The picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1847, when Frith was twenty-eight. He was currently living with his wife Isabelle and their two-year-old daughter in Charlotte Street, Bloomsbury, London's bohemian quarter of the day.
The picture is unusually well documented since it is the subject of an entire chapter in the autobiography Frith published in 1887. As he explains, he had been elected an Associate of the Royal Academy two years earlier, and was very conscious that he must 'embark on some subject of such importance as should justify my election'. Two pictures on which he was engaged at the time, one illustrating Molière's Bourgeois Gentilhomme, the other Gray's 'Elegy in a Country Churchyard', seemed to fall below the mark, neither, he candidly admits, being 'a sufficient improvement upon my previous work to add anything to my reputation'. He therefore began what he hoped would be the required masterpiece, first calling it An English Village Festival but eventually opting for An English Merrymaking a Hundred Years Ago.
For a literary source he turned to Milton's 'L'Allegro', a poem which, together with its companion-piece 'Il Penseroso', inspired numerous Georgian and Victorian artists. Six lines are quoted in the Royal Academy catalogue, and they certainly contain imagery - the 'chequered shade' of a tree, 'young and old coming forth to play' - that occurs again in the picture. Much of the composition, however, is essentially Frith's own invention, while he takes the liberty of moving the subject forward from the time when the poem was written, the early 1630s, to the eighteenth century, locating it specifically in the 1740s by describing the action as taking place 'a hundred years ago'. In other words, he was returning to the world of eighteenth-century bucolic genre that he had already explored in early works illustrating Oliver Goldsmith's Vicar of Wakefield and Deserted Village.
The scene is set on a village green, with an enormous and venerable oak dominating the composition. In the centre middle-distance some villagers are dancing 'Sir Roger de Coverley', accompanied by an orchestra of two, one man playing a fiddle, the other a pipe or recorder and holding a tambourine. In the right foreground an elderly man is dragged towards the revels by laughing girls and children, they insisting that he must join in the fun and he half-heartedly protesting. His buxom wife, seated at a table laid for tea outside their cottage door, looks on with an indulgent smile. Meanwhile on the other side of the canvas this salient group is balanced by more anecdotal details. Two young couples have been enjoying tête-à-têtes, and both find themselves interrupted. The pretty girl seated with her swain at the foot of the tree is asked by a clumsy yokel if she will join him in the dance, an invitation she appears to reject with scorn. However, the reaction of the girl who reclines on the ground further forward is more positive; approached by an old gipsy offering to tell her fortune, she seems taken with the idea and turns to her lover for approval. A game of bowls is in progress in the field beyond.
Frith was at pains to stress that every element was studied from nature. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was not to be founded until the following year (1848), but his insistence that he 'put no trust in fancy for the smallest detail of the picture' suggests that by the time he was writing he was acutely aware that the doctrine of 'truth to nature' had gained widespread acceptance as a result of Pre-Raphaelite practice and the writings of the movement's champion, John Ruskin. The massive oak tree was 'a portrait of a patriarch in Windsor Forest'. Frith records that he had seen it again only 'the other day', noting that despite the lapse of forty years it was 'unchanged in the slightest degree' and adding philosophically: 'Could the tree have seen me, I am sure he would not have known me again'. The plump woman at the table was modelled by Mrs King, a washerwoman employed by Isabelle Frith who was illiterate and had never heard of Shakespeare. The elderly man being forced to join in the dance was an inmate of the Paddington Workhouse, while the unfortunate lout whose invitation is being spurned was Tommy Brooks, who had been a friend of Frith's ever since they had been schoolboys together in Harrogate. The gipsy was found selling matches in the street outside the house in Park Village West, Regents Park, into which the Frith family was to move in September 1847 (their first house as distinct from lodgings). Frith describes how she was only induced to sit after he had overcome with 'munificent offers of reward' her fear of his lay-figure and a suit of armour that was among his studio properties. Isabelle's sisters were coerced into posing for the girls encouraging the old man to dance and flirting with their lovers in the 'chequered shade' of the tree.
Even with so much help from nature, Frith found 'great difficulty' with the picture's background. 'The large tree I managed pretty well, having made a careful study for it; but the bits of distance and the grass and sky bothered me terribly'. Fortunately the landscape painter Thomas Creswick, a man eight years older but a close friend and a fellow A.R.A., came to his aid and offered 'to mend the distance' for him, with results that Frith thought 'very satisfactory'. Creswick often collaborated with other artists, although usually it was they who added figures or animals to his landscapes. Richard Ansdell, Thomas Sidney Cooper, Alfred Elmore, Frederick Goodall and Frith himself were among those involved in these productions.
