Historic Painting: “Many Happy Returns” by William Powell Frith, 1856.

many happy returns

I want to thank Adrienne Morris, historical fiction author and proprietor of the very interesting “Nothing Gilded, Nothing Gained” blog, for bringing the above picture to my attention. This perfectly charming painting, dating from 1856, is called Many Happy Returns for the Day and was created by British social painter William Powell Firth. It depicts a birthday party in the early Victorian era. Though it’s not 100% clear, my guess is the little girl at center with the wreath surrounding her is the one having the birthday, and this obviously very affluent British family is falling all over themselves to shower her with gifts and presents. The woman at far left appears to be bringing her a doll or toy of some kind, but most of the gifts on the table consist of food, especially bread, though if you look closely there’s a good deal of drinking going on here. A crystal decanter is filled with a ruddy-golden liquid, perhaps sherry, one of the fortified wines for which Britons had a particular taste in the mid-19th century. The gentleman at the end of the table with his mutton-chop sideburns, resembling British actor Paul Bettany, is about to down a glass, but note the little girl at the far right bringing a glass of the stuff to the elderly man, presumably her grandfather, who can’t even be torn away from his newspapers to take part in the party. There’s a fascinating satirical edge to this painting that I like very much.

William Powell Frith was about as British as you could get in the mid-1850s, and he had a unique eye for the visual details of Victorian society. He liked to paint domestic subjects, particularly involving women and children, and as in this picture gave some of his views a whimsical look that could border on social commentary if you squinted hard enough. Frith knew and hung out with Charles Dickens, who did much the same thing in his writing but is much better remembered. Throughout his long life–he died in 1909 at age 90–Frith seemed to be equal parts a participant and a mocker of British society. When he wasn’t occupied in his painting studio he was certainly busy between the sheets, fathering 19 children in his lifetime, split between his long-suffering wife (who bore 12 of his kids) and his mistress (who mothered the remainder). My guess is that if you met William Powell Frith in a gentleman’s club in London in the late 19th century, you’d probably have an awesome time talking to him…whilst drinking sherry, of course.

I love these kinds of pictures! I just love them. Hopefully you will too.

I am not sure where the original of Many Happy Returns is lodged–some art museum in Britain, most likely–but the image file is in the public domain.
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2 Comments

  1. I am not sure what they are drinking, but I’m pretty sure the curly-haired boy to the left of the “dad” is downing a shot, and the other boy to the right of the dad is either raising his cup in a “cheer” or trying to pass it off to someone else. Interesting painting, thanks!

  2. I’m no expert but my interpretation is that the woman at the left is a household servant who’s holding the gifts already given to the child whose birthday it is. The fact that she’s standing rather than sitting at the table suggests she’s part of the household but not part of the family.

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