This is either a sketch for or a reduced watercolour version of a painting that Smythe exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1873. His biographers describe this as follows:
Subsequently, Smythe painted a picture of a bluejacket with his sweetheart on his arm, having a medal pinned on his breast by a dainty lady in the quaint costume of the period. Her drawing-room was full of stylish people in chignons and crinolettes, and a languid 'swell' with an eyeglass smiled his approval over the shoulder of a white-headed old gentleman holding a wineglass and a sheet of foolscap.
After vainly searching for a fine type for his hero, Lionel finally painted the sailor's profile from the bronze Hercules in the British Museum. When the picture came before the Council of the Royal Academy, Millais, who was one of the hanging committee, put it in a good place and complimented the artist afterwards (Rosa M. Whitlaw and W. L. Wyllie, Lionel P. Smythe, R.A., R.W.S., His Life and Work, London, 1923, p. 72).
The model for the attractive woman awarding the medal was Smythe's wife Alice, née Gunyon, whom he had married in 1869. Whitlaw and Wyllie observe that the she 'was always painted in a prominent position in the motives of this time' (op.cit., p. 34).
The picture's subject seems to have had its origins in an act of gallantry performed by Smythe himself and his younger half-brother W. L. Wyllie. In 1869 they rescued a shipwrecked crew off the coast of Boulogne and found themselves summoned by a distinguished local resident, Lady Alexander, to her house in the Grande Rue. There, to their acute embarrassment, she proceeded to pin silver medals on their breasts. The incident also inspired Wyllie to paint his picture The Wreck of the Wheatsheaf, exhibited at the Dudley Gallery that autumn (see Whitlaw and Wyllie, op.cit. pp. 69-70).
Even if the subject is autobiographical, Smythe's choice of it for a picture seems to reflect the concern with book and magazine illustration which was so characteristic of this period. His friends Fred Walker and J. W. North were closely involved with the movement, and Smythe himself was an occasional contributor to the Illustrated London News.