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William Powell Firth and Derby Day’s History

William Powell Firth Derby Day | Copyright Tate Museum

With Derby Day fast approaching June 1, 2013, Bonhams offers an insight into a bustling Derby, almost two hundred years ago. The Derby originated in 1779 as a new race in Epsom and was to be named after either the host of the event, the 12th Earl of Derby, or his important guest, Sir Charles Bunbury. Local legend states that the decision was made by a toss of a coin. The Derby has continued to run at Epsom in the first week of June ever since, except during the World Wars.

The original painting by William Powell Frith (1819-1909), a Royal Academician (R.A.), titled The Derby Day (1858), currently resides in Tate Britain. It was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1858.

“The popularity of the painting was so overwhelming that a rail was erected to hold the eager crowds back, and a policeman was placed on guard,” Bonhams, the international auction house placing a valuable copy of the work under the hammer, says.
This was one of six separate occasions in which these special railings were built at the Royal Academy to protect Frith’s paintings from an overly enthusiastic public.

A full size copy of this 19th century English painter’s masterpiece, estimated between £10,000-£15,000, is to be offered at the Bonhams 19th Century Paintings sale in New Bond Street on July 10, 2013.

“Derby Day comprises of a series of social commentary sketches. Frith was interested in phrenology and physiognomy, seeing the face as ‘a sure index of character’ and class distinction,” Bonhams says.

According to the New World Encyclopedia, phrenology is a theory which claims to be able to determine character, personality traits and criminality on the basis of the shape of the head, by reading so-called bumps and fissures. Developed by German physician Franz Joseph Gall around 1800, phrenology was based on the concept that the brain is the organ of the mind, and that certain brain areas have localized, specific functions or modules. These areas were said to be proportional to a given individual’s propensities, and the importance of a given mental faculty, as well as the overall conformation of the cranial bone to reflect differences among individuals. The discipline was very popular in the nineteenth century, influencing early psychiatry and modern neuroscience, cites the Encyclopedia.
Physiognomy, taken from the Greek words, physis, meaning nature, and gnomon, meaning judge, is the assessment of character from a person’s outer appearance.

“What do the expressions highbrow and lowbrow have in common with saying a woman has mousey features?” asks Sarah Waldorf at the J. Paul Getty Museum. “What does Homer Simpson have to do with photographs of sculpture in profile by contemporary artist Ken Gonzales-Day? All are contemporary manifestations of an ancient pseudo-science that permeated visual culture in European history, notably in the 18th and 19th-centuries, called physiognomy.”

Waldorf continues stating, physiognomy has its roots in antiquity, and as early as 500 B.C., Pythagoras was accepting or rejecting students based on how gifted they looked.

“Aristotle wrote that large-headed people were mean, those with small faces were steadfast, broad faces reflected stupidity and round faces signaled courage,” Waldorf says.

Pre-industrial cultures often assumed a definitive relationship between an individual’s character, such as honesty or dishonesty, kindness or cruelty, generosity or miserlyness, passive or aggressive behaviors, among others, writes Caslon Analytics, an Australian research, analysis and strategies consultancy, with a particular interest in technology and regulation.

“The face was known through folktales, legal documents, dramas and other literature regarding a villainous appearance or cruel nature, unintentionally revealed through an unguarded glance,” says Caslon. “That assumption reflected notions that the face was the so-called window of the soul. In reality, there is obviously no relationship between character and facial structure. Physiognomy is, in a word, nonsense – a set of anecdotes, absurdities and ethnic stereotypes disguised as a coherent and verifiable scientific theory that can be readily applied by specialist and novice alike.”

Physiognomy is based on the pseudo-scientific psychological study of the expression of the Man, according to Lorenzo Lorusso in his work Neuroscience By Caricature In Europe Throughout The Ages, published on The caricature provides a moral vision of social life by employing humorist images with exaggerated individual characteristics to ridicule arrogance and power, Lorusso contrasts.

Portraiture was exceptionally important in a society which had not yet experienced the explosion of visual imagery associated with the invention of photography, and in which belief in a system of theories, assumptions, and methods erroneously regarded as scientific was widespread, writes David S. Kerr in his book Caricature and French Political Culture 1830-1848: Charles Philipon and the Illustrated Press. Philipon was the founder of the satirical newspapers La Caricature and the La Charivari.

