Cover of the book under review. [Click on the thumbnail for a larger image.]
This informative and beautifully illustrated collection of essays was brought out to accompany the major exhibition of Frith's paintings and drawings at London's Guildhall in the winter/spring of 2006/7. Like the artist's own canvases, it has much to say about society, the art world and particularly the art of illustration in the Victorian period; and it places Frith as firmly as he would have wished at the very heart of his age.
After a useful chronology, the book opens with Vivien Knight's thorough and enjoyable biography, which chronicles Frith's early training in copying prints and everyday objects, as well as his interest in auctioneering — the career the young Yorkshire lad would have chosen if left to himself, and at which, given his growing fascination with physiognomy, he would doubtless have excelled. Like the friends he made once established in London, Richard Dadd (1817-1886), Augustus Egg (1816-1863) and others, the young artist sought many of his subjects in literature; Dadd's tragic mental collapse deepened his interest in psychological complexity wherever he found it. As his own domestic life developed, it must have provided him with more insights: an oil study for The Railway Station (1862) shows the father in the Frith family group looking distinctly flustered, not at all like the complacent paterfamilias of the finished picture. Knight tells the story of the rise and decline of the artist's fame and fortunes with just the right balance between scholarship and human interest, and, as in the artist's own crowd scenes, there are some wonderful vignettes here. We see Frith dancing a fandango after the Queen's visit to his studio to approve of The Marriage of the Prince of Wales in 1865; the teetotal Cruikshank at Frith's dinner table, merrily tucking into jellies and other dishes well-laced with sherry and brandy; Frith again, who for years maintained two large families in tandem, ogling women of questionable repute in Rotten Row, and so on.
This book was intended for specialist and non-specialist alike, and David Trotter's essay for Chapter 2, on Dickens' friendship with Frith, should also please both. "It is probably not too much of an exaggeration to say that Dickens liked artists more than he liked art" (29), says Trotter, proceeding with the same light touch to focus on Frith's painting of the only-just-innocent Dolly Varden (1842) from Barnaby Rudge. Frith, he argues, saw through Dickens' "mixed feelings about giddiness" (37), and took it upon himself to express Dolly's giddiness more forthrightly. To do so, he seized on the detail of her cherry-coloured hat ribbon, an adornment which would have infuriated Ruskin, to whom (as Trotter explains) ribbons were artificial frippery totally devoid of natural grace. But Frith makes sympathetic capital of this little affectation, and it gives the perfect finishing touch to his picture. This is one of Frith's best literary illustrations, and it deserves its lengthy treatment here.
In Chapter 3, Knight's co-editor Mark Bills shows Frith's more moralistic side, discussing his "assimilation" (55) of Hogarth in social commentaries like his painting Road to Ruin series of 1878. The Guildhall exhibition was notable for setting the bold chalk studies for this series alongside the oils and then the etchings; however didactic and melodramatic the gambler's progress may be, few would now agree with the Athenaeum's verdict on it as "a monument of misapplied Labour" (52). Besides, as Bills points out, it was a station on the road to Frith's more sophisticated Hogarthian series, the critically acclaimed Race for Wealth pictures. This series concludes not with the wretched subject locking the door while a pistol lies invitingly on the table, but, in Retribution, with a procession of uniformed prisoners round the exercise yard in prison. Here, Frith, who normally loved to discriminate between features and expressions, gives the corrupt financier an uncharacteristic anonymity. Nothing could better reflect the crushing effect of the Victorian prison system than his now undistinguished figure and blank countenance.
Unfortunately, allying Frith with Dickens and Hogarth suggests not only the level but the limitation of Frith's achievement. Despite his personal interpretations and even reinventions of their visions (he was well aware, for instance, that he lacked the satirical edge of Hogarth, and there is surely some sympathy for the fallen financier), he emerges as a kind of conduit for them. Yet he was very influential in his own right. In Chapter 4, Mary Cowling explains that
Frith had never aimed to be an artist of the "High" variety, preferring to grapple with real life rather than abstractions, and much of his training bored him. In his My Autobiography, he openly admitted his failure to master the "dreadful science" of perspective and soon parted company with anatomy; since both were unnecessary to his own chosen route in art. In 1840 Frith formed The Clique with Augustus Egg (1816-1863), Henry O'Neil (1817-1880) and other like-minded artists. Recognising that changing demands were at odds with established academic taste, the young painters opted instead for accessible subjects, with the emphasis on character and incident, detail and high finish. 
