WILLIAM POWELL FRITH R.A.
1819 – 1909
Ramsgate Sands (Life at the seaside)
Signed artists proof
Frame size: 35¼ x 55½ inches / 89.5 x 141 cm
Stock number: PB23/0121
A large signed artists proof of Ramsgate Sands (Life at the seaside) by William Powell Frith and engraved by C W Sharpe, stamped Art Union of London 1859.
It is rare for these engravings to come onto the market and very rare for all three to appear at the same time. Both Derby Day and The Railway Station are the same size and framed identically, whilst Ramsgate Sands is slightly larger and framed differently. This is a unique opportunity for someone to acquire all three together.
The original oil painting, Ramsgate Sands also known as Life at the Seaside became Frith’s first great commercial success, after initially receiving a mixed critical reception. It was dismissed by one contemporary commentator as “vulgar Cockney business” or a “tissue of vulgarity” and it was rejected by several potential buyers. However, it proved popular with the viewing public at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1854, and was praised by critics for its realistic depiction of modern life. It was voted the “picture of the year” by the journal Royal Academy Pictures and was purchased by the printers Lloyd Brothers for 1,000 guineas who retained the right to reproduce the painting as an engraving for sale to the public as prints, making Frith very rich. Eventually the original painting was bought by Queen Victoria to display at Osbourne House.
Frith takes advantage of the location to paint people of different social classes in contemporary modern dress. The seaside was a place where the different classes, ages, and sexes could mix without the usual barriers. Frith populates the painting with a variety of people, a grandmother with a parasol, a gentleman seated reading a newspaper, an over-dressed “swell”, a variety of entertainers and vendors. Frith also included a self-portrait: he is looking over the shoulder of the man on the far right, with two ladies and a girl in white in front. The small girl paddling in the sea near the centre of the painting, staring directly out of the picture, is thought to be his daughter. All are viewed from the sea, looking towards the beach, separating the viewer from the scene. Many of the buildings in the background – the clock tower, the granite obelisk erected in 1822, building with battlements on Harbour Parade, and the gable end of the building at the junction of Albion Place and Madeira Walk above the cliffs – remain recognisable today.
Unusually, to modern eyes, the characters are wearing their usual clothes on the beach, including crinolines for the women and waistcoats for the men, alongside more recognisable seaside images of sandcastles, donkey rides, and a Punch and Judy show. Two telescopes hint at people-watching or voyeurism (the morality of women and men bathing was a contemporary issue, particularly as men often bathed naked). Bathing machines are visible in the background, but the painting shows no bathers, only genteel paddling at the edge of the sea.
William Powell Frith (9 January 1819 – 2 November 1909) was an English painter specialising in genre subjects and panoramic narrative works of life in the Victorian era. He was elected to the Royal Academy in 1853, presenting The Sleeping Model as his Diploma work. He has been described as the “greatest British painter of the social scene since Hogarth”.