Eastward Ho! by Henry Nelson O’Neil, (1858). © Museum of London.
The Museum of London has bought a pair of paintings that have been described as two of the most important and popular works of the mid-Victorian era at a cost of almost £839,000.
Painted by Henry Nelson O’Neil, Eastward Ho! (1858), and companion piece, Home Again (1859), show soldiers boarding a ship bound for the Indian Mutiny (1857-1859), and returning to their families again over a year later.
Set to go on public display from October 15, the works have been bought with the help of grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), which contributed £713,000, and the National Art Collections Fund.
"As well as being exceptional examples of O’Neil’s work," explained Sue Bowers, Regional Manager for the HLF in London, "these paintings are important for the stories they tell about Victorian London, when the Thames held world status as the gateway to the heart of the Empire. "
"We are thrilled to help unveil the paintings for the public so that everyone has the chance to enjoy them and learn about a fascinating period in London’s history."
The Mutiny, also known as the First Indian War of Independence, came to be seen as one of the defining moments of British rule in India.
Located at the heart of the capital the Museum Of London records the history of the big smoke from prehistory to modern times. © Museum of London.
O’Neil’s paintings were taken to the hearts of a Victorian public that saw in them the effect wars fought overseas in the name of empire had on ordinary people.
"The Museum of London is extremely grateful to the Heritage Lottery Fund and the National Art Collections Fund for enabling us to buy these important paintings," added Prof. Jack Lohman, Director of the Museum of London.
"They are the most valuable acquisition the Museum has ever made."
A leading historical painter of the Victorian period, Henry Nelson O’Neil (1817 – 1880) was a member of The Clique, which included artists such as Richard Dadd, Augustus Egg, John Phillip and William Powell Frith. He was also a long time friend of Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais.
Finished in a smooth, highly polished style, Eastward Ho! shows soldiers bidding farewell to their families as they board a ship at Tilbury bound for India, while Home Again depicts weary troops disembarking to be greeted by waiting families.
Home Again by Henry Nelson O'Neil, 1859. © Museum of London.
Like many of his contemporaries O'Neil's characters and the emotion depicted on their faces act as symbols of a greater experience. They somehow reflect the feelings of the nation as reports of the realities of the war filtered back to Britain.
Far from glorifying heroic deeds or battles the paintings focus on the experiences of ordinary people, reflecting the growing interest among artists in capturing contemporary or modern life.
As such they were an instant hit with the public when hung as part of the Royal Academy’s 1858 and 1859 Summer Exhibitions.
By 1860 over half a million people had seen them, prints were produced and a wood engraving of Eastward Ho! published in the Illustrated London News. In fact, so many prints were sold the two paintings became iconic images of the Victorian era.
In his obituary for O’Neil in the Times of March 15 1880, author Anthony Trollope wrote of his friend’s works:
"Those who look back over the 22 years and remember the crowds through which it was necessary to fight their way at the Royal Academy up to the standing point from which they could be seen will acknowledge that he had won his meed of fame in the battle of life which is just run."