Although his work enjoyed great popularity in its day and he was much patronized by Queen Victoria, Barber remains a relatively obscure figure. A retiring character, he died at the age of forty-nine, and his paintings, never numerous, are now comparatively rare. Having attended the Royal Academy Schools, where he won several prizes, he began to exhibit at the R.A. in 1866 at the age of twenty-one. He found many of his early subjects in the hunting field, and was a great devotee of the Highlands; according to his brother, 'his love of the red deer, and the attraction which mountain solitudes and scenes of storm and mist possessed for him, were quite phenomenal.' Not suprisingly, he was a passionate admirer of Landseer, but his hero's pre-eminence as a painter of deer left him little scope in this area, and he turned to painting scenes of children with dogs or cats. These were enormously popular, gaining wide currency through chromolithographic reproductions, but he came to resent being chained to such themes by his dealers and publishers, talking bitterly of 'manufaturing pictures for the market'. He worked for Queen Victoria for more than twenty years, succeeding Landseer, who died in 1873, as her painter of animals (at least in England; Gourlay Steel fulfilled this role in Scotland). Whereas Landseer had painted the Queen, Prince Albert and their children, Barber's task was to paint groups of her grandchildren with the royal pets. His last picture, completed shortly before his death, was a scene of the Queen and her grandchildren with sundry animals on the lawn at Osborn (illus. Harry Furniss, the Works of Charles Burton Barber, 1896, pl. 1).
The present picture, painted in 1894 and apparently never exhibited, is very characteristic in its sentimental subject and humour. Another painting, Friend or Foe?, in which a little girl, her dog and kitten, look apprehensively at a frog, seems to show the same models and must be more or less contemporary (see Furniss, op.cit,pl.39).
The picture's first recorded owner was the soap firm of A. and F. Pears, who probably acquired it for advertising purposes. In 1915 it was bought from Pears by W.H. Lever (1851-1925), the head of the rival soap manufacturers, Lever Brothers, who almost certainly wanted it for the same reason. The Chairman of Pears, Thomas J. Barratt, had taken the lead in this form of marketing by buying Millais' painting Bubbles in 1886, and three years later Lever had follwed his example by buying THe New Frock by W.P. Frith at the Royal Academy and using it to promote his own firm's product, Sunlight Soap. In 1916 Lever was to take over Pears altogether, and other paintings that Barratt had bought with advertisements in view, such as A Water Baby by the Hon. John Collier and His Turn Next by Fred Morgan, passed to the new ownver. These paintings are now in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, together with some ten more that Lever himself bought as part of his marketing strategy. The attitude of artists to paint Barratt 'as many pictures for advertising as you like to give me commissions for,' has been the subject of much debate. Frith certainly protested over the use Lever made of The New Frock, but other artists seem to have fallen in with the slightly cynical argument that the publicity could only do them good. If Burton Barber was alive when Pears acauired Suspense, his views are not recorded. He was certainly dead by the time it was acquired by Lever.
Lever's purchase of pictures for advertising fired a passion for buying works of art, and he was to build up the finest collection ever formed by an industrialist in England, much of it surviving to this day. Although his interests ranged widely, embracing English eighteenth-century paintings and furniture, French nineteenth-century sculpture, Chinese porcelain, masonic artifacts, and the Napoleonic memorabilia which surely had some deep personal significance, the great strength of the collection lay in Victorian and Edwardian academic painting. He began his career as a serious collector in 1893 by buying a picture by Leighton, and when he died in 1925 (by which time he had been raised to the peerage as 1st Viscount Leverhulme) he owned several major works by this artist together with comparable examples of Millais, Burne-Jones, Waterhouse, Orchardson, Herkomer, Draper, Fildes, Dicksee, Sargent, adn many others. In 1913, the year he secured some of his greates treasures at the sale of George McCulloch, his wife died and he determined to build a museum in her memory. He was a great believer in the social and moral value of art, and in 1922, the Lady Lever Art Gallery was opened for the benefit of his firm's workforce at Port Sunlight, near Liverpool, in Cheshire. Much, however, was not given to the Gallery, and Lever continued to collect obsessively until his death three years later, sometimes patronizing younger artists but always indulging an essentially conservative taste. After his death, his executors held a nine-day sale in November 1925, followed by two four-day sales in 1926, all organized by Knight, Frank and Rutley, while in Februray 1925 another enormous sale was held at the Anderson Galleries in New York. Suspense was sold on the sixth day of the first sale in 1925. Research has yet to establish who bought it, but it subsequently belonged for many years to Henry Whittaker, a lawyer in Blackbur, Lancashire.