Derby Day picture for auction at Bonhams

With Derby Day fast approaching on 1st June, Bonhams offers an insight into a bustling Derby, almost two hundred years ago.

Derby Day by William Powell

Derby Day by William Powell

A full size copy by a 19th century artist of the masterpiece Derby Day by William Powell Frith RA, estimated at £10,000-£15,000 will be offered for sale at the Bonhams 19th Century Paintings sale in New Bond Street on 10th July.

William Powell Frith’s original painting, which now sits in Tate Britain, was first displayed at the Royal Academy in 1858 when the popularity of the painting was so overwhelming that a rail was erected to hold the eager crowds back and a policeman was placed on guard. The Times noted that, ‘no closer nor completer transcript of a scene of English amusement has been painted since Hogarth’.

Derby Day comprises of a series of social commentary sketches. Frith was interested in physiognomy and phrenology, seeing the face as ‘a sure index of character’ and class distinction. Physiognomy, taken from the Greek words, physis meaning ‘nature’ and gnomon meaning ‘judge’, is the assessment of character from a person’s outer appearance. These stereotypes are plain to see in the faces of the ‘low life’ criminals in contrast to those of the landed gentry.

Frith created a number of great panoramas of modern society at a time when every day life was a revolutionary subject for great art. The Railway Station and Life at the Seaside similarly capture what Frith described as ‘the kaleidoscopic aspect of the crowd’. Until now, painting had been dominated by portraiture commissioned by the rich, or, religious painting commissioned by the church. Derby Day was sold even before it had been finished.

The Derby originated as a new race in Epsom in 1779 and was to be named after either the host of the event, the 12th Earl of Derby or his important guest, Sir Charles Bunbury. Local legend states that the decision was made by the toss of a coin. The Derby has been run at Epsom in the first week of June ever since, except during the World Wars.