The Parting Cheer

This large-scale painting, both ambitious and complex in conception, is the key mid-19th century image addressing emigration. Rich in interpretative material, it focuses on the reactions of those left behind on shore. The scene is set along the Thames although the artist has deliberately denied a precise geographical location. Groups of figures, in a mix of gender and social class, are shown on the quayside as an emigrant ship departs on the far right. Red and blue shirted sailors are shown cheering from the deck of the ship and from the sides of the rigging. They wave hats and arms or stretch out to maintain the links with shore for as long as possible. Partly in shadow, a group of emigrants look out from the deck below. They are subdued in contrast to the scene around them. Some wave handkerchiefs towards the people on the quay, but are otherwise passive participants of the scene on the shore. A steam-tug guides the emigrant ship away from land; its red funnel spewing out the dark smoke, which spreads over the scene. The increasing expanse of water on the right places a physical separation between the ship and the quay.

The Saturday Review wrote of the painting, 'Never, perhaps, do Englishmen so thoroughly throw off their reserve as on the occasion of such a parting, and we doubt whether the varied forms of demonstrative grief here expressed are at all exaggerated’. In front of the picture, a crowd of relatives, friends and onlookers variously react to the departing ship. On the far left, a retired Thames lighter-man leans on a capstan. He smokes a pipe as he observes the scene. In front of him is a small careworn girl holding a basket of oranges. Looking wistfully towards the departing ship, she is recognizable from the author and social reformer Henry Mayhew’s volumes, ‘London Labour and London Poor’, as itinerant and Irish. Mayhew exposed the harsh lives of the young street fruit sellers, which began at around the age of seven. On the far left of the painting in the foreground is a woman with two small children. She may be the wife of one of the departing sailors, who, deprived of support, is left alone with two small children. Her plight is emphasized by the child’s muddy skirt, imploring eyes and the abandoned stance of the younger sleeping child.

In the back of the crowd on the left, a black man waves his hat towards the departing ship. His presence suggests harmony between ethnic groups, demonstrated by positioning his profile next to that of the white girl with a red scarf. 1861 was the year of the American Civil War and so O’Neil’s inclusion of a black man in the crowd consciously demonstrates his support for the anti-slavery movement. His highly significant inclusion represents both immigration and emigration as he signals towards the migrants on the ship.

In the centre foreground is a widow dressed in black mourning dress and a hat with a delicate lace veil. She faces to the right with her head turned away so that her face is not visible. She weeps into a white lace bordered handkerchief, presumably at the loss of a loved one sailing away on the ship. She is comforted by a young fashionably dressed girl with a purple shawl and wearing a straw hat decorated with roses and with a yellow ribbon tied under her chin. She has one hand on the widow’s back and holds the widow’s left hand in hers. A small, affluently dressed boy, wearing a tam o’shanter hat with a red ribbon and a belted tunic, also comforts the widow. He holds her right hand in his left while his right hand holds the arm of the younger woman. This trio unite to form a circle of touching hands and mutual comfort, endorsed by the presence of the Cairn terrier with a yellow collar. Representing faithfulness, cheerfulness and loyalty, it looks up at the grieving widow as a source of comfort.

Immediately behind this group is a woman burying her head in a handkerchief. Bareheaded, and with her hair neatly tied in a bun, she wears a plain grey dress with an orange shawl around her shoulder. Her right arm is around the neck of the man behind her who comforts her in return. In her distress, she has turned away, unable to look at the departing ship. Contemporary accounts described this couple as a town bred, pale-faced brother comforting his sister as she mourns the departure of her departing lover.

In the foreground to the right in front of the widow is a young woman whose abandoned stance indicates she may be saying goodbye to one of the sailors. The artist has carefully detailed her appearance and clothes, including the lining of her pocket. Unaccompanied, she has unkempt hair and wears a dress of coarse fabric. She uses the corner of her apron as a handkerchief, which reinforces her lowly status. Towards the centre back of the crowd, a toddler clutching a Union flag is held aloft in the arms of the father, while the mother looks on. With rolled up sleeves, the man represents the honesty of labour, while the baby has ruddy cheeks and a well-fed appearance. These features indicate that they may be a family from the countryside. Certainly many country dwellers emigrated during this period, to seek a better life abroad. The sailor in the red shirt in the foreground on the right with rolled up sleeves endorses the theme of trustworthiness and endeavour. Other figures in the crowd wave flags, red spotted handkerchiefs, hats and walking sticks. These were recognisable last links with home from on board the rapidly departing ship.

O’Neil attempted to invest his paintings with an emotional intensity that conveyed sentiments appropriate to the narrative. Mid-Victorian audiences navigated their way around paintings such as ‘The Parting Cheer’ by using recognisable figures with the crowd as narrative signposts. They could readily identify social types and the differences present in the meticulously detailed costume and the range of human responses. In the painting children provide key access points into the narrative and highlight the range of social mix. They provide a source of comfort and solace, acting as affirmation of the continuity of the next generation. The men on shore stoically support the grieving women and the artist uses touching, as a source of solace, both tender and poignant.

O’Neil’s image reflects the urban stratification of the metropolitan crowd, with middle and working classes united in a display of grief. People emigrated to seek a better life overseas. Although many went to Australia, New Zealand and Canada, the greatest number sought a new life in America. The emigrants in this painting were probably sailing to North America. The Thames is shown as an industrial landscape, with smoking chimneys and a forest of ships’ masts. This scene of encroaching industrialisation is redolent with the belching smoke of factory chimneys and the steam tug. Such alienating effects of modernity underscore the historical reasons for mass migration.

The main part of the painting concentrating on the crowd is highly detailed and smoothly painted. To artists such as O’Neil the absence of impasto or visible brushstrokes was a highly admired technique, although the figures on the departing ship are sketchier and lack the high finish of the rest of the image. O’Neil also produced a small contemporaneous simplified version of the painting. This primary version was the only painting submitted by O’Neil to the Royal Academy in 1861. The painting is signed and dated lower right, ‘Henry O’Neil 1861’.

The painting has been purchased with the very generous assistance of the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund and the Friends of the NMM.

Object Details

ID: ZBA4022
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Display - QH
Creator: O'Neil, Henry Nelson
Date made: 1861
Exhibition: Art for the Nation; Collecting for the 21st Century
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. Purchased with assistance from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund and the Friends of the National Maritime Museum, 2004.
Measurements: Painting: 1320 mm x 1860 mm; Frame: 1705 mm x 2225 mm x 105 mm

Your Request

If an item is shown as “offsite”, please allow eight days for your order to be processed. For further information, please contact Archive staff:

Tel: (during Library opening hours)

Click “Continue” below to continue processing your order with the Library team.