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1878 The Civil War Draws a Crowd

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William Frederick Yeames’ painting And when did you last see your father? was an instant success when it was shown at the Royal Academy in 1878, and as a result, became one of the most famous paintings of the Victorian period (Fig. 1). So much so that it was re-presented, in 1933, as a life-size waxwork tableau at Madame Tussauds in the Marylebone Road galleries (Fig. 2). The display was re-formatted in 1980 and finally disappeared in only 1989.1

The Art-Journal praised Yeames’ painting:

[It] fills the place of distinction in this part of the room [Gallery IV] with a capitally conceived subject …The little boy, in pale blue dress, who is now being examined, with his little sister crying behind him, and his mother and aunt tremblingly anxious in the distance, is the scion of the house, and we know before he speaks that a clear frank answer will ring out to the insinuating question, And when did you last see your father?2

Yeames was more matter-of-fact when he later recalled the inspiration for the painting:

I had, at the time I painted the picture, living in my house a nephew of an innocent and truthful disposition, and it occurred to me to represent him in a situation where the child’s outspokenness and unconsciousness would lead to disastrous consequences, and a scene in a country house occupied by the Puritans during the Rebellion in England suited my purpose.3

Yeames was a member of the St John’s Wood Clique, or “School of Slashed Breeches”, with Philip Calderon, Henry Stacy Marks, George Adolphus Storey, George Dunlop Leslie, John Evan Hodgson, and David Wilkie Wynfield.4 They trained with the Artists’ Rifles in preparation to defend their country but they also photographed themselves in historical costumes, rented historic houses, and painted scenes from England’s past; they formed social links with nouveau riche collectors who believed gentlemanly credentials could be established through collecting contemporary art, and who paid high prices for their depictions of “Ye Olde England”.

Yeames’ decision to paint an imaginary scene from the Civil War for the 1878 Exhibition was well considered. Roy Strong has calculated that during the Victorian period, “more works of art were produced depicting scenes connected with Charles I, Oliver Cromwell, Henrietta Maria and the struggle of Cavalier versus Roundhead than for any other period of British history.”5 The 1878 Exhibition was no exception. As well as Yeames’ painting, there was John Pettie’s A Member of the Long Parliament, and Philip Calderon’s Removing nuns from Loughborough December 1643, the latter with a price tag of £1,250. The Art-Journal explained the frisson surrounding Calderon’s subject, nuns fleeing from their convent: “so entirely has Mr Calderon enlisted our sympathies in those religious women, that, when before the picture, we inwardly hope that the rest will be able to get away before the ravenous Roundheads are down upon them.”6

Yeames’ painting attracted large crowds. Roy Strong summed up its appeal:

Yeames’s achievement lay in crystallizing for all time in one potent image the whole saga of romantic, doomed Cavaliers and stern, relentless Puritans, a subject which occupied a central position amongst the themes and obsessions of the Victorian literary and artistic mind.7 

Punch, however, was unable to resist making fun of the painting along with other exhibits. In a short piece called “Dream-Groups at the Academy”, a young couple indulge in a game, using the titles of paintings in the exhibition to answer the question set by Yeames: “And when did you last see your Father?” Was it “In Newgate, Under a Cloud; at the Trysting Tree on the Road to Ruin; or with the Chinese Minister at a Country Cricket Match in the Bernese Alps?”8

The St John’s Wood Clique sold most of their paintings to men with fortunes made from mining, engineering, and shipping who were particularly attracted to these sort of paintings, offering “safe havens” from the contemporary world.9 Gustave Christian Schwabe, for example, was born in Hamburg, but succeeded as a businessman in Liverpool and Manchester, founding the White Star Line (transatlantic shipping). Another collector was Sir John Aird, engineer and contractor, who was responsible for constructing docks and railways, and most spectacularly the Aswan Dam on the Nile. The artists he patronised called him “St John Aird of the Large Heart”. 

However, And when did you last see your father was bought not by an individual but by the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. It was one of the most expensive paintings at the Academy, with a price of £1,200, but Yeames accepted £750 from the Walker (still a large amount). The Walker had been opened by the Earl of Derby in the previous year, on 6 September 1877, so Yeames’ painting was among its first important acquisitions. Giles Waterfield sums up the allure of the painting for both the City Council and the public: “with its historical accuracy, the stage-like arrangement of the figures, the sympathetic portrayal of representatives of both sides in the Civil War and above all the thrilling dilemma it posed: to save one’s father or tell the truth.”10

W.M. Rossetti, writing for The Academy, correctly forecast the impact of And when did you last see your father? on Yeames’ reputation, the painting: “will place Mr Yeames higher in public and professional estimation than he had ever yet stood.”11 Yeames was elected a full Academician on 19 June 1872 and he went on to serve as Librarian of the Academy from 1896 to 1911; his loyalty to the Academy was unwavering.

  1. Andrew Sanders, In the Olden Time: Victorians and the British Past (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre, 2013), 99. Also see E. Morris and F. Milner, And When Did You Last See Your Father? (Liverpool: Walker Art Gallery, 1992).↩︎

  2. The Art-Journal, August 1878, 167.↩︎

  3. M.H. Stephen-Smith, Art and Anecdotes: Recollections of William Yeames (London: Hutchinson, 1927), 173–174, quoted in Roy Strong, And When Did You Last See Your Father?: The Victorian Painter and British History (London: Thames and Hudson, 1978), 144.↩︎

  4. Henry Stacy Marks, Pen and Pencil Sketches (London: 1894), 146.↩︎

  5. Strong, And When Did You Last See Your Father, 137.↩︎

  6. The Art-Journal (July 1878): 148.↩︎

  7. Strong, And When Did You Last See Your Father, 136.↩︎

  8. Punch, 25 May 1878.↩︎

  9. For further discussion, see Dianne Sachko Macleod, Art and the Victorian Middle Class: Money and the Making of Cultural Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).↩︎

  10. Giles Waterfield, The People’s Galleries: Art Museums and Exhibitions in Britain, 1800–1914 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015), 227–228.↩︎

  11. William Michael Rossetti, The Academy 374, 11 May 1878, 423.↩︎

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