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The Art of Monarchy

A collaboration with BBC Radio 4 to mark Her Majesty The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee

William Powell Frith (1819-1909)

Ramsgate Sands (Life at the Seaside) 1851-54

RCIN 405068

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Ramsgate, a seaside resort on the Kentish coast, became accessible for day trips from London in the 1840s as a result of the development of the railways. In Frith’s picture children building sandcastles and fashionably dressed young ladies appear alongside street entertainers and tradesmen, all rendered in exceptional detail. Having earlier painted ‘costume pieces’ illustrating scenes from history or literature, Frith was one of the first artists to paint such scenes of modern life – a shift which anticipates the work of the Impressionists during the 1870s and 1880s.

Frith spent the summer of 1851 at Ramsgate and it was then that he conceived of the idea for the painting, making preparatory sketches. An oil sketch (Dunedin, Public Art Gallery) is very close in composition to the final picture, the main changes being to the group of figures in the right-hand corner. In the final work the artist introduced a self-portrait into this group – his face is just visible behind the elderly lady who bends down to comfort a frightened child. In fact the artist’s viewpoint must have been from the shallows of the water. The young child being tempted into the water by her mother, left of centre, is one of the most captivating characters. She was said to be the artist’s daughter, and the object of her gaze was therefore her father.

‘Ramsgate Sands’ proved a great success with the public. Its reception at the Royal Academy in 1854 was so enthusiastic that a guard-rail was installed to protect it from the crowds keen to examine the details at close hand. Like the popular novels of Dickens the painting was intended to be ‘read’, the viewer’s eye being drawn across the painting to the various different interlocking episodes and characters. The picture was also well received by the critics, who praised the artist for depicting the world around him and for the variety of the characters. The ‘Art Journal’ rightly predicted that ‘Ramsgate Sands’ would become valuable ‘as a memento of the habits and manners of the English “at the seaside” in the middle of the nineteenth century’.

Upon seeing the painting at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1854 Queen Victoria expressed an interest in buying it. Queen Victoria had visited Ramsgate several times with her mother between 1825 and 1836 and had stayed in Albion House, visible in Frith’s composition as the highest building overlooking the beach. Her memories of the seaside town and knowledge of the area no doubt awoke her interest in a painting which depicted familiar landmarks with great accuracy.