Ramsgate Sands

Ramsgate Sands, 1905
William Powell Frith (1819–1909)
Oil on Canvas
BORGM 00850
Image © Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum

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Ramsgate Sands or Life at the Sea Side

Life at the Seaside also known as Ramsgate Sands, 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.

Frith’s panorama is of a cross-section of people of mixed social groups and ages in a random crowd. 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 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.’ The great mix of humanity, about 70 characters with some animals, is painted with candid humour taken from the sea looking towards the beach.

Frith returned to Ramsgate many times to make painstaking pencil sketches and then mapping 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. The original was bought by Queen Victoria who had holidayed in Ramsgate. However, 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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