove his breakthrough, the first of his great social panoramas, Ramsgate Sands, which he completed in 1854 and exhibited that summer at the Royal Academy, to which he had just been admitted.
Prior to 1846, Ramsgate had been an unassuming and quiet seaside town on the coast at the eastern tip of Kent. Then the railway came, and brought the masses from London to bathe in Ramsgate’s waters. Frith holidayed there in 1851, when he made his first sketches on which he based this work.
On the beach is an eclectic mixture of different classes, reflected in their clothing and activities. Many of these are stereotypes who became stock characters in his paintings, and Frith included himself as the man behind the group at the far right.
Critical reception was mixed, with some dismissing the painting as vulgar, but it proved enormously popular with the public, and was bought for a thousand guineas by a publisher to turn into prints. Queen Victoria then bought the painting, ironically to hang in Osborne House, her holiday palace on the Isle of Wight.
Encouraged by this success, Frith turned his attention to another famous gathering of people from all walks of life, the Derby horse races at Epsom, south of London.
This late study for Derby Day was probably painted in about 1856, and is very close to the finished work shown below.
On the strength of that sketch, Jacob Bell commissioned Frith to paint his finished Derby Day (1856-58) for the huge fee of £1,500, and the artist was paid a further £1,500 for the rights to make prints. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1858, and proved so popular that a guard rail had to be installed in front of it to protect the work from the admiring crowds.
Within its mass of people, there are innumerable scenes and visual anecdotes concentrated into a human landscape which epitomises the moment and the whole era.
Starting at the left, the closest tent is that of the Reform Club, a private gentlemen’s club in London which had been formed in 1836, and had a strong association then with radical politics. The centre of attention here is a ‘thimble-rigger’, a confidence trickster who is out to relieve the men in top hats of their money. He is stooped over a small portable table to the right of centre. A young farmer in a smock is about to part with his money despite his wife trying to restrain him. Behind the young lad in a top hat at the right is another con man, this time using the three-card trick to obtain money.
In the centre, an acrobat is kneeling ready to start his routine, arms outstretched towards his young child, whose attention has been caught by a sumptuous feast including a bright red lobster, laid out for those in the carriage behind. Behind the acrobat, his wife holds up a large pot to receive a donation from a boy above. At the left is a mottley crew of barefoot children involved in some sort of money-raising display, while behind them all the rich and elegant feast and drink on the roofs of their carriages.
At the right, a fashionably dressed young man lounges against the carriage of his mistress, a courtesan who is being propositioned by someone clad in symbolic scarlet. Behind them the jockeys wearing bright ‘silks’ ride past, and there are dense crowds in the distance. At the right is an acrobat high in the air on a pole.
Frith was a believer in the pseudoscience of phrenology, and that you could classify people into criminals and other stereotypes on the basis of their appearance. Accordingly, each of the figures conforms to those stereotypes in their appearance and behaviour.
The Derby Day proved so successful that Frith was commissioned to make a copy, and went on to paint an even more richly narrative panorama, which I will show in the next article in this series.