The Derby Day oil on canvas 103 x 226.5cm (40 9/16 x 89 3/16in).
The present work is a same sized copy of Frith's iconic work, completed in 1858 and now in the collection of Tate Britain. When Frith's masterpiece was shown at the Royal Academy (1858, no.218) the response was so overwhelming that a rail was erected to keep the crowds back and a policemen was placed on guard. The Times noted that 'no closer nor completer transcript of a scene of English amusement has been painted since Hogarth'. The Derby Day comprises a series of social vignettes. Frith's interest in physiognomy and phrenology, seeing the face as 'a sure index of character' and social origin, is clearly evident, his characters, especially the groups of criminals and 'low lifes', confirming to social stereotypes. As Christopher Wood commented: 'Frith's picture is an accurate and faithful record of the moral climate of the time, combined with the skilful use of current ideas about physiognomy, character, and class distinction'.1
The Derby Day was one of Frith's great panoramas of modern society, and stands alongside Life at the seaside (RA 1854, no.157) and The Railway Station (completed in 1862) as evidence of his talent at representing 'the infinite variety of everyday life...the kaleidescopic aspect of the crowd'. Following a visit to Kempton races in 1854, Frith noted 'Here is a scene I'd like to paint- "modern life" with a vengeance'. The result, and Frith's achievement at depicting 'groups and tents and sports, the jockeys, course, stands and all the rest' was remarkable, and he sold both the painting and the copyright, before it was even finished. Following the extraordinary furore at the RA, the work toured throughout the UK, going on to Europe, the USA, and Australia.
1Christopher Wood, William Powell Frith, A painter and his world, Stroud, 2006, pp.57-73 and passim
LITERATURE: Mark Bills & Vivien Knight (ed), William Powell Frith, Painting the Victorian Age, London, 2006, passim William Powell Frith, My Autobiography and Reminiscenes, London, 1887, passim