Rheam was born into a Quaker family in Birkenhead, and studied art at Heatherley's, in Germany, and at Julian's in Paris. He was still apparently living at Birkenhead in 1889, but about 1890 he moved to Cornwall, settling first at Polperro and then at Newlyn. The move was probably encouraged by his cousin H.S. Tuke, who lived in Falmouth but was well known to the artistic community that had grown up at Newlyn in the 1880s. A year older than Rheam, Tuke too had studied both in London and abroad, although his spell in Paris in the studio of J.P. Laurens was probably a year or two earlier than Rheam's time at Julian's.
The circumstances of Rheam's move to Newlyn were told by Stanhope Forbes, the community's acknowledged leader. 'The annual cricket match between the artists of St Ives and Newlyn was one of the chief sporting events of the year, and about the time I speak of, St Ives had acquired two notable batsmen and Newlyn seemed likely to endure defeat. But in a fortunate moment the situation was saved, for Harry Rheam, that notable cricketer, was imported at great expense from Polperro. He remained with us ever after and we had reason to remember gratefully the rivalry between the two colonies in the noble game' (Artists of the Newlyn School 1880-1900, exh. Newlyn, Plymouth and Bristol, 1979, cat. p. 235).
Rheam appears in one of Fred Hall's caricatures of the Newlyn artists, made in 1890, and indeed looks more like a cricketer than an artist. In 1900 he married Alice Elliott, and they lived at Boase Castle Lodge, Belle Vue. Later they moved to West Lodge in Penzance, remaining there until Rheam's death in 1920. To judge from Rheam's Witt library file, his output was fairly small. He exhibited only twenty pictures at the Royal Academy between 1887 and 1919, although he was a regular contributor to the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours, of which he was a member. He also exhibited once at Suffolk Street.
Rheam was not typical of the Newlyn School either in his meticulous use of watercolour or his interest in literary subjects, which often suggest that he had looked hard at the Pre-Raphaelites. Most of his colleagues preferred a bold, 'square brush', oil technique, and realist themes based on local life. The community was not, however, without other exponents of fantasy and symbolism. T.C. Gotch, who settled in Newlyn in 1887, consistently explored these fields, and Stanhope Forbes's Canadian-born wife, Elizabeth, produced a series of Arthurian watercolours for her book King Arthur's Wood (1904).
The present picture shows Rheam in his most Pre-Raphaelite mode, re-working a formula - a half-length female figure with floral attributes - that Rossetti had evolved in the 1860s. The picture was exhibited at the Royal Institute in 1904, the year it is dated. The number '2' on the backboard label no doubt refers to the fact that Rheam showed two works that year. The other was The Guitar Player, no. 436, priced at £30.