Rare portraits of family servant by the great Victorian painter William Powell Frith acquired by Mercer Art Gallery

28 March 2017

The Mercer Art Gallery in Harrogate, home to outstanding paintings of Victorian life by local artist William Powell Frith (1819 –1909), has added two more portraits by the artist to its collection.

Both paintings depict a maidservant who belonged to Frith’s household and who also took on the role of artist’s model, appearing in a number of his paintings.

The two pictures are ‘Sherry Sir?,’ one of Frith’s best known works, which sherry company Williams and Humbert used on their bottle labels for many years and registered as their trademark, and ‘Did you ring Sir?’


Sherry Sir - William Powell Frith
Sherry Sir – William Powell Frith

Frith recorded that these pictures were painted from ‘a good-looking girl who was in my service as housemaid.’ It’s thought she may have been Matilda Pudfield, recorded as Frith’s housemaid in the 1851 census. Both works are of special significance to the Mercer Art Gallery collection because of their relationship to a subject in Frith’s major 1856 work ‘Many Happy Returns of the Day’, which belongs to the Harrogate Fine Art collection. The maidservant appears on the left of the family group, her arms full of presents for Alice the birthday girl.

William Powell Frith was born at Aldfield in the Harrogate district in 1819, and spent his early years in the town. Frith was a household name and one of the great chroniclers of the Victorian age, the painter of ‘modern life’ panoramas ‘Life at the Seaside, The Derby Daylvmk, The Railway Station and The Private View, 1881 that remain icons of their age.

The two portraits were acquired with the support of the Art Fund, the Friends of the Mercer Art Gallery and the Arts Council/ Victoria and Albert Purchase Grant Fund.


Did you ring sir - William Powell Frith
Did you ring sir – William Powell Frith

Jane Sellars is Harrogate Borough Council’s Curator of Cultural Services.  She said: Frith is our most famous artist, and in recent years it has been our policy to expand the Harrogate collection of Frith’s paintings.

Now we have the best collection of works by Frith in the UK. Many of these, including the two little portraits of Matilda the maid, are currently on display at the Mercer. We are hard at work now planning a big Frith show for 2019, which will be his bicentenary.



Stephen Deuchar, Director of the Art Fund said: We were glad to support Mercer Art Gallery in securing these two works by WP Frith, Harrogate district’s most celebrated painter.


Judith Thomas, Chair of the Friends of the Mercer Art Gallery, said: As soon as we heard that these two fascinating portraits were coming up for auction, we were determined that the Friends would do their utmost to help to obtain the paintings for the Gallery. We believe it is important for Harrogate to extend and enhance our collection of W P Frith paintings but it is only through the loyal and generous support of each individual Friend that we are able to generate the funds for such a purchase.


The paintings are on display at the Mercer Art Gallery on Swan Road in Harrogate until 4 June 2017.  For more information about exhibitions and events at the Mercer, go to www.harrogate.gov.uk/mercerartgallery or telephone 01423 556188.

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