He exhibited drawings at the Norwich Art Union from 1839 and won Royal Society of Arts medals in 1846 and 1847. By 1851, the year he first exhibited at the Royal Academy, he had moved to London. He married Georgina Creed, the daughter of a Norwich artist, in 1853. He changed the spelling of his name from Sands to Sandys in about 1855. A precocious draughtsman, he worked mainly as an illustrator and portraitist, but in the late 1850s and early 1860s he also painted in oils (see Oriana, 1861, Tate Gallery T03904).
Sandys first became acquainted with the Pre-Raphaelites in 1857, while working on his engraving A Nightmare, a parody of Millais's Sir Isumbras at the Ford. He called on Rossetti in order to get an accurate likeness for the engraving, and they became friends. He was thereafter much admired but remained on the fringes of the group. His first independent illustration appeared in the Cornhill Magazine in 1860. He visited Holland and Belgium in 1862. For most of 1866 he stayed with Rossetti at 16 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, and went on a walking tour with him in October that year, but they afterwards fell out. He began living with Mary Jones (the actress Mary Clive) in the late 1860s; she bore him nine children. Among his later works was a series of chalk portraits of writers commissioned in 1880 by Alexander Macmillan.
He showed regularly at the Royal Academy from 1851 to 1886, and at the Grosvenor Gallery, London from 1877. He became a founder member of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers in 1898. He died in London.
Frederick Sandys 1829-1904, exhibition catalogue, Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, Brighton 1974
Leslie Parris (ed.), The Pre-Raphaelites, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1984, reprinted 1994, pp.36, 176-7, 194, 301