This picture was the first major Victorian work to enter the Forbes Collection, having been bought at auction by the late Malcolm Forbes in 1968. For many years it hung above the fireplace in the Drawing Room of Old Battersea House, a place of honour now occupied by Holman Hunt's Il Dolce Far Niente (lot 26). There it was considered the cornerstone of the collection, an appellation regarded as appropriate given that the institution of marriage underpinned Victorian society. The picture now hangs in the Master Bedroom at Old Battersea House, alongside other pictures on a similar theme. Frith's pair Hope and Fear (lot 99), depicts a suitor asking a stern paterfamilias for his daughter's hand in marriage while his intended is comforted by her mother, and Blair Leighton's Till Death us do part (lot 336), characterises the reaction of the congregation as a bride comes down the aisle on the arm of her much older husband. Each picture gives the viewer considerable cause for thought.
For Better, For Worse, is recalled at length in Frith's Autobiography published in 1887:
The picture represents a bride and bridegroom on the point of leaving for honeymoon. Their brougham waits: and a crowd of passers-by watch their departure, while from the doorstep - on which the bride's family and friends are collected - come the usual showers of rice and slippers, and from a balcony above the portico guests take a last look at the newly-married. I was prompted by this subject by seeing an almost identical realisation of it in Cleveland Square. The street crowd, through an avenue of which the lady and gentleman go to their carriage, is composed of street boys, the more inquisitive being kept back by a policeman with an unneccessary display of force; a Jew clothesman; a servant whose curiosity has stopped her on her way to post a letter; and last and best part of the picture, a group of beggars who approach from the street, the man, his wife, and children, illustrating the latter part of the title of the picture, 'For Better, For Worse'.
The words are taken from the Church of England marriage service, but the viewer is immediately invited by the title to ponder which path their marriage will take. The pivotal figure in the composition, accentuated by the spire of the church, is the bridegroom raising his hat. In status conscious Victorian England, and given the affluence of his wife's family, has he married for better? Furthermore, to which of the ladies on the balcony is he directing his pensive backward glance? Will he be a faithful husband? He appears poised, equidistant between the group on the steps, and the group of paupers behind the carriage. His relation to the former is established, but what is his relation to the latter? Might, as some commentators have gone so far as suggesting, his roving eye be responsible for what the Victorians referred to as 'a shameful bundle' in the woman's arms?
It is fascinating to compare this picture with its sketch, helpfully collected by Kip Forbes to hang alongside the finished version, and included in this sale as lot 335. The viewer can clearly see how Frith has developed his ideas, and refined his characterisation to enhance the narrative, and increase the picture's power. In the finished version the bride's status has clearly been raised. She no longer stoops to enter her carriage, and her costume has been embellished with both ruff and bustle. The figure of the bridegroom appears commensurately less assured and the subsidiary characters in the crowd have been described with more care.
Was Frith trying to point a moral here, concerning marital fidelity and the vicissitudes of fortune, or has he unwittingly provided the viewer with more of a 'problem picture' than he intended? Certainly, contemporary reviewers such as 'Fun's Academy Skits' entertained the public with their view of the bridegroom's supposed motives and behaviour. And to what extent did the subject resonate with the artist himself?
Frith's first wife Isabelle Barker, with whom he lived at 10 Pembridge Villas, Notting Hill died in 1880 having borne him twelve children. However, less than a mile away in Oxford Terrace, now Sussex Gardens, conveniently close to Paddington Station - the subject of Frith's great work of 1862, Frith kept a mistress, Mary Alford, by whom he had a son and a daughter. After a period of mourning for his first wife, a year and two days, perhaps the minimum then considered respectable, Frith married Mary, who then bore him several more children. In all, Frith fathered nineteen offspring. As Jeremy Maas dryly observed, Frith liked crowds.
