Many thanks to Keith P. Jones for alerting me to the version of this painting in the Aukland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.

The Rejected Poet The Rejected Poet

Two versions of The Rejected Poet by William Powell Frith, R. A. (1819-1909). Left: Captioned in the gallery's collection, "Pope Makes Love To Lady Mary Wortley Montagu," this version was painted in oil on canvas in 1852. It measures 118 x 94.2 cm. and is in the collection of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki (accession no. 1974/59), to which it was given by Sir Frank Mappin in 1974. There are no known copyright restrictions on the image's reproduction. Right: a smaller 1863 version, also in oil on canvas. This one measures 91.5 x 71 cm. and is in the collection of Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage (accession no. 1774). This version is reproduced here by kind permission.

The Aukland Art Gallery's note about the painting explains that its version belongs to the early period of Frith's painting career when he concentrated on "episodes from the lives of famous historical personalities," so here "he depicts the disastrous moment that spelled future enmity between the poet Alexander Pope and his potential patron Lady Mary Wortley Montagu." The gallery's note then quotes Frith's own explanation of the scene for viewers of the 1852 Royal Academy exhibition: "Her own statement, as to the origin of the quarrel, was this: That at some ill-chosen time, when she least expected what romancers call a declaration, he made such passionate love to her, that in spite of her utmost endeavours to be angry and look grave, provoked an immediate fit of laughter: from which moment he became her implacable enemy."

Indeed, Frith gives a similar account in his autobiography, saying 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). The cause here is similarly expressed, as being Pope's sudden declaration of love made in a fit of passion, received by Lady Mary "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! [220]

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.

Interestingly, the Aukland Art Gallery sees the details of the room as reflections of Lady Mary's status, and suggests that Frith has in fact been rather kind to both: "Pope's hunched back is hidden from sight because he is seated, and Lady Mary's face is shown without disfiguring smallpox scars." This is supported by Frith's comments in his autobiography, where he suggests that he did try to be fair: he describes having 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).

The Rejected Poet

Engraving by G. W. Sharpe, reproduced in the Art Journal, facing p.172, but shown here from Whitaker, np.

The Art Journal of July 1868 carried a feature on the painting, and an engraving, again giving the background of the episode and concluding, "The cool self-possession of the lady of rank and fashion proves an overmatch for the author, alive to the shafts of ridicule," and commenting,

In this brief. sketch of Lady our readers have the interpretation of Frith’s amusing picture; the subject is in every way skilfully treated. Pope evidently does not bear his rejection with the air of a philosopher; but, then, what philosopher or poet is proof against the derisive laugh of a handsome and accomplished woman? And Lady Mary, with a kind of girlish glee, appears to relish the torment she is inflicting. The little episode of Cupid and Psyche, the sculpture group in the background, is a capital bit of by-play. [172]

The fact that Frith made a later, smaller copy is particularly interesting. He is splendidly entertaining in his memoirs, and 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 (presumeably the first. larger one). 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 refused 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 declined 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. Then, he seems to have gone ahead anyway, and painted the smaller version. Keith Jones (see headnote) finds subtle variations of colour and definition between the two works, notably the different colours of the tabletop, but also, for example, in the angle of Cupid's face in the sculpture group, and the pattern of the carpet.

Keith Jones's own version of Pope's face, which catches his anguished expression perfectly.

No wonder, says Frith after relating his 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? Or for making a further copy of the painting after all?

Links to Related Material


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.

"The Rejected Poet." The Art-Journal Vol. LXVII (1 July 1867): 173. Internet Archive, from a copy stamped "British Museunm." Web. 23 October 2023.

Whitaker, J. Vernon. The Art Treasures of England: The Master-peices of the Best Engish, Irish and Scottish Painters and Sculptors. Philadelphia: Gebbie & Barrie, 1875. Goog;e Books. Free to read.

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.

Created 20 August 2015

Earlier version of the painting added 23 October 2023