The Rejected Poet
William Powell Frith, R. A. (1819-1909)
Oil on canvas
91.5 x 71 cm
Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage (Accession no. 1774)
Frith tells us in his autobiography that before turning to his vast canvases depicting contemporary life, he decided to try to realise the scene of "the quarrel of Pope and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, or rather the cause of the quarrel..." (220). [Commentary continues below. Mouse over the text for links.]
Reproduced courtesy of Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage. Click on the image to enlarge it.
The cause, as Frith goes on to explain, is thought to have been that "in a moment of passion, Pope declared his love for the beautiful Lady Mary, who received the vows of the poet with astonishment that resolved itself into irrepressible laughter" (220). Frith continues,
By any one acquainted with the character of Pope — and who is not? — the fearful blow that such treatment would be to a man so sensitive may be imagined; and the ample revenge he allowed himself to take in after years be somewhat excused. Admirers of Pope objected to the subject as placing the poet in a humiliating position. Leslie, I remember, spoke to me strongly on that point; but the picture was done, and hanging on the Academy walls, when the objectors opened fire; so repentance, which I confess I felt, came too late. The truth was, I could not resist the dramatic effect of the two figures — the consuming rage of Pope, contrasted by the cruel laughter of the lady. My admiration and respect for Pope should perhaps have prevented me from exposing so great a man to ridicule and humiliation. Mea culpa! mea culpa! 
It is in fact a disturbing treatment of the purported incident, especially considering the ironic touch of the sculptured figures embracing in the background — the kind of romantic encounter denied to Pope by his appearance. The mirror behind him suggests that he should surely have foreseen such a response. On the other hand, this all helps to increase our sympathy for him in his bitter recoil. In the end, what comes out most clearly is the heartlessness of the woman, her head thrown back in spontaneous mirth, rather than that of the artist.
Frith goes on to explain that he consulted various earlier likenesses of Pope, particularly Roubiliac's bust of him, which depicts the poet, he says, "with features worn by suffering, but showing the intellectual strength that must have distinguished such a man" (220). Lady Mary, he admits, was harder to realise, and he concludes disarmingly, "I fear I cannot claim much resemblance to the beautiful original, though my lady is handsome enough to be the cause of love in Pope or anybody else" (221).
Frith, who is splendidly entertaining in his memoirs, gives much useful detail in them about the contemporary art world, especially about its business side. So he also recounts an interesting incident that occurred in connection with the sale of this portrait. He had tried to interest a rather common and uneducated collector in the preliminary sketch. At first, the man had thought he was talking about the Pope, not the poet of that name (of whom he had never heard), and was suitably shocked: "The pope make love to a married woman — horrible!" (222). Then, apprised of his mistake, he had agreed to buy the finished picture for 350 guineas, and also to allow Frith to make a small copy of it for a friend. The painting was duly finished and sold but the collector reneged on the agreement and refuse to let Frith make the smaller version of it because he thought it would devalue his purchase. He himself then made an agreement with an engraver for copies in mezzotint, "a process quite unsuited to it," in Frith's opinion. What was more, he pocketed "a hundred guineas for the copyright" (223). Frith was disgusted and refused to have any more dealings with him, noting angrily that after the collector died, the picture was sold at Christie's for 12,000 guineas.
No wonder, says Frith after relating this typically entertaining anecdote, that artists "prefer dealing with dealers who understand art and artists, and can be legally bound to carry out (in rare cases, when moral binding is not sufficient) their engagements to the letter" (224). He himself has been criticised for making an issue of such commercial matters, partly or mainly because he airs them so frankly in his reminiscences. He was, quite clearly, "a businessman, acutely aware of the value of copyright" (Woodcock 154). But who would blame him for this now? — Jacqueline Banerjee
Frith, William Powell. My Autobiography and Reminiscences. Vol. 1. London: Richard Bentley, 1887. Internet Archive. Contributed by the Getty Research Institute. Web. 20 August 2015.
Woodcock, Sally. "'Very Efficient as a Painter': The Painting Practice of William Powell Frith." In William Powell Frith: Painting the Victorian Age. Eds. Mark Bills and Vivien Knight. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007. 145-55.
W. P. Frith
Created 20 August 2015