Frith's first wife came to learn of her husband's liaison when she inadvertently intercepted him posting a letter to her, near their home, saying that he had been enjoying a few days at Brighton. But marital double standards were not then uncommon. Much of the newly built suburb of St John's Wood, setting for Holman Hunt's The Awakening Conscience and home to Tissot and his mistress Kathleen Newton, was built for those who enjoyed irregular liaisons. The Victorians set great store in maintaining the institution of marriage for the sake of practicality and propriety, but many found ways round its constrictions. It is perhaps no coincidence then that the picture was completed the year Frith enjoyed his second wedding.
The church is based on Christ Church, Lancaster Square, and the house, though not identified, would have been recognised as a typical 'Tyburnian residence', (according to one reviewer), north of the park. In his autobiography, Frith went on to describe his difficulties with his sitters. The 'old Jew' who posed for the 'clothesman' struck a hard bargain, forcing him to pay the then exhorbitant price of ten shillings, in addition to 'some old clothes' for a three-hour sitting. The boy onlooker with his hands in his pockets suddenly fainted without warning. 'I was at work on his face, and saw no sign of a change in his complexion; when, without moving his hands from his trousers, he fell like one shot'. But it was the monkey on the back of the Italian boy in the foreground which caused Frith most trouble. Refusing to sit still for an instant, the animal would leap onto his easel and even attacked the picture itself. Frith was only able to paint it when it finally went to sleep, and he wrote: 'Little children are maddening; but commend me to the most terrible of those in preference to a monkey'.
The more humorous reviews had great fun satirizing the hail of slippers depicted, and replacing them, in caricature, with heavy hobnailed boots. Shoes in the context of weddings, have always denoted good luck. In the present century we tie them to the backs of the cars of departing couples, but in the Victorian era, not only would the bride have thrown a shoe over her shoulder instead of her bouquet, but in return she would have been greeted with several aimed at her and her husband. To have been hit in this way, or better still, have a slipper land inside the carriage, was considered immense good fortune. We can be grateful that the practice has been discontinued.
Generally, the picture was well received when exhibited. As the critic on the Illustrated London News observed: 'Mr Frith ... paints as ... evenly, and as heedless of any aesthetic problems of the day, as ever; and as always, he tells his story of genteel life well'. The picture was one of a series of triumphs for Frith, a Yorkshireman, whose parents had met while in service to the then owner of Studley Royal. In 1826 his father, an amateur artist, became landlord of the Dragon Hotel in Harrogate. After schooling in Knaresborough and Dover, Frith entered Sass's drawing academy in London and from there proceeded to the Royal Academy Schools. There he joined a group of fellow-students who called themselves The Clique; they included Richard Dadd (see lots 86 and 228), Henry O'Neil (see lot 221) , Augustus Egg (see lots 109 and 265), John Phillip (see lot 8) and E.M. Ward (see lot 258), all of whom were to achieve discinction as artists. In 1840 he made his debut at the Academy with two scenes from Shakespeare. This set the pattern for the next few years when he continued to paint subjects from Scott, Sterne, Goldsmith, Molière, Cervantes, Dickens and other authors, treating them with a light-hearted and picturesque manner that proved highly popular. In 1845 he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy, and in 1853 was promoted to full membership, filling the vacancy left by the death of Turner. In 1851 he spent a holiday at Ramsgate on the Kent coast, which led to a new development in his work. Ramsgate Sands was an elaborate reconstruction of modern seaside life, full of entertaining detail and it caused a sensation when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1854. It was bought by Queen Victoria and currently remains in the Royal Collection. It was followed by Derby Day (Tate Gallery) in 1858 and The Railway Station (Royal Holloway College) in 1862, which both proved equally popular. Such was the crush to see these pictures that they had to be protected by a rail; they also gained wide currency through the use of engravings. Frith's work remained immensely popular throughout his career, and he was awarded many honours both at home and abroad. On his eighty-ninth birthday in 1908 he was made a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order by King Edward VII, whose marriage he had painted some forty years earlier. He died aged ninety in St John's Wood.