It is not every day that sees the discovery of a highly finished oil sketch for one of the most famous and popular images in British art. That, however, is an accurate description of our painting: a long-lost preliminary version of W.P. Frith's Derby Day (fig.1), the artist's undisputed masterpiece and arguably the definitive example of Victorian modern-life genre. On one level the sketch can be seen as an independent production, existing on its own pictorial terms. But it is also a fascinating document, offering a unique insight into the creative process behind the iconic work.
In his Autobiography and Reminiscences (1887) Firth devotes a whole chapter to the development and reception of The Derby Day, lingering over the sucess of the picture in the complacent knowledge that it marked the zenith of his career and an adoring public would expect him to do it justice. It was not his first triumph; after all, by 1858, when the picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy, he had already been an academician for five years. He had made his name as a specialist in historical genre, illustrating the works of Goldsmith, Smollett, Molière and others. A scene from Goldsmith's 'Deserted Village', exhibited at the RA in 1845, secured him associate membership that year, and in 1847 he had great sucess with An English Merrymaking a Hundred Years Ago, inspired by a passage in Milton's 'L'Allegro'. Sold in these Rooms on 16 December 2009 (lot 34), the picture was not only popular with critics and public but won the more discerning approval of no less an authority than J.M.W. Turner. As it happened, it was Turner's place that Frith filled when he was elected a full academician in 1853, the great man having died two years earlier.
But it was only when Frith turned his attention to contemporary life that he became one of the most popular and succesful artists of the day. Hitherto, as he explains in his Autobiography, he had felt a 'fear of modern-life subjects' and taken 'refuge in byegone times'. His reluctance to leave his comfort zone is hardly surprising. Historical genre had vestigial links with the history painting that was still regarded as the highest form of artistic endeavour, and many artists whom he either admired or knew personally -- David Wilkie, C.R. Leslie, Daniel Maclise and A.L. Egg among them -- excelled in this field. But by the early 1850s Frith had overcome his fears. Indeed he was now 'weary of costume-painting', while 'the desire to represent everyday life' had taken 'an irresistible hold' upon him. The Pre-Raphaelites were yielding to similar pressures at precisely the same moment. The zeitgeist was busy.
For his first major essay in 'everyday life' Frith pitched on the subject of holidaymakers on the beach at Ramsgate, where he himself spent a summer holiday in 1851. Life at the Seaside, or Ramsgate Sands (Royal Collection), was shown at the RA three years later and more than justified his decision to change direction. Being on the hanging committee that year, he ensured that the picture had a good position on the 'line' that so obsessed artists of his generation; and the strategy paid off when it was noticed by the Queen and Prince Albert when they attended the private view and the Queen expressed a wish to buy it. It had already been sold for £1,000, but as the new owner was a dealer, the Royal acquisition was soon arranged.
Frith's cup of satisfaction was full, but he realised that he must follow up his sucess with something as good if not better. Derby Day was the result. The idea for the picture came to him when he and his friend Egg visited Epsom racecourse on Derby Day in May 1856. He was not interested in racing as such, but he realised that the picturesque crowd of race-goers gave him the opportunity he was looking for to depict 'character', portray 'the infinite variety' of contemporary society, and exploit what he believed to be his greatest asset as an artist, the ability to 'compose great numbers of figures into a more or less harmonious whole'. The subject took him two years to realise, and involved a further visit to Epsom in 1857, exhaustive preparatory studies and 'fifteen months' incessant labour' on the picture itself. The outcome was not only Frith's masterpiece but a public relations triumph.
Once again the canvas was sold long before it was completed. The buyer was Jacob Bell, a wealthy pharmacist best known to posterity for his close friendship with Landseer. A considerable patron, whose collection also included major works by Landseer and Rosa Bonheur's Horse Fair, Bell paid Frith £1,500 for the painting, and the artist charged the dealer Ernest Gambart the same amount for the copyright of the engraving. But the picture brought Frith far more than financial reward. When it appeared at the RA the Queen and Prince Albert once again voiced their approval (although this time there was no question of their buying it), and the crowd pressing to see it was so dense that a policeman had to stand guard beside it and a protective rail was installed. Even this was not the end of the story. When the exhibition closed the picture went to Paris to be engraved and then set off on an extensive foreign tour that included Europe, America and Australia. The final apotheosis came in 1859, when Jacob Bell died and left his pictures to the nation. Derby Day's claim to be Frith's masterpiece rests firmly on conceptual and aesthetic grounds; but its reputation undoubtedly depends partly on the fact that from that day to this it has been his most accessible production.
