The picture is a highly finished sketch for the last of Frith's panoramic genre scenes, The Private View, 1881 (fig. 1). The private view in question was that of the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition, where the finished work was shown two years later. Now in his early sixties, the artist had made a speciality of such ambitious and crowd-pulling canvases, anticipating The Private View with Ramsgate Sands (R.A. 1854; Royal Collection), Derby Day (R.A. 1858; Tate Gallery), and The Railway Station (1862; Royal Holloway College).
Frith was a temperamentally conservative artist. Exhibiting at the R.A. from 1840, he had been elected A.R.A. in 1845 and achieved full membership eight years later. The Aesthetic craze of the 1870s and '80s, an essentially anti-academic movement, seemed to him a subject for satire, as indeed it did to many. George du Maurier lampooned it mercilessly week after week in Punch, and Gilbert and Sullivan sent it up in their comic opera Patience, first staged in 1881.
Had Frith wanted to go the whole hog in ridiculing Aestheticism, he might have set his private view at the Grosvenor Gallery, the liberal alternative to the Academy that had opened in Bond Street with great éclat in 1877 and immediately established itself as the movement's flagship. But the dividing line between the Academy and the Grosvenor was never that clear-cut. The Grosvenor showed the work of Sir Frederic Leighton, the president of the Academy, as well as that of G. F. Watts, John Everett Millais and other prominent academicians, while Leighton was eager to bring Grosvenor artists into the R.A. fold. His greatest catch was Burne-Jones, the undisputed star of the Grosvenor who reluctantly allowed himself to be elected A.R.A. in 1885.
Poking fun at the Aesthetes was only one of Frith's aims; equally important was the chance to depict a galaxy of well-known figures from all walks of life and even to introduce topical references that his audience would recognise. He spelt out his intentions in his Autobiography and Reminisences, published in 1887:
Seven years ago certain ladies delighted to display themselves at public gatherings in what are called aesthetic dresses; in some cases the costumes were pretty enough, in others they seemed to rival each other in ugliness of form and oddity of colour. There were - and still are, I believe - preachers of aestheticisim in dress; but I think, and hope, that the preaching is much less effective than it used to be. The contrast between the really beautiful costumes of some of the lady habituées of our private view, and the eccentric garments of others, together with the opportunity offered for portraits of eminent persons, suggested a subject for a picture, and I hastened to avail myself of it. Beyond the desire of recording for posterity the aesthetic craze as regards dress, I wished to hit the folly of listening to self-elected critics in matters of taste, whether in dress or art. I therefore planned a group, consisting of a well-known apostle of the beautiful, with a herd of eager worshippers surrounding him. He is supposed to be explaining his theories to willing ears, taking some picture on the Academy walls for his text. A group of well-known artists are watching the scene. On the left of the composition is a family of pure aesthetes absorbed in affected study of the pictures. Near them stands Anthony Trollope, whose homely figure affords a striking contrast to the eccentric forms near him. The rest of the composition is made up of celebrities of all kinds, statesmen, poets, judges, philosophers, musicians, painters, actors and others.
Having listed more of these luminaries, Frith continued: 'I received the kindest assistance from all these eminent persons, many of whom came to me at great sacrifice of time and engagements. Mr Gladstone was one of the first to come, but his first sitting was cruelly cut short as he was obliged to attend another appointment.' To his elaborate subject Frith devoted 'a great part of the year 1881, and nearly the whole of 1882', but the picture was finally ready for the R.A. of 1883 and amply justified all the time and trouble he had spent on it. 'Pictures composed of groups of well-known people', he observed complacently, 'are always popular at the Academy, and "The Private View" was no exception to that rule, a guard being again found necessary to control the crowds of visitors. I may perhaps be pardoned for recording the fact of this picture being the sixth painted by me that has received this special compliment.'
Iconography of the finished work
The most prominent figure in the picture is Oscar Wilde, the 'well-known apostle of the beautiful' as Frith calls him. Wilde was twenty-seven in 1881, and if he sat to Frith it must have been before 24 December, when he crossed the Atlantic to preach Aestheticism in America. He was not to return until January 1883, by which time the picture would have been nearly complete and awaiting submission to the Summer Exhibition, which opened on 2 May. He is seen pontificating about some picture to a group of female admirers and a boy, who has long hair and is dressed in a green velvet jacket and knickerbockers, conventional Aesthetic attire. Wilde himself is arrayed soberly enough; he shuns both the coat in the shape of a cello that had caused such a sensation at the opening of the Grosvenor Gallery four years earlier and the 'befrogged and wonderfully befurred green overcoat' that was soon to wow them in America. But he does sport a trademark lily to his buttonhole.