Not a noble agenda, perhaps (and poles apart from G. F. Watts' later pronouncement, "I paint ideas, not things," qtd. in Lambourne 459), but it produced Frith's great crowd scenes, especially Life at the Seaside (Ramsgate Sands) (1854), Derby Day (1858), and The Railway Station, and these in turn encouraged and helped to inspire other artists like George Elgar Hicks (1824-1914) and O'Neil. Hicks' The General Post-Office: One Minute to Six (1860), depicting the scrimmage just prior to the last postal clearance, and O'Neil's striking pair of paintings illustrating the effects of the Indian War of Independence (Eastward Ho! August 1857 and Home Again, 1858-59) are examples of the more individualistic works of this type.
The group in The Railway Station representing the artist's family: (left) the oil sketch of the artist's family, including Frith himself; (right) the group in the completed painting.
[Click on the thumbnails for larger images.]
At the heart of the book, however, is Caroline Arscott's discussion of Frith's own famous The Railway Station in Chapter 5. This is a mine of information, not only about the popularity of urban subjects and public settings at this time, but also about the attitudes towards the crowd that informed this kind of artwork, and about the artistic strategies for dealing with it. Useful reference is made to such sources as Kenny Meadows' Heads of the People, or Portraits of the English (1840) and Mayhew's London Characters: Illustrations of the Humour, Pathos and Peculiarities of London Life (1872), and Arscott greatly illuminates Frith's compositional skills and his particular take on the crowd: "the prevailing mood is one of affectionate recognition" (85). Of special interest are her comments on the group just to the right of centre, beside the one depicting Frith's family. Frith explained later that the foreign-looking gentleman arguing with the cabby was based on his daughters' Italian teacher, who wished not to be recognised; he confessed to having been caught up in the conflict between catching the man's likeness and betraying him. The figure changes considerably between the oil study and the finished work, and here Arscott finds the artist recognising "the thrills to be derived from an occlusion of identity," and discovering in the process "an alternative to the classificatory certainties of genre" (91). In the previous chapter, Cowling's praise for his "supreme artistry" (63) in interlinking the various groups on the platform is somewhat tempered by her later assumption that paintings like this"are far from being aesthetic objects," and primarily of "historical interest" — hugely valuable as they might be in this respect (76). But Arshott's in-depth analysis of The Railway Station proves that Frith was far from being a mere mirror of the times.
Inevitably, narrative painting, with what Cowling calls "its hard-edged drawing style" (75), segues into graphic art, and in Chapter 6 Alex Werner deals with Frith in the context of artists best known now as illustrators, like John Leech (1817-1864; a particular friend, whose biography Frith wrote later on), Richard Doyle (1824-83) and others, along with engravers like the Brothers Dalziel. The emphasis here is on "Frith's influence on the subject matter and the style of modern life illustrations" in the pages of the short-lived London Society magazine (100). Like Cowling in Chapter 4, Werner throws welcome light an area generally overshadowed by High Art, looking principally at scenes of the seaside and racecourse, such as the fine engravings done from William McConnell's Brighton sketches, one of them by Dalziel, in July 1862. Charles Altamont Doyle, father of the now more famous Conan Doyle, is another of the illustrators featured here. Again, though, it seems a shame that Werner should conclude his discussion so modestly by writing: "Taken as a whole, these works are worthy of some attention" (108; italics added). There is an effect here rather like that of Dickens' early tendency to lower his voice when speaking as Sam Weller. It seems that illustrators, on whatever scale they work, are not really expected to command the respect they deserve.
