William Tell was the legendary Swiss patriot who is said to have been compelled by the Austrian governor Gessler to shoot an arrow through an apple balanced on his son's head. The story was the subject of a play by Schiller (1802) and an opera by Rossini (1829). In Brown's painting, the boy proudly displays the apple, cut in half to reveal the mark left by the perfectly-aimed arrow, while the arrow itself can be seen embedded in the tree just above his head. Suspended on a ribbon around his neck is a small carving of a bear, the civic emblem of Berne.
The painting is a replica, dating from 1880, of a picture that Brown had executed in January 1877 (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge). The model was the artist's grandson, Ford Madox Hueffer, who wrote Brown's posthumous biography and later achieved fame as the novelist Ford Madox Ford. Brown's younger daughter, Catherine, had married the musicologist Franz Hueffer in 1872. Young Ford was born the following year, making him three when the picture was painted.
The original version of Tell's Son belonged to Catherine when F.M. Hueffer published his monograph in 1896, and had probably been given to her by her father. The later version was one of the works acquired by Brown's patron Henry Boddington, who also owned lot 301.
In composition and conception, Tell's Son echoes The English Boy (Manchester City Art Gallery), Brown's portrait of his five-year-old son Oliver painted in 1860. Both works show the sitter half-length and full-face, while the way the hands are treated, clasping toys in The English Boy, the apple-halves in Tell's Son, is very similar. Oliver had been a precocious boy of whom Brown was intensely proud, and his premature death in 1874 was a devastating blow to his father. The conscious reference to The English Boy in Tell's Son three years later is therefore all the more poignant.
There is a thematic parallel, too, in that an element of patriotism and nationalism is common to both images. The English Boy is only one of several pictures in which Brown harps on the idea of Englishness; others are the better-known English Autumn Afternoon and Last of England (both 1852-5; Birmingham), not to mention the numerous works he based on that most English of plays, King Lear. Why he suddenly switched to a Swiss national legend is unclear. Perhaps he was vaguely harking back to his formative stay in Basel, studying Holbein, in 1845. There were also the theatrical precedents mentioned above; and in any case Brown was not the only Victorian painter to treat this subject. A version by William Shakespeare Burton belonged to the Pre-Raphaelites' patron William Graham (his sale, Christie's, 2 April 1886, lot 42).
The English Boy was bought by the Leeds stockbroker T.E. Plint, and Brown painted him a companion-piece, The Irish Girl (private collection), again adopting the half-length format. Despite the glaring differences of subject and mood, there is a relationship between Brown's half-length studies of children and the half-length female figures, posed for by a series of glamorous models, that his friend D.G. Rossetti painted almost exclusively during his later career. It is probably no accident that the first of Rossetti's pictures in this style, Bocca Baciata (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), was painted in 1859, while Brown's English Boy and Irish Girl followed a year later.