Today I am offering you two paintings by Victorian painter Henry Nelson O’Neil. The reason for the joint display is that the works are connected and the story behind them is intertwined.
O’Neil was born in Russia to English parents in 1817. He returned to England at the age of six and when he was nineteen years of age studied at the Royal Academy Schools.He was a historical painter, that is to say the subject matter in most of O’Neil’s paintings depicted a momentous moment in history. At one time, the genre of history painting was traditionally regarded as the highest form of Western painting and the works would fit into the most esteemed position in the pecking order of painting genres. These historical works were thought of as corresponding to the epic in literature.
In the 1840’s O’Neil was a co-founder of The Clique, which was a group of like-minded young artists, based around the St John’s Wood area of London, who regularly met to peruse each other’s works and offer their own critiques. The coming together of this group was in some ways an act of rebellion against the Royal Academy and in what they saw as its imposition of artistic restrictions. This group wanted to add more realism to their work. They wanted their works to have greater emotional intensity which at the time was frowned upon by the Academy establishment. I had already mentioned this group when I looked at a painting by Richard Dadd (June 29th) another co-founder of The Clique. This group of artists denounced the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their works and O’Neil was the most vociferous in his opposition to their art. As with most things, The Clique eventually broke up but Henry O’Neil still believed in its principles and he continued to embrace highly emotional scenes in his works and this can be seen clearly in my two featured paintings today.
The two works I am featuring today in My Daily Art Display are entitled Eastward Ho and Home Again. The first was painted by O’Neil in 1857 and the latter completed the following year. Eastward Ho focuses on the embarkation of British troops on a ship at Gravesend on their way to India to fight in the First War of Independence, known as the Indian Mutiny. For the British people this was a just war and brought about a fierce feeling of patriotism amongst the people, who were shocked by India’s challenge to British rule and British supremacy on the sub-continent. Sadly as in most conflict the populace are whipped up into a frenzy of righteousness by the media of the day and the young men and now young women on both sides go off to fight with a sense of belief that theirs is a just cause, their God is on their side and anyway it will all be over soon and it will be other people who will be killed, not them. In this case they were fighting for their Empire. The painting however was well received with the Illustrated London News describing the work and its popularity as:
“….a national epic. No wonder it is so popular that such crowds assemble around it, scanning every feature of the various actors, till at last they begin to imagine themselves present at, and participators in, the scene…”
The newspaper of the day, The Times, put it:
“….Hope and aspiration are busy among these departing soldiers, and if mothers and wives, and sisters and sweethearts, go down the side sorrowing, it is a sorrow in which there is no despair, and no stain of sin and frailty…..”
In the first painting, we see the soldiers boarding the ship bound for India and their loved ones bidding them emotional farewells. It is a poignant scene for despite the bravado and sense of duty of the young men going off to fight their just cause with nothing but a rousing sense of duty, we observe their loved ones who are going to be left behind reluctantly letting their fighting men’s fingers slip from their grasp as they move down the gang plank. For the men we can only see in their faces optimism and patriotism whilst in the faces of the women we see fear and a sense of foreboding.
O’Neil buoyed up by the success of Eastward Ho decided to work on a “follow-up” painting depicting the return of some of the fighting men to their loved ones a year on. The soldiers are seen going down the gangway of their troop ship. The main character appears to be the bearded soldier in khaki uniform with his Kilmarnock “pork-pie” cap under a white cotton Havelock, which was worn to afford the wearer’s neck protection from the blazinga nd merciless Indian sun.
However at this juncture not all the men returned and for many wives and girlfriends there was nobody to wait for on the quayside. Sadly as we are only too aware of in our present time, some young fighting men who return are not the same men, physically or mentally, as those who went out, once full of optimism. Although O’Neil wanted to be faithful to his beliefs of Realism painting he knew that for the painting to be well received he had to concentrate on the joyous return of the fortunate ones and play down the sadness of the bereaved and the portrayal of the badly injured. He was applauded for the painting’s lack of, what the media termed, overemotional sentimentality. The Times of the day commented:
“…..The crowd round the picture delight to spell out the many stories it includes – its joyous reunitings, its agonies of bereavement; the latter kept judiciously down…..”
O’Neil’s follow-up work was another outstanding success and it was taken on tour around the country and it was estimated that almost sixty thousand people went to see it. In 1860 the two paintings were exhibited side by side in Piccadilly, London where viewers had to pay six pence to view the two works. Numerous prints of the two paintings were made and sold.
What fascinates me about the two paintings is that O’Neil has deliberately depicted some of the same people in both works. Below I have highlighted two examples of this. Maybe if you look closer you will find more examples of this.
The injured soldier being helped down the gangway (above left) and his wife waving him off (above right)
In another example below, the Chelsea Pensioner on the gangway waving goodbye to his son (below left) and again waving to him from the quay as he returns safely back home (below right).
The paintings are beautiful examples of O’Neil’s work no matter what we think of his portrayal of war and those who go off to fight and I love the comparison between the emotions shown in the two works – joyous optimism that the men off to fight for their country against the somewhat muted return with its relief and sadness.
O’Neil fared well as an artist and managed to have almost a hundred paintings accepted into exhibitions at the Royal Academy, an establishment, although as a member of The Clique, he once criticised. He was made an Associate of the Academy two years after exhibiting these two featured paintings. O’Neil died in 1880 aged 63.
In some ways it is sad to note that nothing has changed in 150 years. At the onset of battle campaigns the media focus on the adventure of war but now thankfully, despite the wishes of various governments, they are not adverse to recording the devastating affect such wars have on individuakls and their families.