Frith gives a detailed account of how he prepared to paint the picture. Time did not 'allow of sketching' during his initial visit to the racecourse, but he made 'mental notes' and on 21 May 1856, now back in his London studio, he 'began a rough drawing', finishing it three days later. This drawing, executed in charcoal and designed to establish 'the general lines of the composition', was followed by 'numbers of studies from models for all the prominent figures'. Throughout his account, Frith stresses the exhaustiveness of his research and how every drawing was 'made from nature', clear evidence that he was intensely aware of competition from the newly emerged Pre-Raphaelites.
Having completed his preliminary studies, Frith went for his 'usual seaside holiday to Folkestone'. His thoughts, however, were still on his picture, and much of the holiday he spent 'very delightfully in preparing a small careful oil-sketch -- with colour and effect finally planned -- so that when I chose to begin the large picture, I found the "course clear" before me'. It was this 'small careful oil-sketch' that Frith showed to Jacob Bell, thus securing the commission for the finished work, a canvas originally intended to be 'five or six feet long' but eventually more than seven. 'Many weeks', Frith continues, 'were spent upon the large sketch, and a second one, now in the Bethnal Green Museum, was made; in which I tried a different arrangement of the principal group'. 'It will be evident', he adds, with that touch of smugness which is so characteristic, 'that if the larger work failed, it would not be for lack of preparation'.
Circumstantial though all this is, Frith's account is not as clear as it might be. We could hardly expect him to give measurements for his 'small' and 'large' oil sketches (though what a help it would have been if he had!), but he could perhaps have stated categorically that he embarked on the large one after Bell had placed his commission and given a clearer indication of its purpose. Nonetheless his meaning is not seriously in doubt. He evidently made two sketches, one 'small' and one 'large', plus a third in which he 'tried a different arrangement of the principal group'. It remains to identify these sketches with those that either exist or are recorded.
All the evidence suggests that our painting is the original 'small careful oil-sketch' that Frith made at Folkestone in the summer of 1856 and which inspired Bell to commission the full-scale picture. Its first owner was Ernest Gambart, the dealer who bought the copyright of the engraving of the finished work. The agreement between Frith and Gambart, dated 1 February 1857, specifically stated that as part of the deal the artist would throw in 'the small sketch not quite finished'; and when Gambart exhibited this at his French Gallery, Pall Mall, in the winter of 1858 he identified it as the 'first study'. In 1861 it appeared at Christie's and was described in the sale catalogue as 'the original of the celebrated work.'
Frith's account rather implies that the 'large sketch' came next, followed by what he calls the 'second one, now in the Bethnall Green Museum', in which he re-arranged his 'principal group'. But it seems more likely that the latter came first, establishing a different 'arrangement' of the foreground figures in preparation for the 'large sketch'. This would then have drawn on data provided by both the previous sketches, reaching a definitive composition that would receive its ultimate treatment in the finished work.
Whatever the exact sequence of events, the canvas in which Frith worked out his 'different arrangement' is now in the Victoria & Albert Museum (fig. 2). Similar in scale to our sketch but showing only the central part of the composition, it can be identified through its exhibition history with the painting Frith describes as being in the Bethnal Green Museum; while the arrangement of the figures is both significantly different from that in our sketch and close to that found in the final work. The V&A sketch is discussed in Ronald Parkinson's fine catalogue of the museum's British paintings from the 1820-60 period. The only slight problem, as Parkinson observes, is that it is dated 1858, whereas according to Frith's account it was painted, like the other two sketches, in 1856. The most likely explanation is that he retouched it in 1858, probably to turn it into a marketable commodity, and dated it accordingly. After all, as we have seen, our sketch was 'not quite finished' when Gambart bought it in February 1857, even though it seems to have been substantially complete in 1856.
