The Sailor's Return

An interior of a small cottage. The truckle bed, simple furnishing, flaking plaster and exposed red brickwork suggest rural simplicity and poverty.

A basket hangs on a nail from a beam above the bed, with a rag dangling down. A young man has entered through the half-open door and faces towards the left. He wears the characteristic dress of a sailor; a blue jacket with brass buttons, a white shirt, red neckerchief and loose short-legged trousers which expose stockings and buckled shoes below. In his right hand he holds a tarpaulin hat full of coins, together with a stout stick or cudgel. His left hand is raised with the palm open towards a girl. seated on a low chair by a bed holding a sick older figure, though whether male or female is not clear. The girl wears a red skirt, white blouse, a mob cap with a blue ribbon and has a blue and white check shawl round her shoulders. A white drape hangs over the chair. With her right hand she holds the hand of the bed-ridden patient. The narrative implies it may be a parent, head bound, lying under the patterned blanket.

The artist has used the body language of pose and gesture to convey a narrative. The sailor holds out his hatful of money towards the girl, the implication probably being that he went to sea to earn enough money for them to marry. He has now returned to show her that he has means to provide for her but, in a movement mimicking his, the girl's left arm is stretched out towards him with her palm held flat as a gesture of rejection. Despite her earlier promise, she is no longer free because of her duty to her sick parent. The painting also shows the emotional intensity of the moment in the exchange of glances between the three figures. The far end of the room is cast in shadow but a shaft of golden light through the window, falls on the girl and lightens the face of the boy. This underpins the moral message: even among the poor a sense of virtuous duty can outweigh desire.

The artist was a tailor's son, who first trained at William Shipley's academy in London. Aged 15, he began winning drawing prizes from the Society of Artists and in 1763 probably travelled in Holland, Belgium, and France. He enrolled at the new Royal Academy schools in 1769 and by 1770 was elected a Fellow of the Society of Artists, becoming its Director in 1774. Wheatley's early work consisted mainly of interior decorative projects and of small-scale, full-length portraits and conversation pieces. Although he also produced some landscapes he concentrated more on effect than topographical accuracy. He fled to Dublin in 1779 to escape creditors and on his return to London in 1783, painted genre pictures, portraits, landscapes, and some history paintings. He also began working for the print publisher John Boydell. Many of the themes in engravings made after Wheatley are both sentimental and moralizing, such as the 'Cries of London' series which illustrates itinerant (usually female) street-vendors selling their wares. It was published between 1793 and 1797. Wheatley was elected RA in 1791 but his last years were plagued by gout and debts.

In this painting, Wheatley is concerned with the psychological relationship between the subjects as well as domestic detail and costume. The work marks a shift from a Hogarthian concentration of genre in the cause of harsh moral social satire towards a gentler, sweeter style. Wheatley implies that a society which was uncomfortably aware of the sufferings of the rural poor, brought about by the agricultural revolution, sought compensating reassurance in depictions of an idealized pastoral life. At the end of the century genre painting of this sort became increasingly moralizing and didactic. It reflected the standards of a middle-class audience, which considereded that the lower classes should practise thrift and hard work and be concerned with duty, as this girl demonstrates. The picture is signed and dated 'F Wheatley 1786' along the bottom strut of the chair.

Object Details

ID: BHC1076
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Wheatley, Francis
Date made: 1786
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Caird Collection
Measurements: Painting: 470 mm x 381 mm; Frame: 654 x 565 x 105 mm

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