“J. C. Lavater’s Essays On Physiognomy analyzed in fantastic detail the moral significance of the size and shape of each feature and precise position of every wrinkle. Lavater’s theories were extremely fashionable in France in the 1820’s and 1830’s,” writes Kerr. “And an abundant physiognomic literature accustomed the public to drawing moral conclusions from physical appearances.”

Kerr tells his readers Philipon’s vision of caricature in his newspaper as a form of political education taught his audience to do the same, draw moral conclusions from physical appearances. This was well-received by the opposition press but by the political establishment, not so much. Kerr goes even further telling the reader, Daumier’s Celébrités de la Caricature, or The Celebrities of the Juste Milieu, Traviès’ Musicien de la Chapelle was incontrovertible, undisguisable evidence of habitual vice; the caricaturist’s exaggeration of his victim’s physical blemishes amounted to character assassination.

Daumier’s work was commissioned by Philipon. He modelled in oil-painted unbaked clay some forty caricature busts, of which only thirty-six, the Celebrities of the Juste Milieu, today housed in the Musée d’Orsay, remain. Daumier used the busts as models for his lithographs published in Philipon’s newspapers.

Charles Joseph Traviès de Villers (1804 – 1859) French Musiciens de la Chapelle: l’abbé loup is a 19th-century hand-colored lithograph on wove paper given as a gift to the Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum by W. G. Russell Allen and Paul J. Sachs. According to Kerr, because Philipon had a need to publish a lithograph daily in La Charivari, he was required to commission a stockpile of prints in advance. Traviès’ series of nine caricatures, Les Musiciens de la Chapelle, was, for example, deposited with the Ministry of the Interior in two bursts, one on the 23rd and the other on the 27th of November in 1832. They were subsequently published by Philipon in La Charivari at irregular intervals until January 12, 1833. The last print was published at least forty-six days after Traviès completed the work, reports the French museum.

“Early in his career, Frith specialised in painting episodes from the lives of famous historical personalities. His 1852 oil on canvas work, titled Pope Makes Love To Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, depicts the disastrous moment that spelled future enmity between the poet Alexander Pope and his potential patron Lady Mary Wortley Montagu,” writes Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, heralded in 1888 as the first permanent Art Gallery in the Dominion, of which Toi o Tāmaki remains the largest art institution in New Zealand, with a collection numbering over 15,000 works. “Frith explained the situation for viewers of the 1852 Royal Academy exhibition. ‘Her own statement, as to the origin of the quarrel, was this: That at some ill-chosen time, when she least expected what romancers call a declaration, he made such passionate love to her, that in spite of her utmost endeavours to be angry and look grave, provoked an immediate fit of laughter: from which moment on he became her implacable enemy.’ The salon displays several references to Lady Mary’s social position and personal background – the coronet on the wall above the sconce, the literary texts, the tulip – while the writing materials indicate her position as the wife of the first Ambassador to Turkey, from where she introduced into England inoculation against smallpox, and her fame as a correspondent and writer. Although the sculpted lovers in the background gently mock Pope’s declaration, Frith has in fact treated both figures kindly; Pope’s hunched back is hidden from sight because he is seated, and Lady Mary’s face is shown without her disfiguring smallpox scars.”

Such irreverence would later in art’s history be found in political statements made by graffiti artists like Banksy, among others.
Derby Day is quite typical of Firth’s dense narrative content told within panoramic views. His paintings and literary works are depictions of typical Victorian characters and behaviours. He staged with elaborate detail character-full oil paintings that caught a grassroots following in popularity, even in his early career. This acclaimed English artist also late in his exhibiting career wrote with great success. His first written work, Autobiography and Reminiscences (1887), and his second work, Further Reminiscences (1888), proved himself a literary raconteur, depicting scenes that suggested a story with anecdotal detail.

In 1835 he moved to London to start training at Sass’s Drawing Academy. The following year, 1836, saw the death of his father. His Mother and family then moved to London. And in the same year as the loss of his father, one who had been a great encourager of his career, Frith was accepted as a Probationer at the Royal Academy (RA). Four years later, in 1840, he exhibited his first works at the RA. He later visited Paris. There he exhibited in 1855 Feeding The Calves, with the background painted by Richard Ansdell. That same year he exhibited Maria Tricks Molvolio at the RA and was awarded a gold medal in the Universal Exhibition, Paris. The following year he painted Derby Day.

