Ramsgate Sands

Ramsgate Sands by William Powell Frith, RA. Signed and dated 1854.

The Art-Journal on the painting

No. 157. ‘Life at the Seaside,’ W. P. Frith, R.A. Those who have admired the dramatic productions of this artist, have been surprised that they should be followed by such an afterpiece as “Life at the Sea-Side.” However, here it is, and year by year it will become more valuable as a memento of the habits and manners of the English “at—the- sea-side,”, in the middle of the nineteenth century. Hereafter it may be necessary to explain the presence of those sable serenaders, by informing inquiring youth that even at this time music was dead in England, and that the best “artistes” we had were only “lendings” from Nubia, or the banks of the Quorra. "Well, we are at Ramsgate, just on the sandy side of the pier; we can see the droit house and the obelisk, and if we look up we catch a glimpse of the crescents rejoicing in association with the names of Nelson and Wellington. We are in the midst of the essence—the best blood of Cockayne, and hence a consummation of a hundred epitomes. There is much happiness and much discontent, and many subtle shades between the two; gaieties and gravities, love, politics, music and poetry; but after all, the only way in which we covet to join the multifarious society, would be in a tunic and frilled continuations, and wieldinga wooden spade. That young widow on the right, whose crape is yet unsullied, is proposing to the young man with the apologetic moustache; this is so unexpected that he is somewhat confused, and well he may be so. That family in the centre are remarkable for their exclusiveness; at Peckham, their garden wall is higher than that of anybody else; and here they turn their backs upon everybody, living as it were within a ring-fence. The papa wears his slippers and reads the Times. The mamma, who is yet pretty, shades her complexion with what the boatmen call a “main top-gallant stu’n-sail” of blue silk to her bonnet. The young ladies read Bulwer and Disraeli, and keep worrying their matter-of-fact father for the newspaper, to look over the list of marriages. But farewell, happy family; the world is before us, and we have vet to get through it. There is another “happy family” behind, but they are not so well fed; it is therefore in a social point of view an interesting fact, that they do not dine on each other. There are old and young yachtsmen, white mice and geeen parrots; sober, elderly people from every part of the wide area between Whitechapel and Paddingtonia, the great feature of whose life when at home, is what Cowper calls a “one horse shay;” and young people of various complexions puzzling over crochet, and tête-à-tête with spy-glasses. The background is thronged with donkey-drivers and a host of spectators, who seize alike on old and young; but to detail further the motley concourse demands more space than we can devote to it.

With all the power of delineation and pointed satire of this composition, which at each turn of the kaleidoscope presents a new picture, we are still of the opinion that this is not the vein of the artist. There are Raffaellesque pictures that have not been painted in the age of Raffaelle, but there is nothing Hogarthian but what Hogarth himself has done. Still this is a great picture; the artist has dealt learnedly with shawls, bonnets, and black coats. We cannot touch upon the background and effects; it is enough to say that they are masterly. We have seen how he paints from our standard literature; and we see how he depicts everyday life. The latter he exhausts at one draught; he has left himself “no effects:” he cannot afford variety in the same line without descending to caricature. Our literature is exhaustless in melodramatic subject-matter. There is nothing coarse in the picture we have been considering; but Hogarth was most coarse when most virtuous—most offensive when satirising vice. Mr. Frith is undoubtedly a man of genius; moreover, he thinks and works; he has here shown how successful he can be with very unpropitious materials; he has produced a work of the very highest merit, one that must unquestionably augment his reputation; but having done so much he has done enough in this line; we shall prefer to see his vigorous mind employed upon themes more worthy of commemoration and preservation by Art. [16 (1854): 161]

Details & Related Material


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.

Last modified 1 August 2001