Growing up in a family of artists, Frederick Richard Pickersgill quickly developed the particular skills of draughtsmanship and composition, enabling him to become equally significant as a history painter and literary illustrator during the mid Victorian period. Frederick Richard Pickersgill was born in London on 25 September 1820, the son of the naval officer and amateur marine painter, Richard Pickersgill, and his wife, Anne, the sister of the painter, William Frederic Witherington. His paternal uncle, Henry William Pickersgill, was a portrait painter, and his cousin, Henry Hall Pickersgill, was also a painter.
Pickersgill studied under his uncle, W F Witherington, until 1840, when he entered the Royal Academy Schools. Influenced by William Etty, he painted genre, historical and literary subjects, including scenes from Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, in a manner that often emulated Venetian painting of the sixteenth century. These he exhibited mainly at the Royal Academy (between 1839 and 1875) and the British Institution. His early successes included entries to the competition to decorate the new Houses of Parliament; the cartoon, The Death of King Lear, won a prize of £100 in 1843, while The Burial of Harold won a first-class prize of £500 in 1847, the work being purchased for the Houses of Parliament for an equal amount.
Elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1847, and a Royal Academician a decade later, he acted as Keeper of the RA between 1873 and 1887.
From the early 1840s, Pickersgill also worked as an illustrator, beginning with contributions to The Book of British Ballads, edited by Samuel Carter Hall (1842) and Philip Massinger’s tragedy, The Virgin Martyr (1844). However, he produced illustrations with any regularity only from the mid 1850s. Notable examples appeared in The Poetical Works of Edgar Allan Poe (1858), Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh (1860) and Dalziel’s Bible Gallery (1880). His archaizing style, influenced by Moritz Retzch and other German illustrators, proved particularly appropriate for the religious subjects he was often asked to interpret. Nevertheless, Paul Goldman notes that ‘everything he produced in illustration is marked by care and conviction’ (1996, page 212).
On 5 August 1847, Frederick Richard Pickersgill had married Mary Hook. She was the eldest daughter of James Hook, a judge in the mixed commission courts of Sierra Leone, and sister of the landscape painter, James Clarke Hook. Together, Frederick and Mary would have one son, Richard Tenant Pickersgill (1861-1890). Two years after the death of his wife in 1878, Frederick retired from the Royal Academy, and settled at The Towers, Yarmouth, on the Isle of Wight.
In 1887, Richard married the painter, Rose Fenton, a daughter of the photographer, Roger Fenton, Frederick also having shown an interest in photography. Though they settled at Westcombe Lodge, Hayes, Middlesex, Richard sadly died three years later, in 1890, at the age of 28.
Frederick himself died at The Towers, Yarmouth, on 20 December 1900, having suffered a chronic illness.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the V&A; and Manchester Art Gallery.
Further reading: Paul Goldman, Victorian Illustration: The Pre-Raphaelites, the Idyllic School and the High Victorians, London: Scolar Press, 1996, pages 211-213; Helen Valentine, ‘Pickersgill, Frederick Richard (1820-1900)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, Vol 44, Pages 218-219