Dignified Victorian realist

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No one would be more surprised by the current exhibition in the City of London, William Powell Frith, Painting the Victorian Age, than Frith himself. “I know very well that I never was, nor under any circumstances could become, a great artist; but I am a very successful one,” he said. He did not expect to last, but enjoyed every minute of his brief glory in what Roger Fry called “the hideous present” celebrated in his paintings of mid-19th-century England.

One hundred and fifty years ago, in 1856, Queen Victoria noticed “Life at the Seaside (Ramsgate Sands)” at the Royal Academy, and bought it for £1,000. It was the first panoramic portrayal of Victorian society. Frith painted it when on holiday with one of his tribes of children – he had two, a family of 12 with his wife, and another seven children with his mistress, who lived minutes away and was visited daily during his pre-dinner walk.

Depicting about 100 figures on the beach chattering under parasols, paddling or staring out through binoculars at a grey sea, “Life at the Seaside” was dismissed by critics as “a tissue of vulgarity” until the royal interest, when Frith’s reputation soared.

Two more social panoramas, bigger, better and pricier, followed. “Derby Day” (1858) intoxicated huge crowds into “smelling the picture like bloodhounds”, and needed a police guard and an iron rail for protection. “The Railway Station” earned Frith £5,000, his dealer £16,000 and his engraver £40,000 – record sums for a contemporary work in 1862.

Then the audience vanished. By the 1870s Frith’s prices were tumbling. In 1890 he envied a colleague who was “dead and independent of the present taste for pictures”. By the early 20th century he was considered the nadir of British art, with Fry naming “The Railway Station” “an artistic Sodom and Gomorrah”. There has not been an exhibition of his work since 1951, and it is a bold, countercultural move to show him now. What does he tell us, beyond the wild fluctuations in the economics of taste?

Even Frith’s contemporaries never saw “Life at the Seaside”, “Derby Day” and “The Railway Station” together. Lined up at the Guildhall Art Gallery, these choreographies of mass entertainment form a monumental yet melancholic parade. Unlike many Victorian artists mired in historical paintings, Frith made modern life his subject and his pioneering skill at grouping large numbers of figures in distinct dramas within rhythmically organised compositions is indisputable.

Significantly, his first choice of profession had not been artist but auctioneer, and here, from a lofty podium-like perspective, he captures the
jostling, surging Victorian crowd at play and on the move. He wanted us to read the pictures like narratives and so we do, following in “Derby Day”, for example, the fortunes of picnickers feasting on lobster, acrobats, pickpocketing boys, a foolish youth losing his money and watch to fraudsters, and a girl neglected by a bored lover.

Like his friend Charles Dickens, and going back to an English tradition embodied in William Hogarth, Frith is humourist, caricaturist and social commentator. No canvas suggests better Victorian energy, social progress, belief in democracy tempered by a visceral fear of the mob. From aristocrat to beggar, Frith modelled every figure from life and, as each character fights for prominence, the canvas enacts the relentless rise of individualism un-leashed by urban capitalism.

Yet as a painting “Derby Day”, for all the activity, has the chill of a tombstone. The minute detail, hard-edged drawing style, tight careful brushwork and crisp high finish all form a monument to the final pre-photographic days of art’s unrivalled power to bear witness, when painstaking realism like Frith’s was enough to pull crowds mesmerised by the mimetic image.

Oscar Wilde gibed that Frith “elevated painting to the dignity of photo-graphy”. His chiselled naturalism had its heyday in the 1850s, after which innovative painters began to respond to the challenge of the camera. Frith plodded on with moralising pictures such as “Morning: Covent Garden”, “Noon: Regent Street” and “Night: Haymarket”, inspired by Hogarth but lacking his satirical edge.

He reckoned impressionism “a constant outrage on popular prejudice” and aestheticism pretentious nonsense. In a late panorama, “Private View at the Royal Academy” (1883), he portrays Oscar Wilde, one of its leaders, as an outsize fop, with velvet waistcoat and lily pinned to his jacket, towering above a crowd that includes Gladstone, Trollope, du Maurier, Millais, Ellen Terry and Lily Langtry. Frith paints himself, here as in his other panoramas, as an enthusiastic member of the populace seeking success, as an auctioneer does, by relating to his audience as one of them.

A decade earlier, Manet painted his panorama of the urban throng at play, “Masked Ball at the Opera”, which also contains a self-portrait among a lustrous black mass of top-hatted men. Frith has not a shade of Manet’s painterly genius, but compare “Private View” and the radically flat French work, with its jarring contrasts, cropped body parts, edgy self-portrait and throw-away signature – Manet signed the calling card lying on the ballroom floor – and you see the mid-19th-century artist evolving rapidly from social chronicler to detached, modernist critic.

Such a leap was the last thing on Frith’s agenda. Some of his genre pictures are blatant propaganda: the sentimental subject of “Many Happy Returns of the Day”, for example, advertises not only the Victorian invention of childhood but also Frith’s resilience as paterfamilias – he painted the work, picturing his daughter, wife, parents and himself around a cluttered birthday table, as he started his second, secret family. Others are more subtle: his portrait of Dickens in 1859, shortly after the writer had scandalously separated from his wife, catches desperation as well as a darting, discomfiting intelligence behind the dignity of the pose.

It is in “The Railway Station” that Frith comes closest to Dickens’ vitality and pathos. The Guildhall includes oil studies where the screeching locomotive is headed not for the open track,as in the final version, but into a dark tunnel, emphasising the theme of life versus death.

The canvas celebrates the busy trade of life in wealthy, industrialised Britain: each pyramidal group of figures represents one of life’s stages, mirroring the railway cliché of arrival and departure. An officer holds aloft a baby; a family of boys (Frith’s own) depart for school (Harrow); a radiant bridal party is contrasted with a shabby fraudster about to be arrested; an old man struggles along the platform supported by his daughters.

Victorian critics compared “The Railway Station” to Greek drama, but the arrival/departure metaphor recalled for me Mark Wallinger’s video “Threshold to the Kingdom” (2000), filmed at London City Airport and zooming in on individuals among the crowd who emerge exhausted, emotional, enraptured, after (life’s) long journeys.

The likeness is heightened because Frith’s montage effects emphasise the fleeting present which in the mid 19th century suddenly felt speeded up by technical advances such as the railway and telegraph. A newsboy rushes to sell the latest editions; a gentleman in a carriage opens his paper on which, by a trick of perspective, the dramatic incident of the arrest is superimposed, like an item inserted into the daily news. Frith was not a great artist, but as a great, restless journalist on canvas he has his enduring place in British history.

‘William Powell Frith, Painting the Victorian Age’, Guildhall Art Gallery, London EC2, to March 4, tel +44 20 7332 3700; Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate, March 23-July 15

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