Ramsgate Sands

Ramsgate Sands or Life at the Seaside, 1905 after his 1854 painting in the Royal Collection
William Powell Frith (1819-1909)
Oil on canvas
Image © Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum

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Ramsgate Sands or Life at the Sea Side

Life at the Seaside was Frith’s first major scene of the modern Victorian world. A ground-breaking painting, it was voted picture of the year at the Royal Academy in 1854. The 1840s saw a rise of the seaside as a place of leisure. The development of the railways transformed quiet seaside towns such as Ramsgate on the Kentish coast into crowded resorts as Londoners enjoyed day trips to the sea.

In 1851 Frith was on holiday in Ramsgate. Whilst there, instead of painting his usual historical costume paintings, he decided to paint modern life. ‘My summer holiday of 1851’, wrote Frith, ‘was spent at Ramsgate. Weary of costume painting, I had determined to try my hand on modern life, with all its drawbacks of unpicturesque dress. The variety of character on Ramsgate Sands attracted me – all sorts and conditions of men and women were there.’ In Frith’s picture children building sandcastles and fashionably dressed young ladies appear alongside street entertainers, a troupe of ‘blackface’ minstrels and tradesmen, all rendered in exceptional detail. The inclusion of a group of minstrels in ‘blackface’ illustrates how common this form of entertainment was in the Victorian period. There are reports of troupes performing along the south coast in the late 1840s. However, these performances reinforced negative racial stereotypes of Black people and are considered highly derogatory and racist.

Frith returned to Ramsgate many times to make painstaking pencil sketches and then mapped out the composition in his London studio. Once all the figures were in place, he filled in the background of the buildings, cliffs and bathing machines. 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. The painting was intended to be ‘read’, the viewer’s eye being drawn across the painting to the various different interlocking episodes and characters.

When she saw the painting at the Royal Academy exhibition, Queen Victoria expressed an interest in buying it, but it had already been sold to the dealers Messrs Lloyd for £1000. However, the purchasers agreed to sell the picture on for the original price, upon the condition that they be allowed to borrow it for engraving and retain rights to the profits from the resulting print – a highly lucrative business decision.

The popularity of the painting caused Frith to produce a number of copies. Merton bought this smaller one in 1905 painted 51 years after the original.

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