Behind Wilde and slightly to the right is a group of four men apparently overhearing his comments with a degree of scepticism. They consist of two Royal Academicians, Philip Hermogenes Calderon and Henry Stacy Marks, both members of the St John's Wood Clique; the sculptor Joseph Edgar Boehm, still only an associate in 1881 but destined to become a full R.A. the following year; and the journalist George Augustus Sala. Conspicuous in being bare-headed, whereas his three companions wear toppers, Sala had many connections with the worlds of art, literature and the stage. It is therefore not surprising that two celebrated thespians, Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, stand a little to the left, almost immediately behind Wilde, himself already a budding dramatist though not of course yet known for the great comedies. Irving had taken over the management of the Lyceum Theatre and engaged Ellen Terry as his leading lady in 1878, embarking on a series of Shakespeare revivals that would last almost until the end of the century.
Behind Irving and Terry stands Frederick Eaton, who had been secretary of the Academy since 1873. He was the first layman (as distinct from an R.A.) to hold the post, and was to remain in office until his death in 1913, being knighted in 1911. He is seen recording the verdicts in C.W. Cope's well-known painting, in the Academy's possession, of the selection commitee in action in 1876. On the far right of Frith's picture John Everett Millais, catalogue in hand, examines one of the exhibits with some unknown connoisseur.
The young woman in white immediately to the left of Wilde's auditors is the professional beauty Lillie Langtry, the 'Jersey lily'. She had made a sensational entry into London society in May 1876, and two years later, by which time she was generally known to be the mistress of the Prince of Wales, portraits of her by Millais and Poynter had appeared on the Academy's walls. Millais had painted her in black as a sign of mourning for the death of her younger brother Reggie, but whether in black or white her attire was always simple, in keeping with the prevailing theory that hers was a classic beauty that needed no enhancing from jewellery or apparel. For Frith, no doubt, the white dress was a godsend, striking one of the most dramatic notes in the composition. He supports it with the lesser white touch of G. A. Sala's waistcoat, and makes it all the more telling by placing it immediately adjacent to the black-clad figure of William Thomson, Archbishop of York, who stands to Mrs Langtry's right.
Thomson is the only churchman that Frith includes. He was currently in the middle of a twenty-eight year encumbency at York, having made his name as a fine preacher and an opponent of the liberal theology expounded by Benjamin Jowett and his friends in Essays and Reviews (1860). For all this, he was a keen social reformer, much loved by working men in the north. Though later painted by Owless and sculpted by Onslow Ford, he seems to have had no special interest in the arts, whereas the bewiskered man who looks over his left shoulder undoubtedly did. This is William Agnew, the famous picture dealer, who had recently entered Parliament as Liberal member for South-East Lancashire. Two years later, that is to say the very same year that Frith's picture was exhibited, his portrait by Frank Holl would appear at the R.A. Beside Agnew stands Sir John Coleridge, a barrister who had acted as chief counsel for the defendants in the famous Tichborne case in the early 1870s. He was now Lord Chief Justice of England.
Immediately to the left of the Archbishop a group of people are seated on an ottoman. Foremost among them is the Countess of Lonsdale, who is talking to the standing figure of Sir Frederic Leighton, bearded and dressed in a brown frock coat. Leighton had succeeded Sir Francis Grant as President of the R.A. in 1878 and was now the acknowledged leader of the Victorian art establishment, not only by virtue of his official position but his commanding personality and the somewhat glacial superiority of his art. He was also the first president whose reign had unfolded entirely at Burlington House, to which the R.A. had moved from Trafalgar Square a decade earlier. He was exhibiting seven paintings in 1881, including Idyll, one of his finest works (Private Collection), a self portrait destined for the Uffizi in Florence, and a group of potboilers in the form of likenesses of pretty models with fancy titles.
