Look homeward Angel: Marshall Claxton’s emigrant

Marshall Claxton’s painting An emigrant’s thoughts of home (1859) (fig. 1) belongs to a clutch of works, both fine and popular, both pictorial and literary, that for an Australasian audience are perhaps the most resonant of the many products of Victorian culture. Emigration, a social and political phenomenon for mid-nineteenth-century Britain, and the essential lubricant of British imperialism, inspired a profusion of paintings, prints, novels, plays, poems, essays and letters that speak eloquently about the realities and myths of Victorian Britain and its role in the world, engaging concepts of the family, womanhood, the artist’s role and function and, indeed, the meaning of life. 

The issue 

Although emigration from Britain to other parts of the world became a talking point in the late 1840s and was considered to have reached epidemic proportions in the early 1850s, it had of course been occurring since Britain first acquired colonies.1For a general account of British emigration in the nineteenth century, see Richard Garrett, The Search for Prosperity: Emigration from Britain 1815–1930, Wayland, London, 1973. In the nineteenth century the chief destinations of British emigrants were the United States, British North America (later called Canada), Australia, New Zealand (also known as Aotearoa), India and South Africa. The so-called Great Hunger of Ireland in the second half of the 1840s swelled the emigrant tide from Britain to a flood and brought the subject of emigration – necessarily entailing the highly political questions of poverty and unemployment at home, and a question raised by works such as An emigrant’s thoughts of home, namely the very contentious issue of the woman’s role – fairly and squarely into the public domain. Typically, a 5½-page supplement on emigration in the Illustrated London News in July 1850 detailed in dramatic tone the numbers and types of people that had been emigrating from Britain in the previous twenty-five years, illustrating with engravings several aspects of the emigration process. Clearly, emigrants were now to be seen as a particular ‘tribe’ within the larger society of Britain: 

There are usually a large number of spectators at the dock-gates to witness the final departure of the noble ship, with its large freight of human beings. It is an interesting and impressive sight … and the most callous and indifferent can scarcely fail, at such a moment, to form cordial wishes for the pleasant voyage and safe arrival of the emigrants, and for their future prosperity in their new home. As the ship is towed, hats are raised, handkerchiefs are waved and a loud and long-continued shout of farewell is raised from the shore.2‘The Tide of Emigration to the United States and the British Colonies’, Illustrated London News, 6 July 1850, p. 15. 

The problems of the Scottish were added to those of the Irish from 1851, when the Highland Clearances drove many Scots to emigration. 

Before 1850, the Irish especially and British emigrants generally went to the United States rather than to other destinations.3It was relevant to the emigrant’s choice of destination that the USA had a lower immigration tax than other countries, and that ship passage across the Atlantic was cheaper than that to other parts of the world open to British emigrants. The figures published by the Illustrated London News to accompany its 1850 supplement on emigration made this very clear: in 1849 British emigrants to the USA amounted to 219,450, to British North America 41,367, to Australia and New Zealand 32,091, and to all other countries 6590 (a total of 299,498 for the year).4The newspaper’s table gave figures from 1825 to 1849 inclusive, showing a continued rise in emigrant numbers (Illustrated London News, 6 July 1850, pp. 15, 17). Australia, of course, bore the stigma of the convict colony until transportation ended (to New South Wales in 1840 and to Tasmania in 1853), while New Zealand became a pseudo-British society to which potential emigrants might feel attracted only in 1840, with the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. India and South Africa appeared to pose risks of disease and climate formidably greater than were posed by other possible refuges. 

An unforeseen dimension was added to the emigration question in 1851 with the discovery of gold in Australia, a discovery that followed unexpectedly the Californian gold rush of 1849. While the finding of gold in the western USA affected those already in that country, the gold-diggings in Australia attracted many new immigrants who departed for the Pacific specifically motivated by the possibility of a quick fortune.5Punch made the following caustic comment on this trend under the heading ‘Advantages of the Australian Gold Fever’: Think of the emigration that must ensue. People of all trades, callings and pursuits. What people? Of course those to whom gold is the prime object. All the lawyers and doctors who practise chiefly with a view to fees. All the divines who look, in the first place, to the loaves and fishes. All and sundry who labour in their vocation principally to get money. The respectable solicitors, honourable barristers, exemplary parsons and bishops, fair dealers, reasonable tradesmen, disinterested authors, and well-paid work people, will all be left behind – and will be, if not very numerous, how very select. (Punch, July–December 1851, p. 123.) Many gold prospectors did become long-term residents, however, and the fact that Victoria rather than New South Wales had been the site of their influx helped to establish, in Melbourne, a white Australian society untainted by the colony’s convict past, a past that Sydney found difficult to transcend. 

