This handsome self-portrait by William Powell Frith appears not to have been previously exhibited or described in the books and exhibition catalogues devoted to the artist. The artist shows himself in a darkened interior and holding palette and brushes. The painting was engraved to provide the frontispiece of the second volume of the artist's book My Autobiography and Reminiscences, published in 1887. The title to the plate states that the original painting was done in 1883, when the artist was sixty-four years old.
Frith was born in Yorkshire and was encouraged to take up a career as a painter by his parents. He studied at Sass's school in London, and then at the Royal Academy Schools. As a young man he was part of the artistic grouping known as The Clique, of which in the 1840s Richard Dadd, Augustus Egg, Henry Nelson O'Neil and John 'Spanish' Phillip were fellow members. Frith was praised for his historical and literary subjects, and was elected as an associate of the Royal Academy in 1845 and as an academician in 1853. In the early 1850s he devised his most characteristic and remarkable type of work, the panoramic representation of modern life subjects. The first of these, Life at the Seaside (Ramsgate Sands) (Royal Collection), was shown at the Royal Academy in 1854. This was followed in 1858 by Derby Day (Tate), and in 1862 by The Railway Station (Royal Holloway College, Egham (University of London)). These paintings brought Frith great popular reputation, and - through the sale of steel engravings reproducing his works - considerable prosperity. He continued to paint historical and literary subjects, and in his later years created various cycles of works with moral themes, such as The Road to Ruin, of 1878. Frith was an admired portraitist, with his Charles Dickens in his Study (Victoria and Albert Museum), of 1859 and commissioned by John Forster, regarded as one of the definitive images of the novelist.
Frith's physical appearance is well recorded in photographs and paintings. His first surviving self-portrait was done in 1838 when he was nineteen and at the time that he was a student at the Royal Academy. This romantic self-image, with hair swept back from his forehead and a careful manipulation of light so as to allow his profile to be lost in shadow, the original of which is now in the National Portrait Gallery, was used as the frontispiece to the first volume of Frith's autobiography. Christopher Wood, in his recent biography of the artist (2006), reproduces another early self-portrait, in which Frith shows himself in a costume of seventeenth-century style. Subsequent self-images include the oil The Artist in his Studio (National Portrait Gallery), of 1867, which gives a convincing representation of the painter at work, and in which a physical similarity to the present self-portrait - particularly in the prominence of the forehead and strongly swept hair - may be seen. Photographs such as the albumen print made by Maull & Polyblank, of 1857 (see Jeremy Maas, The Victorian Art World in Photographs, London, 1984, reproduced p.30), show Frith with hair parted on the right side, suggesting that in both The Artist in his Studio and the present self-portrait we are in fact looking at a mirror-image.
In his autobiography Frith recommends self-portraiture to young artists: 'The student need never be at a loss for a model, so long as he possesses a looking-glass. Better practice than the reproduction of his own features cannot be followed. He is sure of a patient sitter, and he has the example of nearly all the great painters, whose "very form and feature" have come down to us limned by their own hands' (My Autobiography and Reminiscences, two volumes, London, 1887, II, p.312).
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