Behind the Countess of Lonsdale's back another, unidentified woman leans across to chat to Sir Henry Thompson, whose head is just seen to Leighton's left. While making his name as an eminent surgeon, Thompson had many other interests. He was a keen astronomer, an advocate of cremation, a novelist and an amateur artist. He had studied painting with Alma-Tadema, who had painted his portrait in 1878. He was often an 'Honorary Exhibitor' at the R.A., and was showing one of his landscapes, In the Borghese, winter afternoon, in 1881. This year also saw him and Millais painting each others portraits. Millais' portrait of Thompson, exhibited at the R.A. in 1882, is now in the Tate Gallery; Thompson's portrait of Millais was sold, unattributed, at Christie's South Kensington on 9 September 2004, lot 77.
Thompson was an ubiquitous character. He knew everyone and many attended his famous 'octaves', dinner parties at his house in Wimpole Street at which eight courses were served to eight guests bidden for 8.00pm. But perhaps the main reason why he is included here is that he exemplified the Aesthetic passion for Chinese blue-and-white porcelain, a taste he had acquired from two great pioneers, Rossetti and Whistler, and indulged by patronising the leading dealer in this field, Murray Marks. A catalogue of his collection, illustrated by Whistler and Thompson himself, was published in 1878, and the collection was sold at Christie's two years later.
On the other side of the ottoman, facing away from Leighton, the heiress and philanthropist Baroness Burdett-Coutts talks to Lady Diana Huddleston. Their husbands also appear among the standing figures behind them. Lady Diana, a daughter of the Duke of St Albans, was married to Sir John Walter Huddleston, the last baron of the Exchequer and a judge of Queen's Bench. Wearing a top hat, he stands just behind Robert Browning, the bare-headed and white-bearded figure seen talking to a girl in green. But it was Angela Burdett-Coutts and her husband who would have been the focus of attention for many of the picture's viewers.
Having remained a spinster until she was sixty-six, the Baroness had decided in 1880 to marry her secretary, an American thirty-seven years her junior called William Ashmead Bartlett. Many were shocked at this unexpected turn of events. It was widely assumed that Bartlett was an adventurer, after his employer's money, and the Queen herself, convinced that the Baroness was being a fool, did not hesitate to interfere. But none of this was to any avail. The marriage took place at Christ Church, Down Street, Piccadilly, on 12 February 1881, only three months before Frith's 'private view', and the couple lived in apparent harmony until Angela's death twenty-six years later.
There was no question of her taking her husband's name. Instead, he took hers, being known as 'Mr Burdett-Coutts'. He is the man with ginger moustache and top hat whose head appears above those of the Baroness and Lady Huddleston. To his left (our right) is seen Frith himself, bare-headed and whiskered, leaning forward to talk to two women on the far side of the ottoman. On Bartlett's other side, listening to Browning's conversation, is Thomas Huxley, the great populariser of scientific issues and ardent advocate of Darwin's theory of evolution.
Browning had many reasons to be present. He was an old and intimate friend of Leighton and a keen student of painting. Rossetti thought he knew 'encyclopaedically' more about Italian art than Ruskin, and certainly the subject had inspired some of his best known poems. His portrait had been painted by Rossetti, Sandys, Watts, Richmond and others, while his son Pen was a painter and sculptor who was now exhibiting regularly at the R.A. and the Grosvenor.
The two women and the child in the left foreground are anonymous. As we have seen, Frith calls them 'a family of pure aesthetes absorbed in affected study of the pictures'. Perhaps this is a little hard; the 'family' has diligently bought catalogues, and almost alone in the chattering throng they are paying attention to the works on display rather than to each other. But the child certainly seens to be asking some precocious question, while the young woman in green, so much prettier than her companion, does undoubtedly display a degree of affectation. Her eyes upturned like those of a Carlo Dolci saint experiencing divine revelation, she declares herself a committed Aesthete not only by the colour and cut of her dress but by the sunflower, that leitmotif of the movement rivalled only by the lily and the peacock feather, that forms her corsage. She has evidently swallowed the religion of beauty whole. Her appearance embodies the famous Gilbertian phrase 'greenery, gallery, Grosvenor Gallery', and we can imagine her, like the butt of Du Maurier's wit in Punch, looking at a blue-and-white pot with her husband and asking tremulously: 'Oh Algernon, can we live up to it?'
It is surely not accidental that Du Maurier himself, moustached and wearing a hat, stands immediately behind this passionate votaress. Behind him again, hatless, is his fellow illustrator John Tenniel, best known for his realisation of Lewis Carroll's 'Alice'.
