On Sunday afternoon last to the Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate, to see an exhibition of the work of the once-famous Victorian artist, William Powell Frith (1819-1909).
Frith was a Harrogate lad, it seems, though in due course he made his home in London, where the real money was. He showed great talent as an artist from an early age, but he himself had no illusions about his status. He admitted that he never was, and never could be, a 'great' artist, but he was a popular one.
Of Frith's popularity there can be no doubt. On at least six occasions a set of railings had to be erected in front of his paintings to protect them from the crowds trying to see them when they were exhibited at the Royal Academy. Not surprisingly, reproductions of these works sold in great numbers, and made handsome fortunes for those involved, though Frith himself never became truly rich.
One of the reasons why money passed through his hands fairly quickly was because he maintained two households, quite close to each other. His wife Isabelle bore him twelve children. Meanwhile, a mile away, he kept a mistress, by whom he eventually had seven children. Contact with the mistress was maintained, it is said, by taking a regular 'evening walk'. And on one occasion his wife's suspicions were aroused when she saw him posting a letter in London when he was supposed to be on holiday in Brighton.
Despite this wonderful example of Victorian hypocrisy, Frith seems to have had plenty of energy left over for his work. His most famous paintings were large-scale pictures, featuring crowds of people at a railway station, or at Epsom racecourse on Derby day, or at the seaside. Download versions of these are available from the Mercer Art Gallery site.
These pictures were the equivalent of long novels, presenting the viewer with a large number of interacting characters, and the visual equivalent of sub-plots. Frith also used the opportunities to portray members of his own family and friends.
Should you find yourself anywhere near Harrogate between now and 15 July, the Frith exhibition is well worth your time. And, if you're an enthusiast for Victorian art, but not able to attend in person, you may wish to know that the exhibition is accompanied by a new(ish) book, William Powell Frith: Painting the Victorian Age, published by Yale University Press. This is available in both hardback and paperback, though the Yale web site prefers you not to know about the paperback, which is roughly half the price.
There is also a biography of Frith by the ever-reliable Christopher Wood -- William Powell Frith: A Painter and His World.
So, Frith himself was an interesting man, but even more interesting were some of his friends. And of one of those, more tomorrow.