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1859 Sequel Paintings

Two of the most popular paintings at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1859 were sequels to paintings exhibited in earlier years: Abraham Solomon’s Not Guilty (Fig. 1) relieved the tension of the family Waiting for the Verdict in 1857 (Fig. 2), while Henry Nelson O’Neil’s soldiers who had sailed Eastward Ho! in 1858 were Home Again. Storytelling was a central pleasure of paintings for many Victorians, and in the invented subjects from modern life that became popular in the 1850s, artists developed many strategies for extending painting’s narrative reach and emotional impact: attending closely to facial expressions, filling canvases with telling naturalistic details, and the careful choice of revealing situations. But artists also chafed at the ancient requirement that painting capture only a single moment, and expanded their narratives across multiple canvases. Sequel paintings were one such strategy and their popularity suggests that memory, temporality, and exhibition culture were critical parts of the experience of Victorian narrative painting.

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Sequels are different from other types of painted pairs in that they are exhibited later than, and unaccompanied by, their first numbers, forcing viewers to rely upon their memory of the earlier work for context. Artists generally tried to help viewers in this regard. In Not Guilty, Solomon sticks closely to the composition of the earlier painting, but rearranges the figures: the old man’s spot is taken by the woman and child; the father is added to the central group; and the grandfather replaces the woman on the right. Solomon also uses the same basic background—though he has slightly fudged things, as they are not sitting in quite the same place; a change that provides both an amplified narrative (as the glimpse in the courtroom becomes a glimpse towards the outside world of freedom) and greater visual coherence for the pictures when later viewed as pendants, albeit at the cost of a little bit of narrative rationality.

Even given these many visual reminders, the picture’s effectiveness relies heavily on the ability to remember the earlier work. The Athenaeum critic explicitly linked the second picture’s emotional power to the relief of the suspense generated by the first: “The last picture was full of expectancy, almost painful in its intensity; now we have a sun-burst of joy breaking through April tears of willful happiness.”1 This kind of emotional contrast was often invoked by critics in praise of individual pictures, and is carried over here to reading the two pictures—despite the absence of one of them from the physical space of the exhibition. The critic goes on to fill in the gap in time between the two pictures: “The man, awoke as from a horrid dream, is free, and declared innocent. But five minutes ago he waited, clutching the bar with clammy, quivering hands as the foreman rose in the jury-box”.2

If this set of paintings seems to call upon viewers to collapse the two intervening years into five minutes, other examples use—even rely upon—the elapsed time between the paintings’ exhibition as part of their meaning, such as O’Neil’s Eastward, Ho!—August 1857 and Home Again 1858, and Millais’s My First Sermon of 1863 and My Second Sermon of 1864. Indeed the full titles of O’Neil’s works include specific dates—in each a year before the year of exhibition—as a way of fixing their contemporaneity, and also identifying the lapse of time between the paintings as identical in span to the lapse of time between the depicted events. Critics read the events depicted through the lens of that precise time span: “The faces and figures which a year ago clambered up the side of the outbound ship, are here seen streaming down upon their return.”3 Millais’ sequel might seem less firmly fixed in time, but the fact that the work was known to be a portrait of his daughter inclined critics again to fuse pictorial and actual temporality. The critic for The Art Journal wrote:

everybody is rejoiced to recognise, sitting in the same place as last year, the little girl, now dear to many a heart, who then was listening to her ‘first sermon’ in rapt attention. She now has grown into a naughty little child, so naughty as to be fast asleep in church. Yet, strange to say, no one loves her a whit the less.4

The critic for The Athenaeum was even more conscious of the shared experience of time between viewer and subject: “The same child, the artist’s daughter, wearing the same red cloak, gay hat, red stockings, and warm muff, sits in the old pew. An interval, a year to her, perhaps, as to us, has passed.”5

Of course, many pendant paintings also presume time has passed, but seeing them for the first time as pendants implies that the first was painted retrospectively, and only the second is contemporaneous to the viewing “now”. These sequel paintings, in contrast, suggest that each depicted event is contemporary with its representation in paint, in other words, that the time that has elapsed between the two events is “real” time, coequal to that which the viewer has lived through between viewings. This may enhance the impact of emotional identification and empathy, as suggested by The Literary Gazette critic’s reading of Home Again: “Many of the old forms and faces will be recognised, but changed by toil and suffering.”6

These short case studies begin to suggest the centrality of memory to Victorian aesthetics—fostering emotional attachment, evaluative comparison, and narrative expansion—in ways that perhaps challenge our assumptions about the value of originality and novelty. They also suggest that we need a more nuanced vocabulary for thinking about relationships between linked paintings, one that is attentive to the conditions of their original exhibition. Sequels and pendants are essentially different experiences. There were also triptychs, exhibited in a single frame and employing the temporality of an altarpiece; and series of paintings that hung together in a single frame, read sequentially like continuous narrative. The evidence of critical reviews suggests that audiences in 1859 were well versed in these visual codes, and that their experience of a picture’s narrative and emotional resonances were enriched and expanded by them.

  1. “Fine Arts: The Royal Academy”, The Athenaeum, 30 April 1859, 586.↩︎

  2. “Fine Arts: The Royal Academy”, The Athenaeum, 30 April 1859, 586.↩︎

  3. “London Exhibitions: Conflict of the Schools”, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, August 1859, 137.↩︎

  4. “The Royal Academy”, The Art Journal, June 1864, 163.↩︎

  5. “The Royal Academy”, The Athenaeum, 30 April 1864, 616.↩︎

  6. “Royal Academy (Third Notice)”, The Literary Gazette, 14 May 1859, 595.↩︎

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Explore the 1859 catalogue