Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Henry Nelson O'Neil - Eastward Ho! August 1857

signed and dated u.r.: Henry Nelson O'Neil 1858

oil on canvas
36 by 26 in

100,000—150,000 GBP
Lot Sold. Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium: 164,800 GBP

Henry Nelson O’Neil’s painting Eastward Ho! August 1857 changed the artist’s career and became one of the most iconic images of Victorian art. Previously known for his rich and picturesque reconstructions, O’Neil turned from a respected artist to a widely admired one. Like many of The Clique to which he had belonged, notably Augustus Leopold Egg and William Powell Frith, he turned to ‘modern life’ painting and took up the subject of life around him as The Critic noted in 1858, “[O’Neil] appears at length to have grown weary of that super-refined softness of touch and expression in which he has frittered away so much talent that might have been better employed. He has sought a subject of rough reality, and has found strength and vigour in his search.”

The subject of Eastward Ho! expresses, both dramatically and sympathetically, a scene familiar on the Thames: troop ships setting off for conflicts around the world with its human cargo saying their last goodbyes to family and friends. As the Illustrated London News expressed it: “Henry Nelson O’Neil’s Eastward Ho!… presents nothing beyond what has over and over again been witnessed… and not a week, or scarcely a day, has passed… but the silent Thames has been witness to many a sad parting such as that depicted in this canvas.” In it O’Neil represents a steamer that is bound for Calcutta, to take the troops to the Indian ‘‘Mutiny’’(1857-9, otherwise known as the First Indian War of Independence). The conflict had evoked a large response from artists who, on the whole responded with the allegorical and religious language of martyrdom of massacres, in such paintings such as Abraham Solomon’s, The Flight (No.228) and most controversially Noel Paton’s In Memoriam (No.471) and which competed with Eastward Ho! at the 1858 Royal Academy Exhibition. But for all these Indian scenes with their exaggerated heroism and martyrdom it was O’Neil’s depiction of everyday experience at home that found favour with its audience, to such an extent that a tour of Britain followed, where it was estimated 540,000 people visited to see the painting. Its success also led O’Neil to produce a companion painting in Home Again, depicting the return of the troops shown departing in the first, which was exhibited at the following year’s Royal Academy exhibition.

Replicas were commonplace within Victorian art and it is no great surprise that O’Neil turned his hand to these, particularly when his most famous paintings were in such great demand. The Museum of London has a very fine Eastward Ho! replica by O’Neil and the prime version of the sequel Home Again, bought with the generous help of the Heritage Lottery Fund and the National Art Collection Fund. The prime version of Eastward Ho!, now at Elton Hall, from which the replica was produced was exhibited at the 1858 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition (no.384).

The present painting is unusual and unique for it does not appear to be a typical replica, nor the large finished version, which was shown at Trafalgar Square in the summer of 1858. It appears that this very fine version may well be O’Neil’s first attempt at painting this scene, highly finished though it is. There are a number of reasons that suggest this. In the first place, it is not part of a pair as the other replicas are, even though nearly all the others have been split over time. This may mean that it was painted just after O’Neil’s completion of Eastward Ho and before Home Again, but there are other more important reasons for this speculation. In O’Neil’s painting generally and most certainly in his replicas, there is no real evidence of pentimenti. This is primarily because the pictorial space has been resolved before brush reaches canvas. Yet in this version pendimenti is strongly evident. Most apparent are areas around the old sailor, who stands at the bottom right of the picture. O’Neil has very clearly changed his head position, bringing him left. Upon close inspection a bonneted head can be seen with an uplifted arm like the figure in the centre of the canvas. Further evidence of uncertainty can be seen in the pentimento of an arm extended over the side of the ship and around the heads of the lover’s kissing. So much pendimenti is not only unusual in O’Neil, but indicates an artist still playing with variations of his main composition on the canvas itself.

If we compare this version to the Royal Academy painting and the Museum of London replica there are also small but very clear differences. In particular it is worth noting the following: The old sailor who has been moved slightly to the left in this version has moved even further in the other versions, giving a slightly more dramatic stretching movement to him helping the relative down the side of the ship; Another sailor, who can be seen smoking a pipe to the bottom left of the painting has been moved much further to the right and away from the canvas’s edge; The head of the baby visible in the centre of the painting is upright in this version only; and the top left scene has several differences including a pulley which does not appear in other versions.

These differences seem to further indicate that this is a painting where O’Neil is still working things out. The strong central composition of troops moving diagonally across the picture, a composition he deliberately mirrors in Home Again, has already been decided upon although the exact positioning of figures appears not to have been. It has been beautifully finished by O’Neil, but it is not large enough for a major Academy painting, a painting that would be competing with works such as his friend Frith’s Derby Day and the other Indian pictures. We must remember that this was a new subject for Henry Nelson O’Neil, a painting in which he needed to invest all his efforts. In this carefully constructed and masterly painting are the signs of its genesis.

In the early twentieth century the present picture was owned by the general manager of B. C. Mills Trading and Timber Company in Vancouver, Eric Werge Hamber (1879-1960). He was later appointed as Lieutenant Governor of the Province of British Columbia. Hamber was resident in London in 1911 and married Aldyen Hendry in Chelsea on 14 May 1912. It was during this visit to London that Hamber purchased the picture at The Carroll Gallery. The couple were scheduled to sail to North America on the fateful maiden voyage of the Titanic in 1912 but fortunately they cancelled their passage, saving both the Hamber's and Eastward Ho! from disaster.

We are grateful to Mark Bills of the Museum of London for preparing this catalogue note.

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