At this time, of course, the Royal Academy held its exhibitions in what is now the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, a building erected in the 1830s to designs by William Wilkins to house both institutions. An English Merrymaking, Frith records with some complacency, 'was hung in one of the angles of the middle room ..., and was very successful'. This was certainly true, even if it was not one of the six pictures which, at different stages of his career, had to be protected from the crowds with an iron rail. The Times thought it 'one of the happiest pictures of rustic enjoyment that can be conceived'. It particularly liked the 'admirable' account of the 'stolid lout soliciting the hand of the prettiest girl on the green as a partner for the dance, and her astonishment at his pressumption'. The Athenaeum was equally impressed. The artist had perfectly caught 'the spirit of (Milton's) verse', and the result was 'one of the most complete and successful pictures of the season'. The writer then went on to take the anecdotal details one by one, lingering over every incident in a passage eloquent of the Victorians' passion for sentimental narrative and habit of reading a picture like a novel. Never was the phrase 'every picture tells a story' more graphically illustrated. Equally Victorian is his next observation. No doubt thinking of the Flemish seventeenth-century depictions of village jollifying that Frith himself probably had in mind, he was thankful to note that, 'while joyous merriment and boisterous excitement (were) expressed, (they were) not pushed to coarseness and extravagance. Everything is refined.' Finally, the critic praised the colour ('rich and brilliant') and detected 'a great improvement in the mode of painting over Mr Frith's previous works'. This last point, which was also made by a reviewer in the Art-Union, must have been particularly gratifying to Frith, bearing in mind his express intention of painting a picture that would enhance his reputation and justify his election as an A.R.A.
But the praise that Frith undoubtedly valued most was not expressed in writing or heard first-hand. He records with understandable pride how when An English Merrymaking was on show he attended a rather grand dinner party where most of the guests were 'older and superior to myself'. Suddenly the Academician J.R. Lee called to him from the other end of the table, asking if he knew what J.M.W. Turner had said of his picture. When Frith, blushing scarlet, said no, Lee replied: 'He says it is beautifully drawn, well composed, and well coloured'. So far, Frith had never even met Turner, but now that he was an A.R.A. their paths would soon cross, and when he was elected a full Academician in 1853, it was Turner's place, left vacant by the great man's death two years earlier, that he filled.
According to Frith, even before the picture was exhibited it had been sold to a dealer for £350. After this, it 'changed hands many times' before ending up as 'an heirloom in a large collection in the north' at the time he was writing. If Frith is right about its many changes of early ownership, then much of its history is obscure. For we only know of one such owner, John Graham of Skelmorlie Castle, Ayrshire, who lent it to the International Exhibition held in London in 1862.
Graham was the uncle of the better-known William Graham, the omnivorous collector of Italian Old Masters and the staunch patron of Rossetti and Burne-Jones. John Graham himself owned works by the Pre-Raphaelites, including Millais' famous Sir Isumbras (Port Sunlight) and examples of Holman Hunt and Rossetti, but the artists who appealed to him most - Turner, Linnell, Landseer, Etty and their contemporaries - belonged to an older generation, and he even bought the occasional Gainsborough or Reynolds. He belonged to the prosperous merchant class of western Scotland and had made his money as a founding partner in the family business, W.& J. Graham & Co., which specialised in cotton spinning, the import of dry goods from India, and the trade in port wine by which it is still known today. George Redford described him as 'a very well-known figure at Christie's for many years, a spare, contented-looking man in black frock coat and necktie, wearing a soft felt hat, always ready with his invitation, "Ye are welcome to Skelmorlie, happy to show ye "the peectures".'
An English Merrymaking did not appear at Graham's posthumous sale at Christie's on 30 April 1887, although a smaller and much repeated work by Frith, Nora Creina, was included. An English Merrymaking had left the collection by 1878 at the latest, when its next owner, Henry Bolckow, died. The sale was conducted through a dealer called Naylor, Bolckow paying 'over £2,000'.
