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Frith, William Powell (British, b.1819, d.1909)
Sketch for Ramsgate Sands or Life at the seaside
oil on wood
212 x 445 mm sight size
Collection of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. Purchased 1946 with funds from the Dunedin Public Art Gallery Society through the National Art Collections Fund, London.
William Powell Frith took his summer holiday of 1851 at the Kent seaside resort of Ramsgate: ‘Weary of costume painting, I had determined to try my hand on modern life… the variety on Ramsgate Sands attracted me – all sorts and conditions of men and women were to be found there’. He rapidly realised the exciting possibilities of depicting ‘the infinite variety of everyday life’. Until then, artistic success and prestige were based on established genres of portraiture, landscapes or episodes from literature. Scottish crofters and their dogs were acceptable subjects but Cockneys on holiday were not. Ramsgate Sands changed all that; when the final painting was exhibited at the 1854 Royal Academy, it created a sensation and was bought by Queen Victoria.
The Dunedin sketch captures the essence of this larger painting. It is a Dickensian novel in paint, with numerous skilfully interwoven subplots. The man with his telescope spies on bathing beauties; the little girl nervously dips her toes in the water, encouraged by her attendants; the respectable middle-class family shows Papa absorbed in his newspaper while his pretty, eligible daughters watch the entertainer and his performing mice. To the right, we see a dapper, lounging, fashionable man-about-town and three swaggering toffs. In the background, black-faced minstrels perform, while a grumpy couple refuse a donkey ride. Ramsgate’s architecture provides an elegant, Regency-era backcloth.
In a brilliant mirror of the age, Frith proves that social classes could mix and share a good time at the seaside, and this before the invention of deckchairs, summer fashions and sunbathing. His famous modern-life paintings, Derby Day (1858) and The Railway Station (1862), would capitalise on the success of Ramsgate Sands.

not on view

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