In the same plane but to the left of the 'family of aesthetes', a group of statesmen and politicians are engaged in earnest conversation. Gladstone is the most prominent, rightly so since he was currently Prime Minister, having formed his second administration on defeating Disraeli at the general election of 1880. No wonder he was too busy to give Frith adequate sittings, having to oversee a heavy programme of bills relating to Ireland and acting as Chancellor of the Exchequer until 1882. Talking to him is Sir Henry Stafford Northcote, a Conservative who had been elected member for Exeter in 1880. His father, Lord Iddesleigh, had been Gladstone's predecessor as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Disraeli government, and Northcote had been his private secretary. On leaving parliament in 1899 he would become a distinguished colonial administrator, acting successively as governor of Bombay and Australia.
Behind and a little to the left of Northcote is John Bright, advocate of free trade, supporter of many liberal causes, and bitter critic of Tory imperialism. His oratory on this subject had done much to bring down Disraeli's government, and under Gladstone he was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster with a seat in the cabinet. To the public he would also have been known as the man who had recently defeated John Ruskin in a noisy contest for the Lord Rectorship of Glasgow University. The last member of this group, the tall hatless man standing behind Gladstone, is Sir William Harcourt, another leading member of the Liberal establishment. An expert on international law, he had entered parliament as member for Oxford in 1868, and received a knighthood on his appointment as Solicitor General in 1873. He was currently serving as Home Secretary and the Prime Minister's political deputy in Gladstone's goverment.
At the far left of the canvas we come back to the arts. The top-hatted and venerably bearded figure of Anthony Trollope dominates this group, his hand firmly in his catalogue, his eye on the pretty votaress. Frith implied that he had introduced this 'homely figure' simply by way of contrast with the 'eccentric forms near him', but this is perhaps disingenuous. Trollope had died on 6 December 1882, only a few months before the picture was exhibited. His inclusion, in other words, may well have been an afterthought, and another bid, like the reference to the Burdett-Coutts marriage, for topicality. It is perhaps significant that Trollope is not among the figures whom Frith mentions as actually giving him sittings.
On the other hand, Frith does refer to the two figures who stand further left, Trollope's fellow novelist Mary Elizabeth Braddon and the musician Sir Julius Benedict. Miss Braddon had retained her maiden name as a nom de plume, having married the publisher John Maxwell in 1874. Like Trollope, she was very prolific, and like him she had made her name in the 1860s, in her case with the melodramatic bestseller Lady Audley's Secret (1862). Her work retained its sensationalism, and even in the 1880s was considered dangerously lacking in moral tone. As for Sir Julius Benedict, squeezed in against the picture frame, he too was copious in his way, pouring out concert pieces and operas. Born in Stuttgart in 1804, he had met Beethoven as a boy and studied under Weber in Dresden; but in 1835 he had come to London and settled. Having taken out British nationality, he had been knighted in 1871.
The private viewers, whether interested in the pictures or more anxious to 'see and be seen', are gathered in Gallery III, the largest and most imposing room at Burlington House. It is instructive to look round the walls with Henry Blackburn's Academy Notes for 1881 in hand, for although Frith seems to have taken some licence, he has also kept remarkably close to the 'hang' as it actually existed. Indeed, with a little imagination it would probably be possible to hazard a guess as to what Wilde and his fellow Aesthetes are studying with such rapt attention. Of the pictures we can see on the other side of the room, Heywood Hardy's Sidi Ahmed ben Avuda and the Holy Lion is prominent on the left, while a little to the right are James Sant's Daughters of Arthur Wilson, Esq. (sold in these Rooms on 27 November 2002, lot 18), and A Summer's Day in Italy by the young J. W. Waterhouse. On the right-hand wall we can just discern John Collier's Last Voyage of Henry Hudson, which had been bought that year for the Chantrey Bequest, while the picture being so carefully scrutinised by Millais and the man with the eye-glass is Alma-Tadema's Sappho and Alcaeus (Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore).
