View 1 of Lot 104. Interior of Marseilles Prison, a Scene from Little Dorrit.
View 1 of Lot 104. Interior of Marseilles Prison, a Scene from Little Dorrit.
104

William Powell Frith, R.A.

Interior of Marseilles Prison, a Scene from Little Dorrit

Estimate:

20,000 - 30,000 GBP

Property from a Private Collection

William Powell Frith, R.A.

William Powell Frith, R.A.

Interior of Marseilles Prison, a Scene from Little Dorrit

Interior of Marseilles Prison, a Scene from Little Dorrit

Estimate:

20,000 - 30,000 GBP

Lot sold:

22,680

GBP

Property from a Private Collection

William Powell Frith, R.A.

British

1819 - 1909

Interior of Marseilles Prison, a Scene from Little Dorrit


signed and dated W.P. Frith 1859 lower left

oil on canvas in original frame

Unframed: 62 by 48cm., 24½ by 19in.

Framed: 91 by 78cm., 36 by 31¼in.

Commissioned by Charles Dickens for his Library Edition;
Louis Victor Flatow (b 1820; d London, Nov 10, 1867) bought from the artist
Christie, Manson, and Woods, 'The gallery of paintings collected by Mr. Flatou, the eminent dealer', 29 March 1862, ‘Interior of the Prison at Marseilles,’ a scene from Little Dorrit, 130 gs. (Scott)
Christie, Manson, and Woods, 9 March 1867, ‘The Marseilles Prison,’ 140 gs. (Webster)
Christie, Manson, and Woods, 20 June 1868 as ‘Comrade Remembrance, Marseille. Prison' 175 gs. (Permain)
Christie's, London, 'Mr. George Rennie’s collection of modem paintings and water-colour drawings', 4 June 1870 as ‘Comrade Remembrance, Marseilles Prison,’ 160 gs. (Pearce).
London Daily News, 20 October, 1859
Illustrated London News, 29 October, 1859
Illustrated Times - 26 November 1859
Illustrated Times, January 21, 1860, p.37, p. 89 (illustrated, THE MARSEILLES PRISON- ‘From a picture by W. P. Frith, R.A. in the Flatou collection’)
Art Journal, 1860, p.299
Bradford Observer, 19 July 1860
Art Journal, 1867, p.132
Art Journal, 1868, p.157
Art Journal, 1870, p.221
William Powell Frith, My Autobiography and Reminiscences, in three volumes, Bentley & Son: London 1887-8, volume, I, p.316
Frederic G Kitton, Dickens and his Illustrators London: George Redway 1899. Appendix III Dickens in Art. Kitton had the advantage of being able to meet Frith, whom he interviewed concerning his depictions of Dickens and a he is quoted at length in this appendix
Mark Bills and Vivien Knight (ed.) William Powell Frith: Painting the Victorian Age, Yale University Press, 2006, p.33
Mark Bills, article on From Dolly to Dorrit: William Powell Frith’s Scenes from Dickens completed for publication

ENGRAVING - Wood engraving by William Luson Thomas, in Illustrated Times, January 21, 1860, p. 89
Lumb Stocks ARA (1812-1892) after Frith, frontispiece for volume I of Little Dorrit (Library Edition, 1859).

Mr. Flatow’s Rooms, Winter 1859/60
Exchange Rooms, Bradford, Art Treasures Exhibition, 1860

‘"Stay!" said the jailer, putting his little daughter on the outer ledge of the grate,

"she shall feed the birds. This big loaf is for Signor John Baptist. We must break it to get it through into the cage. So, there's a tame bird, to kiss the little hand! This sausage in a vine-leaf is for Monsieur Bigaud. Again—this veal in savory jelly is for Monsieur Bigaud. Again—these three white little loaves are for Monsieur Bigaud. Again, this cheese—again, this wine—again, this tobacco—all for Monsieur Bigaud. Lucky bird!"


The child put all these things between the bars into the soft, smooth, well-shaped hand, with evident dread—more than once drawing back her own, and looking at the man with her fair brow roughened into an expression half of fright and half of anger.’


Charles Dickens (from the opening chapter of Little Dorrit)

 

It was in 1859 Frith recalled that ‘John Forster called upon me to paint a portrait of his friend Dickens. I need scarcely say with what delight, mixed with fear, I heard of this commission —delight because of my veneration for the author, and my love for the man; fear that I might fail, as so many had done already.’ (William Powell Frith, My Autobiography and Reminiscences, in three volumes, Bentley & Son: London 1887-8, volume, I, p.307) The painting, which has become one of the defining images of the author (Victoria & Albert Museum, London), also gave Frith another opportunity. He longed once more to illustrate scenes from Dickens novels as he done so successfully with Dolly Varden and Kate Nickleby and hoped for another commission. ‘When Dickens was sitting to me,’ Frith later recalled, ‘he mentioned the intention of his publishers to issue a library edition of his works, with two steel illustrations to each volume. I begged him to allow me to be one of the illustrators.’ (William Powell Frith, My Autobiography and Reminiscences, in three volumes, Bentley & Son: London 1887-8, volume, I, p.316) When Frith spoke about this to Dickens’s biographer Frederick Kitton he told him that Dickens ‘seemed pleased and proposed ‘Little Dorrit’.’ (Frederic G Kitton, Dickens and his Illustrators London: George Redway 1899, p.248)


As a result Frith painted two works for the frontispieces to the two volumes of Little Dorrit. The first, this painting, depicts the opening chapter of Dickens’s novel, ‘Sun and Shadow,’ which uses the imagery of light and darkness, and the setting of Marseilles where ‘there was a villainous prison.’ Frith takes the very specific location to be that of Château d'If, an island fortress off Marseilles used as a prison in the nineteenth century until its closure in 1890 and the setting of The Count of Monte Cristo. The great stone blocks, window and arch evoke the courtyard of the prison, whilst the jailer is in 1850s uniform of a corporal in the French infantry, reflecting its use form the major internment of political prisoners. The scene shows the jailer’s daughter feeding her father’s ‘birds,’ the prisoners Rigaud and John Baptist.


Frith notes that this painting was immediately ‘snapped up’ by the dealer Louis Victor Flatow (1820-1867) who bought it directly from the artist and immediately put it on public exhibition. In October 1859 a winter exhibition of Modern Pictures was held at Leggatts New City Gallery, No. 19, Change-alley. Flatow knew that the public’s enjoyment of Dickens and Frith meant that the painting would be instantly popular.


The London Daily Times noted that of the two scenes Frith exhibited from Little Dorrit this painting of Marseilles ‘is decidedly the best,’ finding a ‘touchingly natural incident,’ in the French prison scene. (London Daily News - Thursday 20 October 1859) The Illustrated Times and its readers had a long fascination with Frith’s paintings and they decided to celebrate the painting with a short commentary and a large full-page wood engraving by the distinguished engraver William Luson Thomas (1830-1900). (William Luson Thomas was the founder and editor of the Graphic, which began late in 1869)


After its sale the picture remained in private hands and was never put on public exhibition. Even though it was a well-known image in 1860 and was engraved twice, it remained unknown, because it appeared an unfamiliar subject for Frith. After one hundred and sixty years it is now recognised as the important work it is in Frith’s canon and within Dickens’s involvement with fine art.


A small study for the work was made and was sold at auction in April 2016.