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William Powell Frith

William Powell Frith, by William Powell Frith, 1838 -NPG 2139 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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William Powell Frith

by William Powell Frith
Oil on canvas, 1838
23 7/8 in. x 19 7/8 in. (605 mm x 505 mm)
NPG 2139

Inscriptionback to top

On back of frame, inscr. in pencil: ‘Miss Frith / Miss Frith for Portrait..’;
label, partially visible: ‘826 / Clean / Re-line Restore / needed for exhibition / January 74’.
Detached original label (removed to Primary Collection Associated Items plan chest, NPG Archive) illegible, possibly reading: ‘i give ............/ daughter ?? Frith / WPFrith / ?6’ and ‘?? 1908’.

This portraitback to top

‘The student need never be at loss for a model, so long as he possesses a looking-glass,’ wrote Frith. ‘In my youth … I spent hour after hour staring into a mirror.’ [1] Although he also claimed that his own likeness had ‘defied me over and over again,’[2] the number of self-portraits in his oeuvre, and especially those included in subject pictures, testifies to this lifelong practice.

When a friend drew his attention around 1883 to this self-portrait for sale in a ‘shabby gallery behind a shop’, he had no recollection of parting with it by sale or gift, nor could he discover its subsequent history.[3] But in his autobiography he confidently stated that it had been painted in 1838, when he was a student aged 19. [4] This was the year of his exhibition debut,[5] when his address was 6 Charlotte Street. Later that year he spent several months painting portraits of gentlemen farmers in Lincolnshire.

This work is equally confidently painted, in a suave and economical manner. It does not appear to have been re-worked. The donors, two of Frith’s daughters, regarded it as ‘very good and far superior’ to NPG 1738.[6]

Three other works may be compared with NPG 2139 (see ‘All known portraits’). The first is the half-length attributed to his fellow-student Douglas Cowper, which was begun at the end of 1836 and is a less searching portrait; in the present work Frith has given himself a touch of Romantic intensity. Second is Frith’s youthful self-portrait in historical costume, as if posing for one of his own subjects (see ‘All known portraits, Self-portraits, c.1838’). Third is the watercolour by William White Warren, which closely replicates NPG 2139.

Dr Jan Marsh

Footnotesback to top

[1] Frith 1887–8, vol.2, pp.312–13.
[2] Frith 1887–8, vol.2, p.312.
[3] Frith 1887–8, vol.2, p.314.
[4] See the engraving reproduced in Frith 1887–8, vol.1, frontispiece, which is entitled ‘Painted by Himself in 1838’.
[5] SBA (253, ‘Sketch of a Boy reading’) and BI (189, ‘A Page with a Letter’).
[6] Letter from Louise Frith to NPG, 17 Nov. 1926, NPG RP 2139

Physical descriptionback to top

Quarter-length to right, half-profile, pink complexion, light brown hair, deepset eyes, wearing brown coat, black cravat and white shirt, against dark reddish-brown background.

Conservationback to top

Cleaned, re-lined and re-varnished 1974.
Framed before acquisition.

Provenanceback to top

Early history unknown; bought from shop by the artist c.1883 and in family possession until 1927 when presented by his daughters.

Exhibitionsback to top

A Festival of Britain Exhibition of Paintings by William Powell Frith, R.A. 1819–1909, Harrogate Corporation Art Gallery, 1951 (1, as ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’).

Reproductionsback to top

Frith 1887–8, vol.1, frontispiece (as wood-engr. by P. Naumann).

Strand, vol.3, 1892, p.598.

Bills & Knight 2006, half-title (where entitled ‘Self-Portrait with a model, 1838’).

View all known portraits for William Powell Frith

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