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Henry Nelson O'Neil's painting depicts the moments before a ship, carrying soldiers to fight in the First Indian War of Independence, or Indian 'Mutiny', departs from Gravesend. O'Neil painted a companion piece, 'Home Again', in 1858, which portrayed the soldier's return.
When first exhibited at the Royal Academy, in 1858 and 1859 respectively, the paintings elicited a hugely enthusiastic public response. Significantly, unlike many other artists, O’Neil did not respond to events in India with scenes of flag waving heroism or martyrdom. Rather than depicting the war itself, he focused on its impact on the lives of the British troops and their families at home. Using a predominantly working class cast of characters, stories are played out across the two paintings which directly engaged 19th century gallery-goers. It was undoubtedly this, together with O'Neil’s un-showy realism, which prompted an emotional recognition in Victorian audiences.
In Eastward Ho! families bid emotional farewells to fathers, husbands, brothers and sons. The uniformed soldiers occupy the top half of the composition, separated from their families, who huddle together in the lower part. While lovers embrace, a widow dressed in black buries her face in her handkerchief. Her more optimistic daughter waves a white handkerchief at her brother aboard the ship.
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