Henry Nelson O'Neil, A.R.A. (1817-1880)
Henry Nelson O'Neil, A.R.A. (1817-1880)

Home Again, 1858

Henry Nelson O'Neil, A.R.A. (1817-1880)
Home Again, 1858
signed and dated 'Henry O'Neil 1859' (lower right)
oil on canvas
53 x 42in. (135 x 107cm.)
J. Kemp Welch, 1868.
Sir J.C. Holder, 1901.
with the Leicester Galleries, London, 1953.
with Appleby Brothers Ltd, London.
Major William Spowers.
Athenaeum, no. 1644, 30 April 1859, p. 587.
Times, 10 May 1859, p. 4.
Art Journal, 1859, p. 168.
Art Journal, 1880, p. 171.
G. Reynolds, Painters of the Victorian Scene, London, 1953, p. 87.
Connoisseur, December 1969, p. 274.
J. Maas, Victorian Painters, London, 1969, pp. 97, 115-6, illustrated.
C. Wood, Victorian Panorama, London, 1976, pp. 232-3 illustrated.
H. Guise, Great Victorian Engravings, London, 1980, p. 146.
London, Royal Academy, 1859, no. 400.
London, International Exhibition, 1862.
Leeds, National Exhibition of Works of Art, 1868, no. 1359.
Glasgow, International Exhibition, 1901.
London, Guildhall Art Gallery, Works by Naval and Military Artists of Great Britain and her Allies France, Russia and Belgium, 1915, no. 249.

Lot Essay

Born in St Petersburg in 1817, O'Neil trained at the Royal Academy Schools in the early 1830s. The historical painter Alfred Elmore was among his fellow students, and in 1840 they travelled together in Italy. Meanwhile O'Neil had become a member of The Clique, a circle of young artists who also included Augustus Egg (born 1816), Richard Dadd and John Phillip (both, like O'Neil himself, born 1817), and William Powell Frith (born 1819). In some ways, this group anticipated the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, founded in 1848. Like the Pre-Raphaelites, they were discontented with the Royal Academy and wanted to bring to their work a new realism and emotional intensity. Also like the more famous group, they soon went their separate ways. Dadd, for example, specialised in fairy painting, achieving some of his most remarkable work as a certifeid lunatic in Bethlem and Broadmoor hospitals, while Frith became a highly successful exponent of anecdotal and sentimental genre.

O'Neil remained as true as any to the group's original ideas, continuing to paint pictures which made a strong appeal to the emotions. The climax of his career was the exhibition of his picture Eastward Ho! August 1857 (private collection) at the Royal Academy of 1858. Showing the departure for India of troops sent out to suppress the Mutiny the previous summer, it caught the patriotic mood of the moment and was a phenomenal success. Crowds thronged to see it, as Anthony Trollope recalled in the obituary of O'Neil that he wrote for the Times in March 1880. The artist found himself painting a number of versions, and an engraving enjoyed great popularity when it was published in 1860. By the time the picture was shown at the International Exhibition held in London two years later, it had acquired the status of a modern icon.

Not suprsingly, O'Neil tried to repeat his success. The following year he showed Home Again, 1858, in which troops returning from India were seen leaving their ship at Gravesend, many of them wounded. Companion pictures of this type were currently popular. Abraham Solomon showed Waiting for the Verdict and its sequel Not Guilty (both Tate Gallery) at the Royal Academy in 1857 and 1859, and Millais' equally famous pair, My First Sermon and My Second Sermon (Guildhall Art Gallery), appeared, again at the Royal Academy, in 1863 and 1864. The Athenaeum felt obliged to comment on the practice in 1859. 'Companion pictures', its critic wrote, 'are generally disappointing - second volumes do not always fulfil the promise of the first - the second glass is not like the one that quenched your thirst ... When a man has written a successful book, his next must not merely be as good, it must be a better, or the public is dissatisfied. Its being merely different in title and subject is not always enough'.

It is often said that Home Again was a victim of this inevitable dilemma and not as popular as Eastward Ho!. Certainly the Art Journal found it 'not so vigorous' as its predecessor, as well as criticising the conception in more detail 'The ladder whereby the disembarcation takes place is much too crowded, (and) there are no boats in readiness to receive the descending throng...The subject has not been felt; the principal figure...looks...more like one who is suffering from gout, the result of ease and rich living, than an invalid wounded, as well as sick, who is destined for Chelsea'.

But in some ways Home Again is a better picture than Eastward Ho!, and several critics made this point. 'In some aspects...,' observed the Athenaeum

this picture of Mr O'Neil's is better than his first one...He has this time very judiciously given us the same seamed ship's side, with its tarry crusting, and clamps, and bulwarks, but, in addition, a glimpse of water, flags and masts, that lets the imagination loose and gives air, distance, and multitude. There is great pathos, too, this time in the wounded soldier in the greatcoat, who, pale, weak and bandaged, totters down into the boat, contrasting with the happy youngster, brimfull of hope and spirits, who jingles his orders on his breast to show his old father, who is as proud as a king. The soldier is a little too refined and gentlmanly; but sickness, it must be allowed, does spiritualize even the grossest clay, - pares off flesh, lowers prominences, and lets the mind, however feeble, shine through the worn-out tenement. The recognitions, too, are very touching, and full of tearful joy.

The art critic on the Times also preferred Home Again to Eastward Ho! 'Technically', he wrote:

the picture is an improvement on its forerunner. It is more pleasantly balanced in point of composition, and the scale of the figures is better selected. Then joy predominates in this as much as sadness did in the other canvas. The numerous episodes speak to all sympathies. 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. The only hopeless figure is the woman, just seen on the extreme right of the composition, whom the boatman is trying with rough kindness to console. Even she may belong to the invalid looking out of the porthole, who does not seem to have yet found the face he is looking for. The central point of the picture is the wounded sergeant, being tenderly helped down the ladder by the two boatmen, his wife watching over him with his crutches in her hand. The sergeant wears the Victoria cross. The effect of his wound is visible in every part of the movement of his figure. But we should be doing the public an ill service to deprive them of the pleasure of reading for themselves the different chapters in Mr O'Neil's well-told story of military life. It is evident, if one listens to the crowd round this picture, that it fulfuls at least one function of a work of art - its goes home to the business and the bosoms of average people in a healthy, humanising way. Considering the class of incident and emotion it deals with, Mr O'Neil deserves great credit for his avoidance of maudlin sentiment.

The popularity of Home Again, like that of Eastward Ho!, caused O'Neil to make a number of replicas. A smaller version was sold in these Rooms on 20 June 1986 (lot 69) and is now in the National Army Museum, while another was offered at Sotheby's on 29 March 1995 (lot 138) and again on 6 November 1996 (lot 262). It would seem, however, that the present picture is the original version of the composition, one of the most familiar images in Victorian genre painting.

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