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Move the red square to explore The Parting Cheer, by Henry Nelson O'Neil

The Parting Cheer is one of the key emigration paintings of the mid-nineteenth century. Between 1815 and 1914 nearly 23 million people emigrated from the British Isles – one of the world’s largest migrations. The Parting Cheer examines the reactions of those left on shore.

The Parting Cheer, by Henry O'Neil.

The Parting Cheer, by Henry O'Neil.

Immigration and emigration

The black man waving his hat towards the departing ship represents both immigration and emigration. 1861 was the year of the American Civil War. His inclusion in the crowd was intended to demonstrate the artist's support for the anti-slavery movement and the promotion of harmony between ethnic groups.
London and the transatlantic slave trade

Parting sorrow

This distressed woman has turned away, unable to look at the departing ship. The man does his best to comfort her. 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.'

Lover departing

The young woman, prostrate with grief, is shown being comforted by the young man wearing a brown hat. Their clothes indicate that they are comfortably off and middle class. They were described in a contemporary account as,  ‘A girl - whose lover, we suppose, is departing - sinks in the arms of her town bred, pale-faced brother’, Athenaeum, No. 1750 May 11 1861 p.636

The sailors

The sailors on deck wear contrasting red and blue shirts. Some wave hats and others hang from the rigging with arms outstretched, trying to maintain their link with home for as long as possible. The water on their right places a physical separation between the ship and the quay.

Young mother

This young mother may be the wife of one of the sailors on the departing ship. Deprived of support, she is shown left alone with two small children, her plight emphasised by the child’s muddy skirt and imploring eyes and the abandoned stance of the child asleep.

Saying goodbye

This young woman’s 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. She has unkempt hair, wears a coarse dress and is unaccompanied, Her lowly status is reinforced by the corner of her apron which she holds instead of a handkerchief.

Cairn terrier

The Cairn terrier with a yellow collar looks up at the grieving widow. A source of comfort, he represents faithfulness, cheerfulness and loyalty. Queen Victoria set the fashion for having small terriers as pets, and a number of them appear in contemporary paintings. 

Mourning widow

She is probably a widow indicated by her black mourning clothes, including the delicate lace of her veil. A contemporary account described the scene, 'a widow weeps violently at parting from her son; a smart girl consoles her, although we presume we are intended to imagine the girl herself has equal cause to require instead of giving sympathy only.' Athenaeum, No. 1750 May 11 1861 p.636

Retired mariner

The retired mariner calmly smokes his pipe while all the activity carries on around him. The style of his hat indicates that he may have been a Thames lighterman.


Orange seller

The small careworn girl with the basket of oranges looks wistfully towards the departing ship. She is recognisable from Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and London Poor as very young, itinerant and Irish. Mayhew exposed the harsh lives of the street fruit seller, which probably began at around the age of seven.
Social conditions in the 19th-century port

Flag waving

People wave flags, red spotted handkerchiefs, hats and walking sticks. These were recognisable last links with home from on board the rapidly departing ship. The baby holding the Union flag has red cheeks and a well-fed appearance. It is shown being held by a father with a ruddy appearance, who may be from the countryside. Many country dwellers emigrated at this period, to seek a better life abroad.

The river

The river, intended to represent 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.

The 19th-century port

The émigrés

The émigrés below are shown cast in shadow. They wave hankies towards the people on the quay, but are otherwise passive participants of the scene on the shore. 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.

National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory GreenwichNew Opportunities Fund 
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