The son of a prosperous innkeeper, Frith had to be persuaded by his ambitious father to pursue a career as a painter. He enrolled into the Sass Academy in 1835 (other alumni include Millais and Rossetti) and then studied at the Royal Academy Schools. In 1845 he was appointed RA of the Royal Academy and was elected a full member in 1852. He also showed at the Royal Society of Artists, Suffolk Street and the British Institution.
Frith was a member of a circle of artist known as ‘The Clique’. Founded by Richard Dadd, their work was characterized by a rejection of academic high art in favour of genre painting. They claimed that art should be judged by the public, and not constrained to conform to academic ideals. The group broke up when Richard Dadd was committed to Bedlam for the murder of his father in a fit of insanity.
Frith enjoyed huge public success. On six separate occasions railing had to be erected in front of his pictures at the Royal Academy, to restrain the eager crowds. His early paintings reflect his interest in literature, with scenes from Shakespeare, Scott and Stearne. His work then became more modern in its subject matter, with Frith painting richly detailed scenes of Victorian life.
His first major success in this genre was Ramsgate Sands (1854) which was acclaimed as an excellent panorama of Victorian life. It was purchased by Queen Victoria. Other panoramas included Derby Day (1858), The Railway Station (1862), The Salon d’Or, Homberg (1871) and A Private View of the Royal Academy (1883). Following this last work Frith’s output began to decline, and he concentrated on writing his reminiscences. He died in 1909, having lived through the age of Victoria. He evocatively documented contemporary life to the delight of her subjects.
William Powell Frith is represented in the following collections: The Royal Collection, London; National Portrait Gallery, London; Tate Gallery, London; Royal Academy of Arts, London; Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; Christchurch Art Gallery, New Zealand; Courtauld Institute of Art, London; Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; Dahesh Museum, New York; Oklahoma City Museum of Art, Oklahoma; York Art Gallery, UK; National Portrait Gallery, London; amongst others.