Adding further to the reasons why emigration should grow to phenomenal proportions in the early 1850s was the expansion of British interests in India from 1852. While the Indian rebellion in 1857 against this consolidation of colonial power (the so-called Indian Mutiny) checked the complacence of the British there, during the early 1850s many would-be emigrants considered India for the first time as a possible home. 

The demography of emigration was of great concern to government and to colonial administrators, and of consuming interest to the press in Britain and in the emigrants’ adopted countries. While the Irish and Scottish were often singled out as distinct types of emigrants,6See, typically, ‘The Depopulation of Ireland’, Illustrated London News, 10 May 1851, p. 386; ‘Two Aspects of Ireland’, Household Words, 27 September 1851, pp. 6–10, and 4 October 1851, pp. 26–32; Article 9, Edinburgh Review, January 1851, vol. 93, no. 189, p. 208; and Article 8, Edinburgh Review, July 1854, vol. 100, no: 203, p. 236. For retrospective accounts of the matter, see Arnold Schreier, Ireland and American Emigration 1850–1900, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1956; and Gordon Donaldson, The Scots Overseas, Robert Hale, London, 1966. it was of course more precisely the Irish and Scottish poor who were driven to leave their native shores for lands unknown. In fact, until the gold rushes of the 1850s, it was generally assumed that emigrants were either poor or criminal. As James Hammerton puts it: ‘[B]efore the 1850s the public associated Australia and, to a lesser extent, emigration generally, with convict transportation, distress, depravity and prostitution’.7A. James Hammerton, Emigration Gentlewomen, Croom Helm, London, 1979, pp. 46–7. Accordingly, many commentators on the emigration question betrayed an ill feeling towards emigrants in general that ran from impatience to contempt. The rush for gold in the early 1850s allowed self-righteousness to justify what was fundamentally snobbery and class rivalry of a classic British kind. Such animosity is clear in, for instance, an 1853 article on emigration to Australia in Charles Dickens’s magazine Household Words (an article that may, indeed, be by Dickens himself): 

Follow the stream of fustian jackets, corduroy trousers and smock-frocks, keep in the rear of the chattering, excited parties of half-shaven mechanics, slatternly females, and slip-shod children. They are all moving in one direction, and you could not miss your way if you tried, for it is much easier to follow this stream than to move against it.8‘First Stage to Australia’, Household Words, 10 September 1853, p. 42. Dickens’s, and therefore his magazine’s, general stance on emigration can be gauged from his energetic promotion of Caroline Chisholm’s efforts. 

Some distinctions were important, however, to mid-Victorian believers in the doctrine of the deserving and the undeserving poor, for criminals might, of course, be poor, but they were entitled to neither sympathy nor philanthropy in their efforts to rise above the state of poverty. Similarly, women might be in distress, but it was important to distinguish between those who were unfortunate and those who were bad. When it came to the question of female emigrants, this moral sheep-and-goat approach obviously became, in some minds, crucial. 

Particularly problematic, it seemed, were single female emigrants, who were routinely characterised by ships’ captains and colonial administrators in the 1830s as prostitutes more or less, drunkards for the most part, and generally a disgrace to the society from which they came and no use to that which they aspired to join. This despite the fact that from 1831 the Colonial Office had deliberately assisted the emigration to Australia of more than 3000 single working-class women who, the British government designed, would correct the sexual imbalance of the most problematic of Britain’s colonial societies. Allegations of female emigrants’ unsuitability were, more often than not, the product of men’s reluctance to admit to other men (for example, ships’ captains to government officials) the shortcomings, errors or faults in their own roles in the emigration process. The public, however, was given a vivid image of the female emigrant as a troublesome figure, who was not deserving, and needed managing, controlling and correcting. 

