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Oil painting - An English Merry-Making, a Hundred Years Ago
  • An English Merry-Making, a Hundred Years Ago
    Frith, William Powell, born 1819 - died 1909
  • Enlarge image

An English Merry-Making, a Hundred Years Ago

  • Object:

    Oil painting

  • Place of origin:

    Great Britain, uk (painted)

  • Date:

    ca. 1846 (painted)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Frith, William Powell, born 1819 - died 1909 (painter (artist))

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Oil on canvas

  • Credit Line:

    Bequeathed by John Jones

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

Physical description

An oil painting showing a village celebration taking place in the shade of a large oak tree; people in eighteenth-century costume dance or stand chatting in groups and observing the dancers.

Place of Origin

Great Britain, uk (painted)


ca. 1846 (painted)


Frith, William Powell, born 1819 - died 1909 (painter (artist))

Materials and Techniques

Oil on canvas


Height: 24.1 cm estimate, Width: 40.6 cm estimate, Height: 45 cm, Width: 61 cm

Object history note

Bequeathed by John Jones, 1882

Descriptive line

Oil Painting, 'An English Merry-Making, a Hundred Years Ago', William Powell Frith RA, ca. 1846

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Parkinson, R., Victoria and Albert Museum, Catalogue of British Oil Paintings 1820-1860, London: HMSO, 1990, p. 99
The following is the full text of the entry:
"FRITH, William Powell, RA (1819-1909)

Born Aldfield, near Ripon, Yorkshire, 9 January 1819, son of a butler (an amateur artist) and a cook. Studied at Sass's Academy from 1835; entered RA Schools. In a long, prolific, and highly successful career, exhibited 107 works at the RA between 1840 and 1906, 13 at the BI 1838-1857, and 12 at the Society of British Artists 1838-1883. Subjects predominantly literary, historical, and - most notably - scenes of contemporary life, with which he achieved his greatest popular fame, amplified by many engraved reproductions, beginning with Ramsgate Sands (exh RA 1854 and bought by Queen Victoria). In 1875 his Dinner at Boswell's ... of 1869 sold at Christie's for £4567, the highest price ever achieved by a living artist. Member of 'The Clique' in the 1840s; elected ARA 1845, RA 1852. Died Sr John's Wood, London, 2 November 1909; there had been a studio sale at Christie's 14 June 1884. The Art Journal obituarist wrote: 'the artist will be missed: he was an institution'.

LIT: Art Journal 1856, pp237-40 (for other references to Frith in the Art Union and Art Journal, see the entry in C Wood Dictionary of Victorian Painters 1971); W P Frith My Autobiography and Reminiscences 3 vols 1887-8; Times 4 November 1909 (obit); Art Journal191O, p14 (obit); Mrs J Panton Leaves from a Life 1909, More Leaves from a Life 1911; W P Frith Whitechapel Art Gallery exhibition catalogue 1951; N Wallis A Victorian Canvas 1957; J Mass Gambart: Prince of the Victorian art world 1975; A Noakes William Frith: Extraordinary Victorian Painter 1978.

An English Merry-Making, a Hundred Years Ago
510-1882 Neg H306
Canvas, 24.1 x 40.6 cm (9½ x 16 ins)
Jones Bequest 1882

Presumably a preliminary sketch for the large (113 x 185.4 cm/44½ x 73 ins) picture begun in 1846, exhibited at the RA in 1847, and now in the Proby collection at Elton Hall near Peterborough. In the RA catalogue, the title was followed by a quotation from Milton's 1632 poem L'Allegro:
When merry bells ring round,
And the jocund rebecks sound,
To many a youth, and many a maid,
Dancing in the checquered shade;
And young and old come forth to play
On a sunshine holiday.

Frith seems to have paid especial attention to this painting in order to justify his election to ARA in 1845 (see 538-1882, pl05).

Frith describes his work on the RA picture in his Autobiography:

I put no trust in fancy for the smallest detail of the picture. The oak-tree is a portrait of a patriarch of Windsor Forest, whom I recognised the other day unchanged in the slightest degree; could the tree have seen me, I am sure he would not have known me again. . . The cottages are studies from nature, and every figure in the picture is more or less a portrait of the model who sat for it. The old woman sitting at the tea-table by the cottage-door was a Mrs King, who followed the respectable calling of a washerwoman ... I used my wife's sisters and some friends rather remorselessly, but, I think, with good effect.

However, he continues: 'The bits of distance and the grass and sky bothered me terribly. Creswick, who had become my intimate friend - and who was good-nature personified - offered to mend the distance for me, and the result of his doing so was very satisfactory'. Frith also records that the painting was 'hung in one of the angles of the middle room at Trafalgar Square, and was very successful. Previous to its going to the Exhibition, it was sold to a picture-dealer for three hundred and fifty pounds; since then it has changed hands many times, and is now an heirloom in a large collection in the north' (presumably the Bolckow collection - see Versions: below).

The painting was indeed successful. Frith records that J M W Turner admired it. The Art Union critic thought 'We have never seen anything in genuineness of feeling so especially realize the descriptions given by our poets of an English holiday of this period ... not only the best which this artist has painted, but worthy of being cited among valuable examples of the English school'. The Athenaeum agreed: 'One of the most complete and successful pictures of the season ... the colour is rich and brilliant ... there is a great improvement in the mode of painting over Mr Frith's previous works'.

As was his habit with successful compositions, Frith made other versions at various times (see Versions: below).

ENGR: (RA picture) William Holl Jr 1852

LIT: (RA picture) Athenaeum 29 May 1847, p576; Art Union 1847, p191; Autobiography I, pp 122-7; T Borenius and J Hodgson Catalogue of the Pictures at Elton Hall 1925, repr facing p104

Versions: 1 Exh RA 1847 (251), sold to a dealer; owned by John Nagler in 1852, according to lettering on Holl's print; exh Art-Treasures Exhibition Manchester 1857 (320, lent by John Naylor): exh International Exhibition 1862 (662, lent by J Graham); exh Royal Jubilee Exhibition Manchester 1887 (334, lent by Mrs Bolckow): Christie's (partly W W F Bolckow collection) 18 June 1892 (159) 110.5 x 183 cm, (43½ x 72 ins) bought Lord £451 10s; Proby collection, Elton Hall, nr Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, 113 x 185.4 cm (44½ x 73 ins), signed and dated 'W P Frith 1847'

2 Canvas, 52 x 85.1 cm (20½ x 33½ ins), signed and dated 1887, in collection of artist's great-grandson in 1951

3 Canvas, 52 x 87.5 cm (20½ x 33¾ ins), signed, said to have been painted in 1889, exh Whitechapel Art Gallery 1951 (13, lent by Josiah Rhodes)

4 Christie's 7 December 1962 (20), 52 x 85.1 cm (20½ x 33½ ins), signed, property of Miss Kathleen M Kay, repr in catalogue

5 Waiter Frith (in 'A Talk with my Father', Cornhill Magazine 119, May 1906, p597) describes him at the time of writing as having just finished another version

6 Sold Gemmell, Tuckett and Co, Melbourne, Australia 23 May 1902; private collection, Australia, 86.4 x 141 cm (34 x 55 ? ins), not inscribed"

Production Note

Presumably a preliminary sketch for the large picture exhibited at the RA in 1847. Six other versions are known.


Canvas; Oil paint


Oil painting

Subjects depicted

England; Villages; Celebrations



Collection code


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