The Railway Station by William Powell Frith, RA. Signed and dated 1862. Royal Holloway, University of London. Click on image to enlarge it.
The Art-Journal on the painting (I): “the largest sum ever paid to an artist”
This great work of one of the ablest and most popular artists of the age, is, and has long been, “in progress” and has been sold to Mr. L. V. Flatou, for the prodigious sum of eight thousand seven hundred and fifty guineas!— the 750 guineas being added to the amount as an inducement to the painter to forego the right to exhibit the work at the Exhibition of the Royal Academy. This is unquestionably the largest sum ever paid to an artist for a picture since Art was a profession. It is so large as to be almost incredible; but we speak from the best authority, when we state it to be correct; and as Mr. Flatou is known to be a gentleman of sound practical knowledge, as well as a thorough critic in modern Art, in which he is an extensive and successful dealer, we presume he has taken into wise account his chances of gain or loss by the transaction. These chances arise, first, from the public exhibition of the picture in London and in the provinces; next, from a purposed engraving; and eventually from its sale.
So startling a fact as this has certainly never occurred in connection with Art: an artist, by a single work, obtains a sum that any one of his predecessors in England would have regarded as the ample recompense of a life-long labour, the bare interest of which would have seemed a sufficient income to the best of the British masters who have not been twenty years in their graves. True, Mr. Frith will expend much time in the creation of this work, bearing in mind the immense amount of his reward, and the stake at issue; and, we are quite sure, will give value for “value received:” still, it will astonish the world to read this announcement as the simple record of a fact. The picture is ten feet in length, and the figures are, of course, of size in proportion; and besides the time Mr. Frith has devoted to its production, he has, we understand, been during many years making studies for it, having long looked forward to the theme as one that was calculated to extend and establish his well-earned fame. In the hands of such a man—a man of rare genius and of matured knowledge in all that appertains to Art, and renders it effective for a great purpose—the subject is secure of the best possible treatment. And there can be conceived no subject with higher or more interesting capabilities; there is no incident of life, no phase of character, that need be excluded from it: the bride, “beautiful and young,” with her husband-lover, will be there, setting out on their wedding tour; so will the arrestee! felon, for whom officials have been on the watch, with manacles ready; while, between the two extremes of hope and despair, virtue and crime, there will be an infinity of episodes such as the reader may readily imagine.
The picture will therefore be, in the best sense, a great national work, full of portraiture of every class and kind that may illustrate the epoch, and “Life” as it is in England in the nineteenth century. The subject is most promising, and cannot be otherwise than most effective; it is precisely that which all who comprehend Art would have selected for Mr. Frith—and it is exactly that which all persons would desire to see pictured. Although, therefore, Mr. Flatou has paid for it so enormous a sum, it is more than probable—nay, we may regard it as certain—that he will be a gainer by the transaction; while artists. Art-lovers, and the public, will, by this means, obtain a work of universal interest, which could only be obtained by means out of the ordinary character of a commission to a Painter, and an order to an Engraver. [23 (1861): 61]
The Art-Journal on the painting (II): description of the picture’s groupings
Mr. Flatou has announced his intention to devote his entire time and energies to forward the interests of this great work; and with that view he has either relinquished, or materially contracted, his business as a picture dealer, in which he has so long occupied a foremost place. “Life at a Railway Station’ is now a public exhibition at the Gallery in the Haymarket, next door to the theatre. It will, in due course, make the circuit of the provinces; it is therefore destined to be examined, in process of time, by hundreds of thousands of persons, in all parts of Great Britain.
It is almost impossible to bring to the examination of a work that has aroused so large a share of public curiosity, and been heralded by so many interesting preliminary announcements as the subject under review, that abstract consideration and cool, unprejudiced judgment such a task ordinarily requires, but which, when in reference to a production by so eminent an artist, and one so important in its character, is especially desirable. The frequent paragraphs that have appeared, hinting at the exact locale of the picture, and the leading incidents which embodied its story, had so stimulated the inventive faculty of their readers and hearers, that the majority of spectators will come before the canvas with a pre-conceived notion of the arrangement and treatment of the subject, disposed according to their own fancy. This is a disadvantage to an artist, and fraught with the risk of disappointment.
The first report of the immense price—eight thousand guineas—at which it had been commissioned bv Mr. Flatou, at once excited feelings of surprise and doubt; whilst in those who knew its truth, a presentiment of anxiety was awakened as to the result that would attend an investment unparalleled in the history of ancient or modern Art. Again, it was a dealer’s commission, and large as was the sum offered, it was felt that if the artist were successful in the production of a popular work, the exhibition of which would be generally attractive, the speculation might be largely remunerative. But the very fact that such elements of popularity were essential to its financial success somewhat perilled its character in an artistic sense.