As for the 'large sketch', the last of the three preliminary versions according to this analysis, it would appear to be a canvas, now missing, that belonged to another leading Victorian art dealer, Thomas Agnew, and was included in a ten-day sale of his stock held by Christie's in Manchester in October-November 1861. As we saw, our sketch also passed through the saleroom that year, and the Agnew picture was described, like ours, as 'the original of the celebrated work'. But we need not read too much into this, or see it as a culpable example of auctioneer's hyperbole. The cataloguer of the Agnew sketch was probably quite unaware of the Gambart 'first study', nor was his claim totally untrue. What is far more significant is that the Agnew picture measured 33 by 53 inches and was thus considerably larger than our painting. It was not nearly as large as the final work (40 x 88 in.), but it may well, as Frith puts it, have taken 'many weeks' to complete, unlike the 'small, careful oil sketch', executed (bar some finishing touches) in the course of a summer holiday.
In a sense the identity of the 'large sketch' is irrelevant to our enquiry. All we really need to know is that our painting is the 'small' one, and of this there seems little doubt. The picture itself offers persuasive arguments. For instance, marks along the lower edge of the canvas indicate that at one time it was squared for transfer, presumably either to the V & A painting or the 'large sketch'. Certain details, moreover, are rather feebly realised, as if the artist was still relying on the 'mental notes' he had made during his first visit to Epsom. The grandstand in the middle distance is an obvious example. Later this detail would come into sharper focus as Frith worked from a photograph made for him by Robert Howlett.
But the most compelling internal evidence is provided by the figures in the centre-right foreground. This is obviously the 'principal group' that dissatisfied Frith and caused him to work out an alternative solution in the V & A painting. And the inference is no less obvious: our sketch came first and can therefore only be the one that Frith made at Folkestone.
In many ways it is remarkable how close the sketch is to the final work. The general composition, many of the picturesque incidents, and the majority of the dramatis personae are already present. But there are also some fascinating differences. In the finished picture the sky becomes less threatening and the marquees on the left are less prominent, allowing for a more spacious view of the racecourse. The figures also vary in many respects. In the sketch, for example, Frith has not yet introduced the imperious young woman in a riding habit who stands with her back to us in the lower left corner of the painting, closing the composition and compelling us to follow the direction of her gaze. Or take the 'flying' acrobat who moves from the middle distance on the left in the sketch to a similar position on the right in the painting. In every case the alteration is made in the interest of pictorial logic, heightening the drama of the story Frith is telling and enabling us to 'read' his meaning more clearly.
But it was the figures in the centre-right foreground, his 'principal group', that bothered him most, so much so that he re-worked them in another sketch. In his Autobiography Frith wrote at some length about the acrobats from 'the Drury Lane pantomime' who posed for the father and son who are performing for the race-going crowd, the father holding out his arms in encouragement, the boy failing to respond, so riveted is he by the lavish picnic that a footman is unpacking beside him. In our sketch the pair are divided by a well-dressed man and his wife or daughter, seen from behind on the near side of the group.
The effect of this couple is to break the tension that exists between the two acrobats, and Frith's object in the V & A sketch is to restore this, thereby giving the incident the dramatic force that enables it to become the linchpin of the whole composition. As an essential first step, the two standing figures are eliminated. Frith, however, clearly felt their lack and therefore introduced two new elements: a fashionable young couple on the far side of the acrobats and a group of scruffy gypsy children sprawling on the grass in the immediate foreground. Unlike the two figures they replace, these children, being seated and smaller in any case, do not interrupt our view of the acrobats or sever the psychological bond between them. On the contrary, by watching the performers themselves, they focus attention on their plight.
The solution Frith evolved in the V & A sketch was itself to be modified in the final work, and in some respects he reverted to his original conception. In the V & A sketch the older acrobat has a more frontal pose than in either our sketch or the finished picture. The artist evidently decided that, after all, it suited the composition better to have him turned further to the right. But it was the position of the boy that exercised him most. In our sketch he faces the spectator while turning to look at the tantalising hamper. The V & A sketch shows him with his back to us; but in the final work he faces us again, presumably because Frith realised that this was essential if the pathos of the tired and hungry child was to be adequately represented. There could not be a better illustration of how hard Frith worked to hone his narrative skills, or how richly he deserved his reputation as the pre-eminent pictorial story-teller of the High Victorian age.
We are grateful to Dr Mary Cowling for help with this catalogue entry.