Painted Stories in Britain 16: Open narrative and problem pictures

William Frederick Yeames (1835–1918), Defendant and Counsel (1895), oil on canvas, 133.4 x 198.8 cm, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, Bristol, England. The Athenaeum.

While Frith’s human panoramas are distinctively visual storytelling, their popularity was limited. By the late nineteenth century they had largely been forgotten, and for the public replaced by a different form, the open narrative. Although not unique to British narrative painting, these ‘problem pictures’ appear to have originated in Britain, and were most acclaimed there, to the point where they became featured in newspapers.

Telling a story in a single instantaneous image is normally only feasible when the viewer is already familiar with the sequence of events, and can use clues within the image to link backwards and forwards in time, reminding them of the whole narrative. In the nineteenth century, storytelling in literature changed, as new genres such as detective and ‘mystery’ novels started to challenge conventions of narrative closure. Readers of Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin tales from 1841 onwards, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels towards the end of the century, developed a taste for something different.

Narrative painters responded by composing images providing clues as to their underlying narrative, but without themselves bringing its resolution. The viewer was therefore invited to imagine their own version of the narrative, and to speculate rather than reiterate a known story.

The Awakening Conscience 1853 by William Holman Hunt 1827-1910
William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), The Awakening Conscience (1851-53), oil on canvas, 76.2 x 55.9 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by Sir Colin and Lady Anderson through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1976), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

One of the earliest major paintings lacking narrative closure is William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience, painted during the period 1851-53. The viewer of the day was expected to notice small clues such as the absence of a wedding band on the ring finger of the woman’s left hand, telling them this is an extra-marital relationship. Other clues are more symbolic: the cat under the table has caught a bird with a broken wing. The cat implies she is a ‘kept woman’ who needs its company, and the bird represents her moral plight.

The couple have been singing together when she appears to have undergone some revelatory experience, causing her to rise. For Hunt this is associated with a verse from the Old Testament book of Proverbs: “As he that taketh away a garment in cold weather, so is he that singeth songs to an heavy heart.” He leads us to imagine that this kept mistress has had a religious moment, seeing the route to her redemption as her conscience is awakened. The image brings hope without resolution.

For the contemporary viewer, Hunt’s narrative was probably more obvious, and the whole painting less of an enigma. Just three years later, Philip Hermogenes Calderon painted what must be one of the first true problem pictures.

Broken Vows 1856 by Philip Hermogenes Calderon 1833-1898
Philip Hermogenes Calderon (1833–1898), Broken Vows (1856), oil on canvas, 91.4 x 67.9 cm, The Tate Gallery (Purchased 1947), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

The young woman in Calderon’s Broken Vows (1856) is clearly married, and having trouble with ‘affairs of the heart’. On the far side of the fence, a young man holds a small red flower in front of his forehead, which a young woman is trying to grasp with her right hand.

Calderon introduces deep ambiguity. The eyes of the shorter person behind the fence are carefully occluded, leaving their gender open to speculation. Most viewers are likely to conclude that the taller figure beyond the fence is the unfaithful husband of the woman in front, but that requires assumptions unsupported by visual clues. Calderon leaves us to speculate whose vows are being broken.

The North-West Passage 1874 by Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896
John Everett Millais (1829–1896), The North-West Passage (1874), oil on canvas, 176.5 x 222.2 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

These ‘problem pictures’ often built on contemporary themes. The title of John Everett Millais’ The North-West Passage from 1874 tells you how closely it coincided with the departure of a British expedition in futile quest of the rumoured north-west passage round the north of Canada to the Pacific. Enterprises like that had brought a succession of failures since the total loss of Sir John Franklin’s expedition of 1845.

The old man is an experienced mariner who knows the risks and futility. The young woman, probably his daughter, is presumably the wife of one of those on the expedition. He stares hard and cold while she reads anxiously. Behind them a chart shows the limited knowledge of the area of the north-west passage at the time. Flags declare an affinity with the nation, and its Navy. A painting on the wall shows a ship negotiating ice in the far north.

William Frederick Yeames (1835–1918), And when did you last see your Father? (1878), oil on canvas, 131 x 251.5 cm, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England. Wikimedia Commons.

One of the most famous of historical problem pictures is the only work for which William Frederick Yeames is now remembered, And when did you last see your Father?, painted in 1878.

For anyone familiar with costume at the time of the English Civil War, and the Puritan dress of conical hats and plain clothes, this immediately places this event at that time. Contrasting with those are the opulent silks of the mother and children, who are clearly Royalists, the other side. Yeames tells us what the young boy is being questioned about in the painting’s title, without which the narrative would be largely lost. The unresolved issue is whether the boy did reveal the whereabouts of his Cavalier father, an act which is clearly bringing great anguish to his sisters and mother.

At about this time, William Quiller Orchardson started to paint the first of his many problem pictures.