When Frith described An English Merrymaking as 'an heirloom in a large collection in the north', it was to Bolckow's that he was referring. Henry William Ferdinand Bolckow was a native of Mechlenburg who had come to England in 1827 and set up in business in Newcastle. By 1841 he had settled in Middlesborough, where he erected furnaces and began to manufacture iron. The enterprise prospered to such an extent that it enhanced the status of Middlesborough itself, and in 1853 it received a charter of incorporation, Bolckow becoming its first mayor. He was intensely public-spirited, paying for a hospital, a school, and a park for the local community, and when the town was granted parliamentary representation in 1868 he was unanimously elected its member, holding the seat until his death ten years later.
Bolckow's phenomenal wealth enabled him to collect on a princely scale, filling his two houses, Marton Hall near Middlesborough and 33 Princes Gate in London, with modern British and continental works. On 22 November 1873 the Marton Hall pictures were the subject of an article by F.G. Stephens in the Athanaeum, the seventh of what was to become a ninety-part series on 'The Private Collection of England', representing a major contribution to our knowledge of Victorian taste. Much space is given to Landseer's colossal Scene in Braemar, sold in these Rooms on 25 March 1994, but Frith's English Merrymaking is not mentioned. This does not necessarily imply, however, that Bolckow had not acquired it by this date. As Stephens emphasises, he did not by any means see all the pictures, Marton Hall being currently in a state of chaos due to renovations.
For ten years following Bolckow's death in 1878 the collection remained in the possession of his widow and son. In 1887 they lent twenty-five paintings and seven watercolours to the Royal Jubilee Exhibition at Manchester. An English Merrymaking was among them. A year later, seventy of the best pictures from Marton Hall were sent for sale at Christie's. It was 'the great sale of the season', wrote George Redford in the Times, and realised a total of £71,387, at that time 'the highest on record'. A further 111 pictures and watercolours, the contents of Bolckow's London house, were sold at Christie's in May 1891, and 'the final portion' of the collection was offered on 18 June 1892.
An English Merrymaking was included in this last Bolckow sale and bought by William Proby, 5th and last Earl of Carysfort, for 430 guineas. It was a work that meant much to the Earl since he traced his interest in pictures to his possession of Holl's engraving after it when he was a schoolboy at Eton. Frith, who by now was in his seventies, was well aware of the change of ownership. According to the Earl's autograph inventory, he 'called on Mr Frith' at some unspecified date as he was unable to find the artist's signature, and was told that it was concealed by the frame. They discussed the recent decline in the value of pictures, Frith 'shaking his head' when he heard that Carysfort had secured An English Merrymaking for a fraction of what Bolckow had paid for it. Frith also wanted to retouch a passage where a pentimento had become visible in the course of time. Carysfort, however, warned that this might be 'unsafe', declined the offer.
William Proby, to whose descendents the picture still belongs, was a very different type of collector to the self-made men who had owned it previously. Actively supported by his wife, who was painted by Millais in 1878, he started buying in the early 1870s, about the time that he succeeded to the title, and he continued to acquire on a regular basis until his death in 1909. The income from his extensive estates provided the necessary resources, with a substantial proportion deriving from the sale of property in Ireland under the terms of the Wyndham Acts.
Proby's motives for collecting were different too. Whereas there was inevitably an element of the status symbol about a collection formed with such new money as Bolckow's, Proby was inspired by a desire to recreate his family's ancestral collection, part of which had been sold at Christie's in 1828. Moreover this ambition had a profound bearing on the Earl's taste. Bolckow, and to a large extent Graham, confined themselves to modern pictures, that traditional area of interest for the nouveaux riches. Proby, too, liked modern works, his acquisitions in this field including fine examples of Landseer, Mulready, O'Neil and Alma-Tadema, as well as the Frith itself. But he was equally drawn to the Old Masters who are found in such abundance in aristocratic collections, often having been bought on the Grand Tour.
As for the fate of the Proby collection, this again distinguises it from those formed by Bolckow and Graham. Whereas theirs were blown to the winds at sales, Lord Carysfort's has remained substantially intact at Elton Hall, Huntingdonshire, to which many of the pictures were fortunately moved before their original home, Glenart in Ireland, was burned down in 1921. In 1924 the collection was published in a handsome catalogue by the ubiquitous Tancred Borenins, and one of its 'modern' works, Alma-Tadema's Dedication to Bacchus, was included in the great Treasure Houses of Britain exhibition that was mounted by the National Gallery, Washington, in 1985.