William Powell Frith (1819-1909)

Derby Day

Image above: Derby Day 1856-8 Tate, London, 2007

William Powell Frith and Jacob Bell were close friends.  They had both attended an art school run by Henry Sass, and Frith went on to pursue a successful career as an artist.

Frith began his career as a portrait painter, using members of his family as models. He first exhibited at the British Institution in 1838, and during the 1840s he established himself with his entertaining historical and literary subjects.

Bell had a passion for horses and, although his Quaker upbringing prevented him from betting, he immediately offered Frith £1,500 to produce a full-scale painting of Derby Day after seeing a preliminary sketch. The dealer, Ernest Gambart, aware of the lucrative subject matter, paid Frith the equivalent amount to secure the painting’s copyright and exhibition rights before the artist had put his brush to the canvas.

The popularity of the painting was assured owing to the involvement of Gambart. The public were so eager to press their faces against the newly painted canvas that Bell applied to the Royal Academy council for a rail when the work was exhibited there on 3 May 1858. In his diary entry for 8 May Bell remarked that he 'Couldn’t help going to see the rail, and there it is sure enough; and loads of people'.

In addition to commissioning the painting from Frith, Bell supplied the artist with attractive models, and in his autobiography Frith remarked that he had found Bell 'very useful to me in procuring models. Few people had a more extensive acquaintance, especially among the female sex…'.