William Edward Frost, RA (1810-1877) William Edward Frost was one of the most popular Victorian painters of the nude, appreciated for a purity of approach and elegance of execution. His subjects ranged from generalised recreations of the ancient world to representations of specific episodes from classic English poetry.
William Edward Frost was born in Wandsworth, then in Surrey, in September 1810. He showed artistic talent from an early age, and was encouraged in this by his father: first by his arranging drawing lessons with a Miss Evatt, a neighbouring amateur, and then, in 1825, by his introducing him to William Etty, who became his mentor. On Etty’s recommendation, he entered Henry Sass’s School for Drawing and Painting at 6 Charlotte Street, in 1826, and spent three years there, while also studying at the British Museum each winter. He was then accepted into the Royal Academy Schools and gained first medals in every class except the Antique, in which Daniel Maclise was a competitor.
Specialising in portraiture from about 1830, Frost painted more than 300 portraits during a 15-year period, and showed some as his first exhibits from 1836.
However, a series of successes with mythological and allegorical subjects, often inspired by Spenser and Milton, led him to change his focus. In December 1839, he received the Academy’s Gold Medal for Prometheus Bound by Force and Strength (exhibited at the RA in 1840). Four years later, he won a third-prize premium for Una Alarmed by the Fauns and Satyrs (V&A), his entry for the competition to decorate the New Palace of Westminster, while his academy exhibition picture, Christ Crowned with Thorns, was selected by a prize-holder of the Art Union Society. This early development of his reputation culminated in his election as an Associate of the Royal Academy of Arts in November 1846.
Frost attracted a ready patronage among middle-class industrialists and aristocrats and, indeed, from Queen Victoria, who paid £420 for Una Among the Fairies and Wood Nymphs (1847), and subsequently commissioned two more pictures. However, his work was popular with all levels of society, as a result of the wide circulation of engravings of his paintings made by Peter Lightfoot, among others.
Frost shared several of his patrons with Etty, and his work was inevitably compared to that of his mentor. However, some contemporary critics did distinguish between the two, William Sandby writing that Frost differed materially from Etty, ‘in the chastely correct and highly-finished manner in which he depicts the undraped nymphs in his pictures’ (The History of the Royal Academy of Arts, London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts & Green, 1862, vol 2, page 221).
As Frost was intimately familiar with Etty’s methods and ideas, he became a principal source for the older artist’s biography. He was also knowledgeable about the work of Thomas Stothard, collecting a large number of engravings of the artist’s work. In addition, he collaborated with Henry Reeve on a catalogue of the art collection of Hugh Munro of Novar, which was privately printed in 1865.
After a gap that surprised and irritated him, Frost was elected a full academician in 1870. Yet, at the time of the exhibition of his diploma work, Nymphs and Cupid, two years later, he voluntarily retired from the RA. He had also exhibited regularly at the British Institution.
Never marrying, Frost lived with Elizabeth, his unmarried sister, latterly at 40 Fitzroy Square. On his death on 4 June 1877, she became his sole executor. Almost a year later, on 14 March 1878, Christie’s held a sale of the remains of Frost’s studio, including a hundred of his works, as well as his copies after old masters.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including The British Museum; and the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford) and The Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge).
Further reading Robyn Asleson, ‘Frost, William Edward (1810-1877)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 21, pages 70-71; Philip McEvansoneya, ‘Frost, William Edward (b London, Sept 1810; d London, 4 June 1877)’, Jane Turner (ed), The Dictionary of Art, London: Macmillan, 1996, vol 11, pages 804-805