Frith sent his first exhibit to the Royal Academy in 1840. He was admitted as an associate of the academy in 1845 and became an academician in 1852. His preferred subjects were drawn from contemporary life, and as he painted with a sharp eye for detail, his work was well suited to engraving. He gained fame from his immense, multi-figured panoramas including Life at the Seaside (Ramsgate Sands) (Royal Collection), Derby Day (Tate Britain, London), and The Railway Station (Royal Holloway College, University of London).
This small painting relates to Derby Day, the enormous and climactic work of Frith’s midcareer. According to his autobiography, his inaugural visit to the course at Epsom was for the 1856 running of the Derby, and his reaction was this: "My first Derby had no interest for me as a race, but as giving me the opportunity of studying life and character, it is ever to be gratefully remembered" (William Powell Frith, My Autobiography and Reminiscences, 3 vols., London, 1887–88, vol. 1, 1887, p. 271). He mentioned the horses and jockeys only in passing, but listed the various con games on offer (notably thimblerig), in which he took a lively part, and also described acrobats, black minstrels, gypsy fortune-tellers, and pretty women. All these types feature in the finished work. Frith did not sketch while at Epsom, but between May 21 and 24 he set down in a charcoal drawing (location unknown) his plan for the composition and principal figures. After reportedly completing many studies from the model, he took a summer holiday at Folkstone, where he prepared "a small careful oil-sketch—with colour and effect finally planned" (location unknown; Ibid., p. 273).
Upon seeing the first oil sketch, Frith’s friend Jacob Bell commissioned the six-foot picture now at the Tate and agreed to pay fifteen hundred pounds for it, while the artist, who retained the copyright for an engraving, sold this to the dealer Gambart for a like sum. Frith then made what he described as a larger sketch (Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood, London), which shows the middle third of the final panorama and demonstrates that the poses of the central couple in the work at the Tate and in the present picture were already fixed. In the Bethnal Green sketch, though, the lady wears a simple round hat of a solid color with a single dark bow.
According to Frith, the work of painting the Tate picture was begun on February 9, 1857, and completed in fifteen months (Ibid., pp. 274, 283–84), which must have been just before the May 2, 1858, opening of the Royal Academy show. Meanwhile, many more models of all social classes and types were engaged to sit, and when, for example, the artist failed to capture the qualities of a model for the young woman shown here, he dismissed her and instead substituted "one of my own daughters" (Ibid., p. 281). Unfortunately the identity of her companion has not been recorded. The present painting was either begun in 1857 as a study and completed with the addition of the landscape in 1860, when the signature and date were added, or else it was painted from the Tate canvas in 1860, before that work embarked on a four-and-a-half-year world tour that ended only in 1865. The latter hypothesis is the more likely. The only real difference between the couple in the big picture and the one here is that the purse held by the lady in Derby Day has been transformed into a pen and a notebook. The finish of the figures in the small work is unusually tight, but not unknown for Frith, and he probably had a studio assistant to help him with landscape backgrounds.
A review of the literature reveals only two single-figure studies for Derby Day: a rather slight pencil drawing of an adult male acrobat (British Museum, London) that was employed for the acrobat near the center of the Tate painting and an unfinished head of an elegant woman (see Aubrey Noakes, William Frith, Extraordinary Victorian Painter: A Biographical and Critical Essay, London, 1978, p. 63, ill.). In the latter, not used in the final work, the face is carefully described, while the pose, hat, and other details are loosely indicated. By contrast, Frith made various finished pictures for the market of the type catalogued here.
[2012; adapted from Baetjer 2009]