William Quiller Orchardson (1832-1910), Hard Hit (1879), oil on canvas, 84 x 122 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Orchardson’s Hard Hit from 1879 is more difficult to resolve. The fashionably-dressed young man about to open the door on the left is walking away from a group of older villains, who have stopped at nothing, probably including cheating, to beat him repeatedly at cards, and have relieved him of his wealth. Although this may appear a carefully chosen narrative, it was apparently Orchardson’s model who provided the inspiration, when he arrived dejected at the studio one day and revealed that he had been ‘hard hit’ himself the previous night.

William Frederick Yeames (1835–1918), Defendant and Counsel (1895), oil on canvas, 133.4 x 198.8 cm, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, Bristol, England. The Athenaeum.

Yeames’ Defendant and Counsel from 1895 was exhibited in London, illustrated as an engraving in newspapers, and so became the first mass-market painting of this kind.

It shows an affluent married woman wearing an expensive fur coat, sat with a popular tabloid newspaper open in front of her, as a team of three barristers and their clerk look at her intensely, presumably waiting for her to speak.

As she is the defendant, the viewer is encouraged to speculate what she is defending: a divorce claim, or a criminal charge? This also opens the thorny issue of counsel who discover that a defendant is lying, but still mount their defence in court, and may succeed in persuading the court to believe what they know to be false. Like And when did you last see your Father? this may be an exploration of truth and the problems posed by it.

The press quickly seized on the ambiguities and oddities in Yeames’ canvas. A critic in the upper-class newspaper The Times claimed the painting was mistitled, and should have referred to the woman not as defendant, but as the respondent in a divorce case. They also questioned why the lawyers were still wigged and gowned when so obviously outside the courtroom, an issue which the artist was forced to explain.

Yeames was besieged with inquiries from people who claimed they were unable to sleep because they couldn’t resolve the painting’s narrative. The following year, he agreed to judge the best explanation for his painting for The Golden Penny, a popular journal mainly about football, and had to wade through about seventy entries. It became clear that Yeames himself had little idea of the resolution of the story which he’d painted, and awarded the prize to an account which didn’t actually resolve the story at all.

John Collier (1850–1934), The Prodigal Daughter (1903), oil on canvas, 166 x 217 cm, Usher Gallery, Lincoln, England. WikiArt.

John Collier attained fame with The Prodigal Daughter in 1903, which remains one of his best-known works.

An elderly middle-class couple are seen in their parlour in the evening in their sober black clothes and sombre surroundings. They’re surprised when their prodigal daughter turns up out of the blue, in her low-cut gown with floral motifs and scarlet accessories.

Father is still sitting, backlit by a table lamp to heighten the drama. Mother has risen from her chair and is visibly taken aback. Daughter stands, her back against the door and her hand still holding its handle, as if ready to run away again should the need arise. Collier also uses ingenious shadow play, a device which became popular in the nineteenth century perhaps with the advent of optical projectors: here the mother’s cast shadow makes her appear much larger than the daughter’s, like an ogre bearing down on a child.

This immediately sparked debate over the role of women in the modern world, the nature and scope of their family responsibilities, and changing class boundaries. Collier went to great lengths to capture the expressed emotions, in terms of the daughter’s facial expression, and their contrasting body language. The daughter is seen as a ‘fallen woman’, thus part of a popular mythology of the time. But far from appearing fallen and repentant, she stands tall, proud, and wears a rich dress. The resulting discussion spilled over from art gossip columns into more general editorial and comment sections of the press. Collier had arrived.

For the Royal Academy exhibition in 1908, Collier came up with an unconventional theme. Rather than revisit previously popular stories of the ‘fallen woman’, extra-marital affairs, or failed marriage, he chose life and death.

John Collier (1850–1934), The Sentence of Death (1908), colour photogravure after oil on canvas original, original 132 x 162.5 cm, original in Wolverhampton Art Gallery, Wolverhampton, England. By courtesy of Wellcome Images, The Wellcome Library.

At first, The Sentence of Death (1908) disappointed the critics, but it quickly became very popular.

A young middle-aged, and presumably family, man stares blankly at the viewer, having just been told by his doctor that he is dying. The doctor appears disengaged, and is reading from a book, looking only generally in the direction of his doomed patient.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a time of great advances in medicine, but the big killers in Europe and North America like tuberculosis remained common and barely affected by improvements in surgery and hospitals. In some ways, this painting may at the time have seemed quite everyday, but Collier’s genius was in confronting the viewer with the reality.

Not only did this problem picture tackle the great Victorian obsession with death and mortality, but it did so with an adult male patient, assumed by society to keep a ‘stiff upper lip’ and not to be emotional. This led to speculation as to the expected male response to such news, and questions as to what condition might be bringing about his death. There was even public debate about interpretations of the doctor-patient relationship.

Collier and a few remaining exponents of problems picture continued to paint them for some years, but this novel narrative form steadily faded from the public eye during the early twentieth century.


Fletcher PM (2003) Narrating Modernity, the British Problem Picture 1895-1914, Ashgate. ISBN 978 0 754 63568 0.