This original work’s medium is of oil paint on canvas. The original Derby Day is housed in the Tate Museum. Its acquisition was bequeathed to them in 1859 by Jacob Bell, the renowned editor of the Pharmaceutical Journal, President of the Pharmaceutical Society and dedicated arts patron. William Powell Frith: Painting the Victorian Age, edited by Mark Bills and Vivien Knight, recants the story of Bell supplying Frith with many of the models for Derby Day.

“Frith spent fifteen months painting it and used a variety of live models for the figures, as well as specially commissioned photographs of the Epsom race course,” Tate Museum writes of The Derby Day. “It was sold before the exhibition opened. In recent times Derby Day has often been seen as an amusing but essentially insignificant piece of Victorian genre. This is not, however, the case. It is a cogent piece of social realism providing an extraordinary panorama of Victorian society, its vices and virtues, with particular emphasis on the vices. This was recognised at the time, as Frith’s fellow Academician J.E. Hodgson. notes: ‘The races on Epsom Downs, the great Saturnalia of British sport, bring to the surface all that is most characteristic of London life. In this picture we can discern its elements, its luxury, its wealth, its beauty and refinement, its hopeless misery …”

While Frith was not prolific, he created masterpieces that garnered him a serious reputation on contemporary subjects. He occupied a high a position as a gentleman gained in his profession as a talented, wealthy and successful artist.

“A favourite of the Royal Family, and friendly with Turner, Landseer and Dickens, Frith was at the centre of the Victorian artistic world,” writes Christopher Wood in his book William Powell Frith: A Painter and His World. ” His memoirs reveal him as a humorous and acute observer, while his domestic life was also typically Victorian: he had a wife, a mistress, and nineteen children.”

The first of Frith’s few works was one of a servant girl (1853). He then produced Life at the Seaside (1854) which was purchased by Queen Victoria and has since been engraved on a large scale for the Art Union of London. This encouraged Frith to produce the equally popular Derby Day, sold even before it had been finished, and The Railway Station (1862).

“When William Powell Frith’s monumental canvas, The Railway Station went on show, at a gallery in the Haymarket, London, in April 1862,” the Liverpool National Museums writes of Frith. “The Times reported the artist had been paid the astonishing sum of £8,750 for it, while the Athenaeum put the total at 8,000 guineas, or £9,187 10s. Whatever the correct amount, Frith’s earnings from The Railway Station broke all previous records. ‘As a rule, it is only dead men whose works have risen to such figures,’ declared The Times, ‘and even these honoured dead may be counted on the two hands.’ However, only £4,500 of this was paid for the painting itself; the rest secured the far more lucrative copyright and sole exhibition rights.”

It was four years previous that Frith’s Derby Day had been put on exhibition.

“The picture dealer, Louis Victor Flatow, clearly recognised the investment possibilities in the painter’s next picture and went into partnership with him,” writes the Liverpool National Museums. “The Railway Station was the result. Flatow appears as a train enthusiast chatting to the engine driver in the distance towards the right of the composition. The dealer did well out of his investment. Those who paid a shilling to see the picture numbered 21,150, many of them ordering prints, and a year later he was able to sell both painting and copyright to a print dealer for more than £16,300.”

William Hesketh Lever, the soap company tycoon, purchased The New Frock, by Frith, from the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1889 for £157.10s.