Two more excellent chapters follow: an essay on "Frith and Fashion" by Edwina Ehrman (Chapter 7) and one on Frith's female models, by Jane Sellars (Chapter 8). Frith was proud of his meticulous research for paintings set in the past: "Customs also may be learnt from many authorities," he wrote in his autobiography; "so, with much difficulty, may dresses be studied in which our ancestors lived and moved" (1: 305). This attention to detail carried through into the modern life paintings in which he excelled, as witnessed by the "uglies" (shades) attached to most of the bonnets in Life at the Seaside; and at the height of his career he was so popular that he himself even triggered a fashion: Ehrmann gives us a startling glimpse here of the Tractarian children's author Charlotte Yonge, in her very late forties, wearing a Dolly Varden dress. Frith's young female models often brought out the best in him, and not just because of their attire. Sellars is right to say that the portraits which he painted on commission still "often display a tender response" (138). The 1851 portrait of Annie Gambert is, as Sellars claims, outstanding in this respect, though there is still something reluctant about her praise for it: "This is no mere costume piece, nor is it devoid of character interest" (139-41).
Thanks to the oil study for The Railway Station, we know that the artist's decision to project a confident persona in the painting was a late and deliberate one. In his last great crowd-pleaser, Private View at the Royal Academy (1883), Frith made a very different choice. Here, he shows himself as a shrunken figure at the back of the crowd, overshadowed not only by the then President of the Academy, Lord Leighton, but also, and more completely, by Oscar Wilde. The aesthete, resplendent in velvet with a fine lily buttonhole, holds a catalogue in his hand, looks keenly at one of the paintings, and draws to himself the attention not only of those immediately in front of him but also of those to the side, including the illustrator George Du Maurier, who looks at him askance. Cowling sees this quite conventionally as a satire against Wilde, and Wilde was certainly irritated by it. But the picture is also redolent of the artist's own disappointment and disillusion, and is so very "finished" as to have an air of atrophy about it. It reminds me of John Galsworthy's confession in the preface to The Forsyte Saga, that he had "pickled" and "preserved in its own juice" the essence of a certain segment of society; it is as if the light has gone out of Frith, and, with it, the life of his painting.
Fair enough, then, that in Chapter 9 on his painting practice Sally Woodcock should reach this low-key "Conclusion":
Frith was aware of being in the right place at the right time, capturing the public's imagination and capitalising on collectors' enthusiasm for modern pictures at mid-century. He did not seek novel effects, and his painting practice reflects that consistency and conventionality. Even his detractors recognised that he was the product of a particular period's tendencies and taste, which had perhaps diverted him from better work. . . . His glory days were short-lived and he fell out of fashion and out of sympathy for the age in which he lived fairly abruptly. . . . (155)
There is only one more brief chapter, Victoria Duran's brief but intriguing investigation of Frith's frames; so these comments seem to stand as a conclusion for the whole book. As to his popularity, facts are facts. But Frith kept his hold on the general public's imagination through cheap copies of his big crowd-pleasers, and is now in the limelight again. The recent exhibition, and this book itself, are proof enough of this. No doubt this is partly because the age which he evokes for us has come back into fashion. But there is also a greater appreciation now of the ground-breaking nature and unique technical skills of the larger paintings, and the merits of others like Annie Gambart and At the Opera (1855; a poignant study in youthful absorption) — or the wonderfully atmospheric Night in the street scene sketches of 1862. Many of Frith's other works could be added to the list, including his sensitive and haunting portrait of Dickens (1859), which gets more mention here for its frame than anything else. Interestingly, the rich contextualizing detail in William Powell Frith: Painting the Victorian Age, and the book's many splendid colour reproductions, press Frith's claims more boldly than the contributors' own statements about him.
Bills, Mark, and Vivien Knight, eds. William Powell Frith: Painting the Victorian Age. New Haven & London: Yale Univ. Press, 2006. 180 + xi pp. Hardback, £40.00. Paperback, £20.00. ISBN 0-300-12190-3.
Frith, William Powell. My Autobiography and Reminiscences, London: Bentley & Son, 1887-8.
Lambourne, Lionel. Victorian Painting. London & New York: Phaidon, 1999.
Last modified 12 July 2007