About the artwork
Copyright of this image is held by: Royal Holloway College, London University
When William Powell Frith’s monumental canvas, The Railway Station went on show, at a gallery in the Haymarket, London, in April 1862, The Times reported that the artist had been paid the astonishing sum of £8,750 for it, while the Athenaeum put the total at 8,000 guineas, or £9,187 10s. Whatever the correct amount, Frith’s earnings from The Railway Station broke all previous records. ‘As a rule, it is only dead men whose works have risen to such figures,’ declared The Times, ‘and even these honoured dead may be counted on the two hands.’ However, only £4,500 of this was paid for the painting itself; the rest secured the far more lucrative copyright and sole exhibition rights.
Four years previously, Frith’s Derby Day had proved so popular when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy, that a policeman was put on duty to protect it and a crush barrier installed to keep the huge crowds at a safe distance. The picture dealer, Louis Victor Flatow, clearly recognised the investment possibilities in the painter’s next picture and went into partnership with him. The Railway Station was the result. Flatow appears as a train enthusiast chatting to the engine driver in the distance towards the right of the composition. The dealer did well out of his investment. 21,150 people paid a shilling to see the picture, many of them ordering prints, and a year later he was able to sell both painting and copyright to a print dealer for more than £16,300. As The Times wryly pointed out: ‘the subject and the price of Mr Frith’s picture alike belong to the time. The one is typical of our age of iron and steam; the other is only possible in a period of bold speculation, enterprising publishers and picture-dealers, a large print-buying and picture-seeing public, and great facilities for bringing that public and their shillings to a focus.’
The picture was a collaboration in more ways than. As he had with Derby Day, Frith employed the services of a photographer. ‘Mr Samuel Fry has recently been engaged in taking a series of negatives’, Photographic News reported, ‘of the interior of the Great Western Station, engines, carriages, etc. for Mr Frith, as aids to the production of his great painting… Such is the value of the photograph in aiding the artist’s work that he wonders now however they did without them!’ Frith based the engine on a photograph by Fry of the ‘Sultan’, a 4-2-2 broad guage locomotive of the ‘Iron Duke’ class. In addition, the architectural draughtsman, William Scott Morton was employed to paint the structural details - pillars, arches, girders - of Paddington Station itself occupying almost the entire upper half of the canvas.
But it was the drama of the lower part of the canvas that people flocked to see. Nearly a hundred separate figures can be counted. On the far left a woman trying to smuggle her lapdog into her carriage pleads with a railway official; a gamekeeper prepares a brace of setters for the baggage coach; a family hurries to the train behind a porter forcing a way through the crowd with their luggage; in the centre a family is packing two boys off to boarding school; next, a wealthy foreigner is being harangued by a cabman over the tip; army recruits embrace loved ones; a wedding party flutters and weeps and say goodbye; finally at the extreme right of the picture, Haydon and Brett, two famous and recognisable Scotland Yard detectives, arrest a fugitive from justice, his foot on the step of the carriage that would take him to freedom, while ‘his wife, haggard with long suffering, looks on in agony…’ In an age without cinema this painting - with its combination of spectacle and the commonplace, sentiment and realism, comedy and tragedy - was the pictorial equivalent of the blockbuster film.