The Crossing Sweeper

  • About the work
    Country: UK
    City: London
    Place: Cabinet Office, 70 Whitehall

    'The Crossing Sweeper' (1893) shows a young boy imploring a well-dressed middle-class woman for recompense, having swept the muddy street before her. With the high level of horse drawn traffic, crossing sweepers were a common sight on the streets of Victorian London. Although sweepers were viewed by many as a nuisance and little more than beggars, there was also a degree of empathy for them, particularly for those who were children. William Powell Frith's painting shamelessly appeals to this empathy, showing the earnest request of a bare footed, ragged young boy in sharp contrast to the beautiful and fashionably dressed woman.

    Frith painted this composition twice before, some 35 years earlier in 1858. The only notable change to the earlier versions is the style of the woman's dress, which has been updated to represent the fashions of the 1890s. Frith frequently produced paintings on the radical subject of different social classes rubbing shoulders, a theme more commonly reserved for the illustrations of 'Punch' magazine than fine art.

    Towards the end of his career and with two families to support, Frith struggled financially and was less willing to take risks artistically. His earlier versions of this painting had proved popular and easily saleable, making this subject an obvious choice to return to as a 'pot-boiler' in his later years. Unable to afford retirement, Frith continued to paint to the end of his life. He died of pneumonia at the age of 90, at his home in St John's Wood.

  • About the artist
    William Powell Frith was born near Ripon in Yorkshire. He studied at the Royal Academy Schools and was elected an Academician in 1852. During the 1840s he was a member of the artists' group 'The Clique'. Although his early subjects were historical or literary, Frith claimed to have been ‘strongly drawn’ to contemporary genre. He first painted the subject following a visit to Ramsgate of 1851, which resulted in ‘Ramsgate Sands’ (exhibited 1854). He went on to paint ‘Derby Day’ (1858), ‘The Railway Station’ (1862) and ‘Private View Day at the Royal Academy’ (1883). His 19 children - twelve with his wife and seven with his mistress - caused considerable financial difficulties. Frith died of pneumonia aged 90, at his home in St John's Wood.
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  • Details
    The Crossing Sweeper
    Oil on canvas
    width: 36.20 cm, height: 43.70 cm
    Purchased from Christie's, 28 February 2007
    br: W. P. Frith. 1893.
    Collection of D. G. MacIntosh, Sussex; sold through Sotheby's, London, on 18 March 1964 (Lot 134), for £320; from which sale purchased by M. Newman Ltd., London; sold through Christie's, London, on 13 October 1967 (Lot 145), for 320gns; collection of Christopher Wood; by whose executors sold through Christie's, London, on 28 February 2007; from which sale purchased by the Government Art Collection
    GAC number