This preliminary oil sketch for one of O’Neil’s most famous works, “Eastward Ho!”, was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1858. The full-scale painting depicts soldiers on board a ship at Gravesend, destined for service in India during the Indian Mutiny, bidding farewells to loved ones. The work changed the artist’s career and became one of the most popular images in Victorian art. Following its first public appearance at the Royal Academy in 1858, a tour of Britain was organised for the picture, during which time an estimated 540,000 people came to see it. O’Neil made a companion painting, entitled Home Again, depicting the return of the same troops, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in the following year.
In 1860 the two paintings were exhibited side by side in Piccadilly, London where viewers had to pay six pence to view the two works.
The present work shows the artist working on details of the composition, which were significantly altered in the finished version. For example, the direction of the composition is in reverse, and the female figure in the foreground is shown with her face covered by a handkerchief to hide her anguish, whereas in the final version she is given assistance down the gangplank by an old salt. The motif of the woman with her face buried in a handkerchief is transferred to another figure further up the gangplank.
The painting however was well received with the Illustrated London News describing the work and its popularity as:
“….a national epic. No wonder it is so popular that such crowds assemble around it, scanning every feature of the various actors, till at last they begin to imagine themselves present at, and participators in, the scene…”
The newspaper of the day, The Times, put it:
“….Hope and aspiration are busy among these departing soldiers, and if mothers and wives, and sisters and sweethearts, go down the side sorrowing, it is a sorrow in which there is no despair, and no stain of sin and frailty…..”
It is a poignant scene for despite the bravado and sense of duty of the young men going off to fight their just cause with nothing but a rousing sense of duty, we observe their loved ones who are going to be left behind reluctantly letting their fighting men’s fingers slip from their grasp as they move down the gang plank. For the men we can only see in their faces optimism and patriotism whilst in the faces of the women we see fear and a sense of foreboding.
O’Neil was born in Russia to English parents in 1817. He returned to England at the age of six and when he was nineteen years of age studied at the Royal Academy Schools.
In the 1840’s O’Neil was a co-founder of The Clique, which was a group of like-minded young artists, based around the St John’s Wood area of London, who regularly met to peruse each other’s works and offer their own critiques. The coming together of this group was in some ways an act of rebellion against the Royal Academy and in what they saw as its imposition of artistic restrictions. This group wanted to add more realism to their work. They wanted their works to have greater emotional intensity which at the time was frowned upon by the Academy establishment. This group of artists denounced the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their works and O’Neil was the most vociferous in his opposition to their art. The Clique eventually broke up but Henry O’Neil still believed in its principles and he continued to embrace highly emotional scenes in his works.
O’Neil fared well as an artist and managed to have almost a hundred paintings accepted into exhibitions at the Royal Academy, an establishment, as a member of The Clique, he once criticised. He was made an Associate of the Academy two years after exhibiting these two featured paintings. O’Neil died 1880 aged 63.