O’Neil was one of Victorian England’s most celebrated genre painters. Many of his most successful works revolved around the theme of separation of men from their wives and children, painted without saccharine or sentiment but with an instinctive human sympathy that confronted the human consequences of their subject.
O’Neil’s most famous painting was Eastward Ho! (1857), which depicted the departure of British soldiers to suppress the Indian Mutiny. The central focus is the farewell of a young woman to her husband, reaching up to him on board the troop ship. The Illustrated London News commented on it: ‘Henry Nelson O’Neil’s Eastward Ho!... presents nothing beyond what has over and over again been witnessed ... and not a week, or scarcely a day, has passed ... but the silent Thames has been witness to many a sad parting such as that depicted in this canvas.’ The picture caused a sensation when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1858 and O’Neil became one of the most celebrated painters with an estimated half a million visitors seeing his painting. The following year he exhibited Home Again to similar acclaim, which showed the same troops returned, wounded and exhausted.