William Powell Frith painting acquired by Mercer Art Gallery

Published 26 July 2015

The gallery has made a successful bid at a Christie’s auction for Isabelle Frith Reading, an affectionate portrait of the artist's wife, with support from the Art Fund.

William Powell Frith captured Victorian life through his paintings; he has been described as the best genre artist since Hogarth. Born in Aldfield in the Harrogate district, he was encouraged to take up art from a young age and his artistic prowess took him to the Royal Academy of Arts. WP Frith’s works enjoyed great popularity to such an extent that when he exhibited Derby Day, special police protection was needed to handle the huge crowds that arrived to see it at the Royal Academy.

Created in the early days of the artist’s career, Isabelle Frith Reading is a small and intimate portrait of the the artist's 23 year-old bride. It was painted during their honeymoon as they embarked on a life together that was enriched by Frith's professional success, but tainted by his infidelity. Together, William and Isabelle had 12 children. However, nine years after their romantic getaway, Frith started an affair with Mary Alford. Their first child was born in 1855 and she went onto bear him six more children before they married in 1881, 12 months after Isabelle’s death.

The portrait of Isabelle has important links with Mercer Art Gallery’s substantial collection of Frith’s works. For instance, the gallery is home to Many Happy Returns of the Day, which depicts a family celebration for which Isabelle modelled, but it does not fully disclose the artist’s own domestic experience.

Stephen Deuchar, director of the Art Fund said: ‘It is great news that the Mercer Art Gallery was successful at auction. This engaging portrait by WP Frith of his wife will make a fine addition to the gallery’s collection of works by the artist, and also complement their wider 19th-century British holdings.’

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