painter and professional photographer, son of John Frith and Letitia née Gardiner, was presumably related to the celebrated British silhouette artist and photographer of the same name. In 1855 he stated that he had 'practised his profession in London, Brighton, Scotland, and Ireland’ before coming to Victoria. His exact date of arrival is unknown, but he advertised as a portrait painter from London in the Melbourne Argus on 12 April 1853, inviting visitors to his studio in Neave’s Buildings at the corner Collins and Swanston streets 'daily from 10 till 5’.
By 20 August 1853, when the Victorian Fine Arts Society’s exhibition opened in Melbourne, Frith was both a committee member and an exhibitor. He showed a number of portraits (including a self-portrait) and a large oil painting, Death of a Stag (presumably a copy of Landseer’s famous picture). A subsequent painting of the circus-owner Joseph Rowe’s famous horse Adonis was, according to the Armchair critic, done in partnership with James Anderson ; Frith probably painted the horse and Anderson the background. The critic noted that Frith’s painting had a natural freedom that compensated for its lack of finish. Included in the following year’s Melbourne Exhibition were four watercolour portraits by Frith and two oil paintings: Lady with her Favourite Horse and the previous year’s Death of a Stag .
Frith then moved to Hobart Town, where he advertised as a 'portrait and animal painter’. He charged 3 guineas and upwards for a watercolour and 15 to 50 guineas for an oil portrait (horses began at 10 guineas). A large watercolour portrait of an unknown man, signed and dated 'Hobarton 1854’, was formerly in the Clifford Craig Collection. After a brief trip to wind up his Melbourne business, he set up photographic rooms in Hobart Town, briefly in partnership with Duryea and MacDonald then with John Mathieson Sharp from July 1855. Sharp took the photographs and Frith coloured them. They signed and dated portraits such as those of William Robertson (1855) and J.H. Wedge (c.1856, Crowther Library), as well as views and panoramas (e.g. Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery).
In 1855 Frith brought a civil suit against a Hobart Town merchant, Samuel Moses, who refused to pay for several portraits Frith had painted of him and his family. Moses claimed he had been overcharged and, in any case, thought the likenesses poor. Newspaper accounts of the court case (which give a unique insight into contemporary commissioning procedures) suggest that Frith’s work was not always first-rate. Both Conway Hart and Alfred Bock testified that his drawing, colour and composition were defective and not of the standard expected of a trained artist. Nevertheless, Frith won the case and was awarded payment with damages.
The partnership with Sharp was dissolved in mid 1856 and Frith continued on his own. His small 1858 calotype (paper photograph overpainted with watercolour) of Edward Swarbreck Hall, house surgeon of the Hobart Town Hospital (Mitchell Library), is apparently an example of a Frith 'chromatype’, a process he claimed to have invented in 1856. Known examples suggest that these were usually thin matt paper prints subtly overpainted in oil or watercolour (often quite deceptively so), although in 1861 he was advertising that he could produce them on plates (china), ivory, paper or leather. With newly imported Voigtlander & Son apparatus, he also produced views such as a large panorama taken from the top of St David’s Church tower in Hobart. In March 1859 he was selling an album of photographs, Tasmania Illustrated , available both bound and unbound. Chris Long states that this was the first such album commercially produced in Tasmania. No complete album is known, but examples from the set of twelve plates are in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and the Allport Library.
Frederick Frith was joined by his brother Henry in 1857 and the firm became Frith Brothers. Frederick married Emma Golding in Holy Trinity Church, Hobart Town on 11 October 1858. Two months later the brothers opened a second studio at Launceston operated mainly by Henry. Fred continued the Hobart Town studio as well as advertising his abilities as a painter, but the firm’s painted photographs seem to have been far more popular with the public. This was hardly surprising given Frith’s painting prices, although his coloured photographs were also expensive; there were at least two further court cases over costs. He showed his Death of a Stag again in the 1858 Hobart Town Art-Treasures Exhibition, together with a number of 'miniature portraits’ and photographs. The latter included Macquarie Street, Hobarton , View of Hobart and a 'chromatype portrait of Mr A.J. Marriott esq.’. In 1860 he painted a medium-sized oil, The Cattle of Mr William Field (Ballarat Fine Art Gallery) – obviously not from a photograph. Naive in style and content, it has an attached strip of canvas on the base inscribed with the names of all the animals. A view of Field’s house, Enfield, Tasmania, is in the background.
On 16 October 1862 the Cornwall Chronicle announced that Frederick Frith was moving back to Victoria. He lived at Emerald Hill (now South Melbourne) and worked in the city, advertising himself variously as 'Professor of Painting’, 'chromatype artist’ and 'photographer and painter’. For some months after his return he worked with Charles Wilson , the inventor of the popular and controversial sennotype process that gave a polished ivory finish to photographs. By 1863 he was again in formal partnership with Henry trading as Frith Brothers. While Fred remained in Melbourne, Henry kept up the Tasmanian side of the business. There, in 1864, his old enemy Alfred Bock, who had purchased the secret of the sennotype from Wilson, challenged Frith Brothers’ claim to be producing genuine sennotypes and published a letter from Wilson (who was vainly attempting to maintain his Australian monopoly):
On my arrival in Melbourne in 1862, I hired a certain Mr. Frith, not the one at present in Hobart Town [Henry], but his brother, to take photographs which I afterwards changed into Sennotypes; this Mr. Frith never obtained any of my chemical secrets, and the pictures which he and his brother, now in Hobart Town, palm off on the public are not true Sennotypes, but base imitations.
A genre painting of the 1865 Melbourne Cup by Frederick Frith is now known only through an engraving published in the Illustrated Australian News of 25 November 1867. He also painted an oil portrait of the governor of Victoria, Sir Henry Barkly, exhibited at the 1866 Melbourne Intercolonial Exhibition by the Acclimatisation Society. Sands & McDougall’s Melbourne Directory lists him as a teacher of painting at Collins Street East in 1870 and 1871 – the year he died. Throughout his career he seems always to have been more interested in painting than in photography, yet his most memorable images are delicately overpainted and carefully composed portrait photographs that look like watercolours.