One of the most interesting details, again highly topical and acting as a sort of counterpoint to the group of Liberal politicians, is the portrait that hangs on the screen in the far doorway. This is Millais' portrait of Disraeli, now in the National Portrait Gallery. The picture was commenced in March 1881, a year after Disraeli's crushing defeat by Gladstone, but it had been interrupted by the sitter's illness and was still incomplete when he died on 19 April. The head was sufficiently developed to stand, but Millais had had to improvise the frock coat and background. By the time it was finished the R.A. exhibition was hung, and it was only included by special command of the Queen. It was placed by itself on a screen draped with funereal black crape.
This of course was the heyday of the Victorian R.A., and almost every leading artist of the time was represented in Gallery III. Landscapes jostled with portraits, animal studies, genre scenes and the historical subjects that were just beginning to go out of fashion. Veterans such as T.S. Cooper, G.F. Watts, J.R. Herbert and C.W. Cope rubbed shoulders with such comparative youngsters as Waterhouse, his friend William Logsdail, Cecil Lawson and Frank Dicksee (who was showing The Symbol, sold in these Rooms on the 11 June 2003, lot 7). Several of the artists who figure in Frith's picture had work of their own on the surrounding walls. Here was Leighton's masterpiece Idyll and canvases by Marks, Calderon and Millais, who had had work accepted in the normal course of events long before the Queen had insisted on the late inclusion of Disraeli. Frith himself was showing one of his essays in eighteenth-century genre, Swift and Vanessa, and Browning could have stood before a picture by Pen and felt the proud father.
Status of the present sketch
Our version is smaller than the finished picture, and, being dated 1882, the year the latter was in progress, was almost certainly finished first. All the main elements of the design are established, as well as much of the detail. The colours of the dresses approximate to those in the finished work; Lillie Langtry is already conspicuous in white, the votaress wears her 'greenery, yallery' dress, and so on. The pictures on the walls have also more or less assumed their final form, and the screen bearing Disraeli's portrait is in place. Many of the figures - Wilde, Leighton, Browning, Sala, Calderon, Mrs Langtry, the Archbishop of York and others - are recognisable.
On the other hand the brushwork is still comparatively sketchy, and many significant details are unresolved. The intarsia on the floor, an important compositional element in the big version, linking groups by means of strong diagonals, has not yet been introduced. A number of poses, among them those of Trollope, Sala and Millais, will undergo development, as will sartorial details. The bodice of the votaress has still to be defined and she lacks her sunflower, just as Wilde does his lily. Sala, bare-headed in the big picture, wears a grey topper in our version, nor does he display his waistcoat so bravely. The idea of making it echo Lillie Langtry's dress has apparently not yet occured to the artist.
Above all, many of the figures are no more than mannequins who have yet to be given the features of people in the public eye. We cannot, for example, recognise Millais, Trollope, Du Maurier, Agnew, Thompson, Benedict or Baroness Burdett-Coutts. Gladstone is merely a balding nonentity, unidentifiable as the prime minister, and Frith himself is only a shadowy presence. Others who feature in the finished work - Irving, Ellen Terry, Huxley, Eaton, Mr Burdett-Coutts - are absent altogether. All must have been late additions, and we can often hazard a guess as to why. As already suggested, Trollope's death in December 1882 may well have determined his inclusion, and may even have taken place after our version was finished. Similarly, Huxley may have got in on the strength of the death the same year of his hero Darwin. Again, it may have taken time to realise that the Burdett-Coutts marriage was a subject worthy of reference, or that it would be a witty notion to juxtapose Du Maurier with the votaress. As for the presence of Frederick Eaton, it is a little like Frith's own, a domestic allusion with every sign of being made at the last minute. When an appropriate body was 'available', as in the case of Trollope or Millais, the insertion of a head, aided by same judicious adaptation of pose, could be convincing enough, but this was not always possible. Too often figures that appear only in the finished work look what in fact they were, afterthoughts that have not been wholly assimilated and retain an element of awkwardness and strain.
All this confirms that our picture is a sketch for the final canvas rather than some reduced version, a sketch in which Frith has mapped out his composition and stated a number of salient ideas while leaving a good deal more to be resolved. Such sketches were often worked up by artists after the great work was completed, details determined subsequently being incorporated to make a highly finished (and highly marketable) small version. Holman Hunt and Ford Madox Brown were among the many who did this. Frith prefers to leave his sketch as what it is, a work of art complete as far as it goes and a fascinating record of the creative process of one of his finest works. The prominently displayed signature confirms that he is happy to acknowledge it on these terms.