William Powell Frith was born near Ripon, Yorkshire where his parents were employed as butler and cook at nearby Studley Royal. His parents' occupation may have been a form of apprenticeship to the hotel business, because when he was seven years of age, his father became landlord of the Dragon Hotel, Harrogate, one of England's leading spa towns. After an unsatisfactory start in schooling in Knaresborough, the new-found relative affluence of the Friths' allowed them to send their son to board at St Margaret's, near Dover where William was allowed free reign to indulge in his enthusiasm for drawing. His parents encouraged their son's interest in art and his father was himself an amateur artist. From an early stage, Frith's powers of observation indicated his preference for genre, a preference which remained with him and which he exploited fully.
At 16 his father entered him into the private art academy of Henry Sass in Charlotte Street, Bloomsbury and two years later he was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools. In the same year, 1837, his father died, and his mother let the hotel and moved with her two other surviving children to a house near Regent's Park where William had space for a small studio. Very early in his life, Frith's qualities of independence, ambition and self-promotion showed themselves and in his second year at the academy he began to make money from portrait painting. Through contacts of an uncle, who had also been an hotelier, he found a clientele among a body of affluent Lincolnshire farmers and Frith made two tours of the area, charging between five and fifteen guineas a portrait.
In 1838, when he was 19, he had his first painting accepted at the British Institution, A Page with a Letter and this was followed in the next two years by further acceptances. Along with a number of other like-minded artists, he was the member of a group known as the Clique. The group exploited the gap which had appeared in the art market between the established academic taste perpetuated at the Royal Academy and the growing demand for narrative painting full of character and incident and executed in precise detail. This form of art lent itself perfectly to reproduction by the rapidly expanding popular print market and prints of Frith's work became a valuable and essential feature of his career.
Frith's early paintings depicting imaginary historical subjects demonstrate his great gift for dramatic grouping and it was this particular device when used with contemporary subjects which marks Frith out as being an artist quite different from his contemporaries. He disliked Pre-Raphaelitism (although he was influenced by its minute detail), Impressionism and aestheticism as a whole.
Although it is his scenes of contemporary life which are his enduring legacy, his great interest in literature was also a source of inspiration and much of his work depicts characters or scenes from his favourite authors like Cervantes, Dickens, Goldsmith, Molière and Scott. It was a literary subject which secured his first appearance at the Royal Academy with Malvolio before the Countess Olivia in 1840,
From an early age Frith was at the centre of the literary and artistic life of London. He became a life-long friend of Dickens and the author commissioned two works from him of characters from his own novels - Dolly Varden ( from Barnaby Rudge) and Kate Nickleby. Frith's interpretations of these characters were very popular and he painted six copies of Dolly Varden. He also painted Dicken's portrait.
His autobiography confirms that he wanted to break new ground by painting subjects from contemporary life but to Frith the main obstacle to this was his perceived notion of the 'unpicturesqueness' of Victorian dress. It was a difficulty also expressed by Millais.
However in 1851, during a visit to Ramsgate he conceived his first ambitious modern scene, even placing himself in the picture. Life at the Seaside (Ramsgate sands) took three years to complete and so was a huge investment in time and money. To his relief it was purchased for a thousand guineas and it was voted the picture of the year at the Royal Academy. It was later purchased from its first owner by Queen Victoria and remains in the Royal Collection.
His next important panorama, Derby Day, allowed him to depict in minute detail what the Illustrated London News would describe as the 'temporary saturnalia of social equality'. There are ninety animated figures in this vast work, ranging from aristocrats and society notables to pick-pockets, gipsies and acrobats. Interestingly, Frith had never been to a racecourse before he started work on Derby Day. The painting was universally acclaimed and when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy it was railed off and placed under police guard. Joseph Bell, founder of the Pharmaceutical Society paid £1500 for it and in his Will; he bequeathed the picture to the nation. The picture is now in Tate Britain.
The Railway Station proved to be a worthy successor to Derby Day and in this picture which shows the bustle of a mainline station with the focus being on a family seeing their two sons off to boarding school; it is Frith, with his family who are depicted in this example of Victorian bliss. This is somewhat hypocritical; Frith had married Isabella Baker, the daughter of a Yorkshire stockbroker in 1845, and by the time The Railway Station was completed they had seven sons and five daughters born to them. But during much of this marriage Frith had led a double life, maintaining a mistress - Mary Alford with whom he had a further seven children, three being born by the time of the appearance of the painting.
Frith had great financial success with The Railway Station; he was paid over £5000 for it (although a year after it was finished, in 1863, it changed hands for £16,300. Frith, however, had negotiated a copyright on the painting plus sole exhibiting rights. When it was exhibited in a gallery in the Haymarket, over 20,000 people paid a shilling each to view it over a seven week period. Prints of the picture made the publisher a profit of over £40,000. There was even a 31 page booklet published, in which every character and detail was explained.
In the 1870's Frith produced a number of pictures illustrating the dangers of gambling and in two series of five studies he emulated his admired Hogarth, with The Road to Ruin and The Race for Wealth. It was during the execution of this series that his thoroughness in researching his subject became evident. He visited the law courts and he took the measurements of the court room to ensure the accuracy of his painting!
His last major panoramic work, which won him a sixth guard rail at the Royal Academy, was The Private View of the Royal Academy completed in 1881. By then his star was waning, the public's appetite had turned towards the Pre-Raphaelites and the beginning of Impressionism and Ruskin voiced his distaste for Frith's work. Nevertheless, Frith continued working on scenes from everyday life of which a typical example was Her First Cigarette.
Frith's wife died in 1880, and in the following year he married Mary Alford. It was in the late 1880's that Frith took a house in Dulwich - 'Ashenhurst', on Sydenham Rise, then one of Dulwich's most fashionable roads. However, the financial burden of his two large families obliged him to take on pupils in his new studio in his house at Dulwich and between 1889-1891 he regularly advertised in the Times, initially offering places to two pupils with a separate class for ladies but later extending his tuition to include pupils "requiring education in drawing". He left Sydenham Rise around 1897.
He was appointed to the Royal Victorian Order shortly before his death and he had gained many European honours. In his last years he agreed to accept the title of Retired Royal Academician. By the time in of his death in 1909 he was aged 90 and it was a different age. He still painted but without success and only his family continued to encourage him. Sadly, most of the public had assumed he had died years earlier. Despite his earlier fame he left only £1300 at his death.