William Powell Frith

British, b.1819, d.1909

Girl with a Mask

  • 1846
  • Oil on wood panel
  • Purchased with assistance from the Olive Stirrat Bequest, 1984
  • 540 x 473 x 85mm
  • 84/31

Although apparently portraying a refined Venetian lady – a young woman with carnival mask, black veil and shawl – this work was painted not in Italy, but England. Yorkshire-born William Frith, who became extremely well-known for his large, densely populated panoramas of contemporary English life, also painted small costume studies early in his career, often modelled on literary figures. Frith’s model in this work, painted in 1846, strongly resembles his wife Isabelle (née Baker), whom he married in York in June 1845; Isabelle sat for him several times. Isabelle Frith became a close friend and confidante of Catherine Dickens, wife of author Charles, who (although a friend of her husband’s) she later banned from entering their London home; this following the 1858 breakup of the Dickens’ marriage. The Frith marriage was also ‘troubled’: Isabelle had 12 children to William from 1846–60; his mistress Mary Alford had six more to him from 1855. (He married Mary in 1881, a year after the death of Isabelle.)

(The Weight of Sunlight, 16 September 2017 - 16 September 2018)

Exhibition History

earlier labels about this work
  • Treasury: A Generous Legacy, 18 December 2015 – 4 December 2016

    Girl with a Mask is an early work by the Yorkshire-born William Frith, who became one of the most popular Victorian artists, best-known for his densely populated scenes of contemporary English life.

    The purchase of this painting was enabled by Olive Stirrat (1900–1982), a Gallery Friends life member whose $90,000 bequest became the largest single gift after Robert McDougall’s presentation of the original gallery itself. Between 1983 and 2008 the endowment supported the purchase of 72 historical works by artists including: Francisco de Goya, Charles Meryon, Odilon Redon, Petrus van der Velden, Margaret Stoddart, Raymond McIntyre, Käthe Kollwitz, Claude Flight, Frances Hodgkins and Rita Angus.

  • Girl with a Mask dates from Frith’s early period when he focused on portraits. The girl’s costume, more Spanish than British, provides a marketable touch of the exotic and, as he often did, Frith has the sitter holding a prop - in this case a mask. Frith trained as an academic artist (he described his training as ‘hard labour’) and was concerned to represent objects with great accuracy and detail. Girl with a Mask shows his particular ability to paint textiles. Frith was born in Yorkshire, England. Initially reluctant, he was encouraged by his parents to follow a career in art and went to Saas’s Academy in London in 1835, then onto the Royal Academy Schools in 1837. Frith became a member of the St John’s Wood Clique. He exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1840, was elected an Associate in 1845 and a member in 1853. His later panoramas of contemporary Victorian life made Frith one of the most popular Victorian painters. (Label date unknown)

    A very popular Victorian painter, William Frith, was the son of an innkeeper at Harrowgate. He was accepted as an Associate member of the Royal Academy in 1844 while still in his early twenties. This is one of his early works when small costume portraits and events or themes from literary references were the major subjects of his work. Frith had established his reputation with scenes from Scott, Dickens, Goldsmith and Sterne which were engraved and widely distributed to a much admiring Victorian audience.

    In Girl With A Mask William Frith displays his fine technical skill as an academic painter. With virtually invisible brushwork and fine modulation of subtle toning he captures this young girl's fresh complexion and her ringlets of brown hair within the frame of a dramatic black Spanish shawl. The delicate treatment of the face is emphasised by the contrast created with the black shawl, and with the more sketchy technique used for the dress and simple hedge and sky background. The beautiful young woman holds a black and white masquerade mask in her right hand which may account for her exotic costume.

    Later in his career William Frith was to specialise in large panoramic scenes from contemporary life. One, 'Ramsgate Sands', which he painted in 1854, was so popular the enthusiastic public crowding to view it at the Royal Acadmey had to be restrained by police and special railings. That painting was purchased by Queen Victoria.

    Girl With A Mask is a fine example of Frith's painting skills, and an excellent illustration of the interest during the Victorian era in small, sentimental portrait studies. (Label date unknown)