Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Happy Birthdays

by Phillip Brown

Or Birthday Greetings as our forebears would say until the song Happy Birthday came in after the turn of the century. The painting is by William Powell Frith and is called Happy Returns of the Day, now in Harrogate. By 1856 when this was painted, birthdays had become a part of the middle and upper class scene, though as can be seen here, children and mothers took a greater part than the males of the household. The table decoration attached to the little girl's chair, and the high tea, itself were here more important than the usually small gifts. These traditions seem to have been taken over from the much more important Christmas traditions.

This is an interesting painting. The child 'Alice' in the painting is Frith's daughter, later Lady Hastings, the father is a portrait of the artist, and the grandmother is a portrait of Mrs Frith Senior, who kept the Dragon Hotel in Harrogate, from 1826 to 1838. The Grandfather who doesn't seem much interested was actually modelled from an old man Frith found in a workhouse.

Frith was a friend of Charles Dickens and one of the most successful painters of his age, painting the enormous The Wedding of the Prince of Wales in 1863, for £3000 for Queen Victoria. Frith had to do 139 portraits to make it and the original is still in Buckingham Palace. His “modern life” paintings which showed panoramas such as Ramsgate Sands or the Railway Station were innovative in that they showed a cross-section of social life in Victorian Britain and included lots of details like little stories. Derby Day was sold by Frith for £1500 (an enormous sum then) and another £1500 to the art dealer Gambert for the copyright (to produce engravings). It toured Britain and Australia and at the Academy had to be protected by railways from the press of the crowd.

But what interests us here is his later morality pictures, The Road to Ruin series.

The five scenes in The Road to Ruin dramatise the evils of gambling by tracing the descent into bankruptcy and suicide of a single character. In them, Frith brings the visual arts closer to the novel than any artist since Hogarth.

The series begins at dawn in rooms at Cambridge, where a fresh-faced and wealthy young man has fallen in with "bloods" - a fast, hunting, gambling, and drinking set to whom he has clearly lost money in an all-night card game.

Time passes, and we next see him in the royal enclosure at Ascot surrounded by touts and creditors. In this scene, we first glimpse an important secondary character in the series, his young wife, who notices what is happening, but does not yet understand how reckless he has been. We viewers can guess what may lie ahead because the railings that keep hoi polloi in the crowd from the toffs in the enclosure look to us like prison bars.

Then the scene shifts to the panelled drawing room of our protagonist's richly appointed ancestral home. To his wife's and servants' astonishment, bailiffs have arrived to arrest our upper-class rake for debt.

Still wearing a silk dressing gown over his suit and with a society newspaper at his feet, he arrogantly dismisses these common little men. But the look of pity the scruffy assistant bailiff casts at the gambler's wife and two small children suggests that the case is grave: everything has been lost. The house and its contents must be sold. Notice the toy race horses on the floor: already the father has begun to corrupt his son with a love for the turf.

Then we see the ruined family again, now living in furnished rooms in a French boarding house (no English gentleman would never have chosen to display a crucifix and statues of the virgin and saints).

The anti-hero, who has never worked a day in his life, is trying to write a play, while his loyal wife supports the family by painting watercolours. A newborn baby lies in a cradle in the corner.

But the exasperated landlady has called to say that unless they pay their bill they will be evicted. Now, too, we begin to see the effect of reckless gambling on the innocent children.

The little boy, who gently comforted his mother in the scene with the bailiffs, tenderly lays his hand on his despairing father. Ominously, the daughter tries to warm herself by the dwindling fire. She is ill, and needs medical help.

In the last scene, it is again dawn, and our hero finds himself penniless in a pitiful garret. The cradle is empty and the family have gone. Scraps of paper on the floor tell us that the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane has rejected his play, while the wretched furnishings indicate the depth of his impoverishment. Desperate, he locks the door; a gun lies on the table. We know what will happen next.

Ironically even as he had the birthday party, Frith was probably thinking of Mary Alford, a young ward (who was also a nurse maid to the family) who became the artist's secret mistress. He had seven children illegitimately with Mary, while maintaining his official family, including 12 children, a mile up the road in Bayswater. Mary's first child was born on the day Many Happy Returns of the Day was exhibited at the Royal Academy. He did marry her after his first wife died.

The origins of "Happy Birthday To You" date back to the mid-nineteenth century, when two sisters, Patty and Mildred J. Hill, introduced the song "Good Morning to All" to Patty's kindergarten class in Kentucky. In 1893, they published the tune in their songbook Song Stories for the Kindergarten. However, many believe that the Hill sisters most likely copied the tune and lyrical idea from other popular and substantially similar nineteenth-century songs that predated theirs, including Horace Waters' "Happy Greetings to All", "Good Night to You All" also from 1858, "A Happy New Year to All" from 1875, and "A Happy Greeting to All", published 1885.

The Hill Sisters' students enjoyed their teachers' version of "Good Morning To All" so much that they began spontaneously singing it at birthday parties, changing the lyrics to "Happy Birthday".

It's not well known that the song, surely one of the most popular in the world is still in copyright. In 2008, Warner collected about $5000 per day ($2 million per year) in royalties for the song. This includes use in film, television, radio, anywhere open to the public. For this reason, most restaurants or other public party venues will not allow their employees to perform the song in public, instead opting for other original songs or cheers in honour of the person.

The original cakes at birthdays were just a plain fruitcake, but gradually the type of cake changed (in the mid 19th century, baking soda and powder revolutionised cake baking) and it became decorated until today's icing, candles and small decorations became normal. Candles are interesting as the tradition started with the Greeks who lit candles on cakes to make them look like the Moon as an offering to Artemis.

By the 1860's, advances in printing had made the birthday card cheaper and the penny post popularised its use. Artists such as Kate Greenaway and Walter Crane designed greeting cards.

Elaborate children's birthdays started in Germany as “kinderfeste”, with games and entertainment. I have no evidence for this but as with Christmas traditions imported from Germany, it is interesting to speculate that Prince Albert and his circle may have introduced them.


  1. Fab post! Particularly enjoyed reading about William Powell Frith and his Road to Ruin series. Fascinating. Reminds me of the 1730s series of paintings by William Hogarth A Rake's Progress. Thanks for sharing!

  2. One of my all time favorite paintings is Derby Day (spent years hunting down a poster of it) Interesting to know all the rest and the series of drawings.

  3. Elizabeth Gayle FellowsJune 7, 2012 at 5:48 PM

    The road to ruin is so very fascinating. I am indeed sure it happened to enough to be documented in art in that way. What a wonderful series of paintings. It is simply amazing how a families life can be changed for the better or for the worse in one generation.


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