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William Powell Frith




William Powell Frith’s ‘Curiosity’ is a narrative scene, concentrating on female behaviour, a favourite Victorian subject. Three women form a central group inside a room that is being used as a Post Office. (There were few purpose-built post office buildings at this time.) The middle figure is trying to read what is contained in a letter, a sheet of paper folded and sealed on the outside as was customary at the time, while her companions gaze inquiringly at her. Two closed mail bags lie on the floor, beside a table, and another opened bag is on the table top, with letters spilling out from within. Behind the table is a window, looking out onto a town scene. A young woman, hands clasped together, and a child can be seen standing close to the window. The woman is looking sideways through the window at a letter open on the windowsill, or at the letters on the table top, while the child regards her seriously. All the characters are trying to discover something that is sealed or hidden from them. While ‘Curiosity’ could be a scene painted straight from one of Dickens’ novels, the painting could well have been sourced from Frith’s private life. Frith lived a double life, married to Isabella Baker with whom he had twelve children, whilst a mile away he maintained his younger mistress Mary Alford and seven more children. Rumour has it that Frith was caught out by his wife Isabella when she met him posting a letter at the end of the London street shared by both his households, after telling her he would be in Brighton. ‘Curiosity’ would have been painted around the same time. Following Isabella’s death in 1880, Frith married Mary the following year. Frith was famous for using his relatives and close friends as models in his paintings. Images of Mary Alford discovered in 2007 have enabled art historians to identify her in several of Frith’s paintings. The young woman in ‘Curiosity’ bears a remarkable resemblance to Mary Alford.


Burdekin Bequest, Tamworth Regional Gallery.


Provenance: Bequest of Mr Norman Weekes Burdekin and Mrs Margaretta Emilie Burdekin. Signed and dated: L.L.C. - W.P. Frith 1867.

Associated Subjects