Detail from The Canal, Amsterdam, 1889, James McNeill Whistler, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow


William Powell Frith

Nationality: English
Date of birth: 1819.01.19
Place of birth: Aldfield, near Ripon
Date of death: 1909.11.02
Place of death: St John's Wood, London
Category: painter


William Powell Frith was a painter of genre and modern life scenes. His parents owned a hotel in Harrogate having previously been in domestic service.


Frith received his artistic training at Henry Sass' Academy in London from 1835 to 1837 and at the Royal Academy Schools in 1837. He began his career painting portraits but during the 1840s he established himself as a painter of historical and literary themes influenced by the precedence of C. R. Leslie, William Mulready and David Wilkie, e.g. Coming of Age in the Olden Time (1849; Private Collection). He was a member of 'The Clique' which included Richard Dadd, Augustus Egg, Henry O'Neil and John Philip. Charles Dickens commissioned him in 1842 to paint Dolly Varden (V&A) and Kate Nickleby (whereabouts unknown). He was elected ARA in 1845 and RA in 1852. In the 1850s he became well known for his paintings of contemporary life, e.g. Derby Day (1858; Tate, London), and continued to paint such scenes of modern day life throughout his career. In 1883 he exhibited his Private View of the Royal Academy, 1881 (Private) at the R.A., a work which included such contemporary figures as Oscar Wilde and Anthony Trollope.

In 1862 Frith exhibited at Berners Street Gallery where Whistler was also showing his Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl y038. Frith was friendly with the portrait and genre painter George Adolphus Storey, who was also a friend of Whistler's. However, in November 1878 Frith appeared along with Edward Burne-Jones and Tom Taylor in Ruskin's defence at the Whistler-Ruskin trial. Extracts from their testimonies were published by Whistler in The Gentle Art of Making Enemies in 1890. In 1881 Pan, criticising Whistler's The Zattere; harmony in blue and brown m0774, wrote that Whistler himself would have recommended that if a patron wanted finish they 'had better buy a print of Mr. Frith's Derby Day'.


Frith, William Powell, Autobiography and Reminiscences, 2 vols, London, 1887; Frith, W. P., 'Crazes in Art', Magazine of Art, vol. 11, 1888, pp. 187-91; Frith, W. P., Further Reminiscences, London, 1888; Frith, W. P., John Leech: His Life and Work, 2 vols, London, 1891; Frith, W., 'A Talk with my Father', Cornhill Magazine, May 1906, pp. 597-607; Frith, W., 'Small Talk with my Father', Cornhill Magazine, December 1907, pp. 802-10; Mayne, J., An Exhibition of Paintings by W. P. Frith, RA, 1819-1909, London, 1951; Cowling, Mary, 'William Powell Frith', The Grove Dictionary of Art Online, ed. L. Macy, (accessed 1 March 2002); Whistler, James McNeill, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, London, 1890 ; Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford, on-line edition (accessed 2004).