William Powell Frith’s painting ‘The Railway Station’ was one of the best-known images of 19th-century Britain. It represents Paddington Station, filled with incidental details of everyday life. Frith’s original work is now in the collection of Royal Holloway College, part of the University of London. It was first exhibited in 1862 in the London gallery of the dealer Louis Victor Flatow, who paid Frith the outstanding sum of £5,250 for the painting and rights of exhibition and reproduction. The work was shown for seven weeks, during which time it attracted more than 21,000 visitors.
Frith crammed ‘The Railway Station’ with vignettes of everyday life, from school boys preparing to leave London for a new term, to a bridal party bidding goodbye to the newly-wed couple. He has also included portraits of recognisable individuals, including Mr Brett and Mr Haydon, two well-known detectives of the time, shown apprehending a man about to get onto a train. The figure talking to the engine driver in the distance is said to be a portrait of art dealer Flatow. Prints after the picture, engraved by Francis Holl, made the image widely available.
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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