It is but just, as a preliminary to our notice of this important work, to refer- to conditions which not only seriously augmented the difficulties of its execution, but also the attainment of a just and honest criticism upon its merits—difficulties which, if examined less cursorily, might prove of more weight than we have claimed for them. We may venture to affirm there is no living artist to whom such a commission could have been so safely entrusted as to Mr. Frith, and he has passed triumphantly through the ordeal. The ‘Railway Station’ is a work of immense power, not only in the variety and interest of its incident—in its fidelity of individual character—in its admirable grouping and colour— but in its conscientious elaboration of finish. The pictorial difficulty of the locale has been overcome as successfully as Art could possibly achieve. The particular station chosen is that of the Great Western, at Paddington, certainly the best suited to the purpose, as being in many of its details less unpicturesque than are those of our railway termini generally. Upon the choice of subject being first announced, exclamations arose as to what could be done with it, so unpromising did it seem; but the painter of the ‘Derby Day’ has answered this query most conclusively, and so fertile of material does the theme appear that the picture, large and comprehensive as it is, leaves the subject far from being exhausted. The various episodes the artist has introduced are such as whilst combining the highest amount of interest, are just those strictly applicable to the scene, and though realised with vivid, and in some instances painful force, are yet free from all exaggeration. As one of the most promising and pleasing of these we first select the wedding group. The bride and bridegroom are at the instant of departure, he giving directions to a servant as to the safe custody of a jewel-case, she taking a temporary farewell of two of her bridesmaids. The conflicting feelings of joy and sorrow by which they are agitated are tenderly and delicately expressed.
The group of recruits is remarkably powerful: the foremost figure, whose countenance brands him as a hardened reprobate, is assuming an air of callous independence and bravado; whilst his widowed mother weeps in bitter, silent anguish on his arm. Despite this assumption there are, however, in his expression evidences of an inward awakening of some natural feeling at the separation, finely conceived and felicitously wrought.
Another important feature is the arrest of a fraudulent bankrupt or forger, who, whilst in the act of stepping into a carriage, is captured by two officers. This is told with great dramatic force: the prisoner has evidently resorted to means to conceal identity. Well shrouded in shawls and wrappers, closely shaven, he has just apparently passed the ordeal where detection threatened, and at the instant of fancied security finds himself grasped in the strong clutches of the law. The hapless, hopeless gaze which contracts his pallid face, speaks the intense suffering of the moment. Immediately within the carriage, in an attitude of painful excitement and alarm, his wife stoops despairingly mute at this frustration of their hope of escape. Her face is sadly expressive of long, long anxieties, culminating in the present trial. In strange and telling contrast to the impassioned figure, her fellow passengers sit at comfortable ease, absorbed in reading, and utterly unconscious of the event.
There is considerable humour in the group of figures, hastening with eager rapidity to the train under the impression of being “too late.” Also in that where a porter, having detected a pet dog beneath the shawl of a passenger, is commenting on the irregularity of the proceeding, and suggesting the price at which the necessary “dog-ticket” may be obtained. The child accompanying the passenger, who is evidently strongly attached to the canine favourite, betrays an absorbing interest in the consequence of this unexpected claim.
Another group exhibits a bewildered foreigner, upon whose ear an English “cabby” is inflicting elegant extracts from his choicest vocabulary, in return, probably, for having been insulted by the offer of his legal fare. This group, however admirably painted, is too prominent, occupying, as it does, the centre of the picture.
“Blowing off tbe steam” is so judiciously introduced as a substitute for atmosphere, that it lends important aid in breaking the monotony of colour, which must otherwise have been evident.
We have but enumerated a selection from the most important pages of this painted volume. It would be impossible within even the lengthened criticism to which our comments have extended, to enter into all the details of such a subject so treated; but this is the less necessary, as no lover of Art will lose the opportunity of the gratification its careful inspection will amply afford. An artist receiving such a commission, conscious of the interest at stake, and anxious that the expectations based upon its completion shall be realised, must feel a degree of responsibility which, to one of nervous temperament, might liave been fatal to the work. But Mr. Frith does not appear to be of that nature; he has grappled confidently with the difficulties, and successfully mastered them. The result sought has been realised; the picture is one of the highest class in Art. It is essentially of a popular character, and there can be no doubt that Mr. Flatou has made, though a costly, yet a remunerative investment. It is no disparagement to him to state that, in this matter he can claim but the credit of having originated and carried out a bold and spirited speculation—that he has invested the large sum referred to in the expectation of realising a fair return for the capital sunk, and that the talent he has selected as his medium of operation not only justifies his claim to public patronage and appreciation, but likewise goes far to secure it. His purpose is to exhibit the picture, and also to have it engraved upon a large scale, and in the best possible manner. We sincerely wish him every success, and doubt not that his spirit and enterprise will meet with the cordial recognition they so justly merit.
Details and Related Material
- The Artist's Family (detail)
- Victorian Railways
- Railways and Victorian Literature
- Railways and Victorian Art
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.
“‘Life at a Railway Station’ by W.P. Frith, R.A.” The Art-Journal. 23 (1861): 61.
“‘Life at a Railway Station’ by W.P. Frith, R.A.” The Art-Journal. 24 (1862): 122-23.
Last modified 5 February 2008
Art-Journal reviews added 25 November 2019