“Lever understood the importance of advertising – something that at this date was more common in America than Britain” writes the Liverpool National Museums. “A growing number of commodities filled the Victorian marketplace. To ensure the success of any product, but most importantly new products, the Victorian businessman had to invest considerable sums of money in promotion. The Victorian era saw a growth in consumer goods fuelled by mass production and new manufacturing processes. Manufacturers saw advertising as essential if they were to have buyers for their products. One way of promoting products, just as today, was to use familiar, thought-provoking and appealing images. In the late Victorian period, contemporary British paintings were seen to offer the manufacturers a fantastic pool of these types of images. Thomas J Barratt, who from 1877 had control of the family firm A & F Pears, was the first to use this approach but he was quickly followed by Lever. For a relatively short period between 1887 and 1895 the use of paintings as inspiration for advertisements was commonplace.When Lever saw Frith’s painting hanging on the walls of the Royal Academy he immediately spotted its potential as an advertising image. The pretty little girl wearing her best dress and holding her bright, white apron hit a number of ‘must haves’ for the promoter of soap. The image was definitely one that would appeal to the housewife and mother. The sense of pride of the little girl coupled with cleanliness was obvious. In choosing images for advertising, Lever was also undoubtedly conscious of the Victorian image of the home as a place of security and sanctuary maintained by the wife and mother. The skills of home-making were vital accomplishments of a woman. Lever purchased the painting and immediately had the image reproduced as a Sunlight Soap advertisement and added the words ‘So Clean’.”

Frith’s self-confessed interest in the city crowd, its physiognomy and expression inspired both subjects, according to Bonhams. His aptitude for the dramatic grouping of large numbers of people into coherent units, his eye for the anecdotal and his unabashed inclination to appeal to sentiment are all fully exploited and enhanced by his precise technique.

“These stereotypes are plain to see in the faces of the ‘low life’ criminals in contrast to those of the landed gentry,” Bonhams says of the work. “Frith created a number of great panoramas of modern society at a time when every day life was a revolutionary subject for great art. The Railway Station and Life at the Seaside similarly capture what Frith described as ‘the kaleidoscopic aspect of the crowd’.”
Up to Frith’s point in time, painting had been dominated by portraiture commissioned by the rich, or, religious painting commissioned by the Church. He was born in the same year as Queen Victoria, on January 9, 1819, at Aldfield near Ripon.

“Frith originally wanted to be an auctioneer but was forced by his parents – who were convinced of his genius – to take up art as a career,” writes Wood. ” His work spanned the entire Victorian age, and he became famous for large-scale paintings such as Derby Day and The Railway Station.”

William Powell Frith: Chronology

1819 Willliam Powell Frith born on January 9th at Aldfield near Ripon.
1826 His parents move to Harrogate where his father runs the Dragon Inn.
1835 Moves to London. Starts training at Sass’s Drawing Academy.
1836 Death of his father. Mother and family move to London. Accepted as a Probationer at the Royal Academy.
1840 Exhibits first pictures at The Royal Academy. Visits Paris.
1845 Elected Associate Member (A.R.A.) of The Royal Academy. Marries Isabelle Baker (1822-1880) in York. Exhibits The Village Pastor, a more serious work than prior.
1850 Visits Belgium, Holland and The Rhine.
1851 First sketches for Ramsgate Sands.
1852 Painted the irreverent Pope Makes Love To Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.
1853 Paints Ramsgate Sands. Elected Royal Academician (R.A.).
1854 Ramsgate Sands exhibited and bought by Queen Victoria for £1000. Begins work on Many Happy Returns Of The Day.
1855 exhibits Feeding The Calves with the background painted by Richard Ansdell; Exhibits Maria Tricks Molvolio at the RA and is awsrded a gold medal in the Universal Exhibition, Paris.
1856-8 Paints Derby Day.
1858 Derby Day exhibited. Requires policeman and metal rail to protect it from enthusiastic crowds.
1859 Paints portrait of Charles Dickens.
1859 exhibits Charles Dickens in his Study.
1860 exhibits “Claude Duval, the highwayman, compelling a lady to dance with him.”
1862 Paints The Railway Station. The Railway Station exhibited to paying audience of 21,150. 7.
1863-5 Paints The Marriage of the Prince of Wales 1863.
1878 Paints The Road to Ruin series. Appears as a witness in Whistler v Ruskin trial. States that Whistler’s pictures were “not serious works of art.”
1880 Death of his wife Isabelle on 28 January.
1881 Marries his mistress Mary Alford.
1883 Paints The Private View At The Royal Academy 1881.
1887 Publishes Autobiography and Reminiscences.
1891 Road to Ruin series made into a series of waxwork tableaux at Madame Tussaud’s.
1908 Created C.V.O. (Commander of the Royal Victorian Order).
1909 Dies November 2nd. Buried at Kensall Green, London.

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