The kind of emigrant that the British government and colonial administrators (in Australia, particularly) wished to encourage was, by contrast, respectable and hard-working. The Colonial Land and Emigration Commission was set up in 1842 as a subdivision of the Colonial Office to administer government funding to emigrants, and the official view was that if the government was footing the bill, even partially, it had a right to choose to whose bills it contributed. From the outset, those whom the authorities assumed could pay their own way (that is, the middle class) were discouraged from applying for government assistance, which by 1835 could amount to a whole passage. The information fed to the British press on this question was essentially propaganda. ‘It will no doubt be in the recollection of our readers’, reported the Illustrated London News in April 1844, 

that a Government grant was made to assist families and single men, agricultural labourers, shepherds, carpenters, smiths, wheelwrights, bricklayers, and masons, being of good character, to emigrate to Australia … Amongst these were to be included a certain portion of single women and girls, between eighteen and thirty years of age, who had been in domestic and farm service.9‘Emigration to Sydney’, Illustrated London News, 13 April 1844, p. 227. 

The government’s willingness to assist only certain categories of female emigrants stemmed from a concern with female respectability that in turn arose from a desire to avoid the troubles of the 1830s. But the problem remained that, to retain their respectability, female emigrants, unlike male, had to find themselves (or be found) either husbands or jobs in their new homes, and this was a continuing matter of concern to all who interested themselves in emigration generally and in the ‘woman question’ in particular. 

At the same time, however, the conviction continued that colonial societies, and particularly Australian society, needed to get their male citizens married, so it was seen that single women, more than any other emigrant group, could prove the redemption of the colonies. Women, it was believed, would redeem them from immorality and instability by marrying male colonists and making them not only husbands but fathers too. The single woman – no longer the moral threat to colonial society that she had been accused of being in the 1830s, but rather its moral saviour – began to be courted by the emigration authorities. Thus the crucial factor in defining the desirability of single women as emigrants was not necessarily their class but their tractability. The ‘good’ woman would repel at all social levels the rough and unseemly life that violated mid-Victorian norms of respectability. The ‘angel in the house’ of Coventry Patmore’s popular mid-nineteenth-century poem would become, when transported to Australia (say), ‘the angel of the outback’. 

Even so, the Illustrated London News dutifully informed its readers in May 1852 that ‘[t]he most eligible class of emigrants are married agricultural labourers, shepherds or herdsmen, and women of the working class’.10Letter from S. Walcott, Secretary to the Colonial Land and Emigration Commission (published in answer to readers’ complaints of the authorities’ discrimination against certain applicants for aid), Illustrated London News, 29 May 1852, p. 429. Only Edward Gibbon Wakefield, the most persistent architect of Australasian emigration, continually argued for the emigration of both single women and the middle classes, and thus, by inference, for middle-class female emigration. The much-quoted declaration in his Art of Colonization, published in 1849, that ‘[i]n colonisation, women have a part so important that all depends on their participation in the work … You may make a colony agreeable to men and not to women; you cannot make it agreeable to women without it being agreeable to men’11Edward Gibbon Wakefield, A View of the Art of Colonization, London, 1849, p. 155. Wakefield’s publications on the question of emigration already included A Letter from Sydney, the Principal Town of Australia (London, 1829) and England and America: A Comparison of the Social and Political State of Both Nations (London, 1833). For an interesting contemporary contextualisation of Wakefield’s position on the emigration question, see Article 1, Edinburgh Review, January 1850, vol. 91, no. 183, p. 1. only typifies his stand. 

On the same lines, though less sophisticated – perhaps, it should be said, less disingenuous – was Mrs Caroline Chisholm’s belief that women, and children, were ‘God’s police’ in colonial society. Chisholm’s charitable work with female immigrants in Sydney during the 1830s and 1840s, ‘rescuing’ those who became immediate victims of a masculine society, led her to become a willing evangelist for the domestication of white Australian society through the recruitment of female emigrants as potential wives and inevitable mothers.12For a contemporary account of Caroline Chisholm’s life, see H. Ledder, The Story of the Life of Mrs. Caroline Chisholm, a work of hagiography published in London by the Family Colonisation Loan Society in 1850. There are numerous retrospective biographies; see, for instance, Suzanne Fabian & Morag Loh, The Change-Makers: Ten Significant Australian Women, Jacaranda, Milton, Queensland, 1983. The Wakefieldians and the Chisholmites were also united in their articulation of woman as the purveyor – the vessel, even – of religious feeling, of which many British observers felt the Australian colonies, in particular, were in dire need if they were to continue an asset, rather than a liability, to Britain. 

Various schemes and associations, whose titles tell their own tale, sprang up at the mid-century to facilitate the discovery and transportation of this paragon. There was the British Ladies’ Female Emigration Society (established 1849), the Fund for Promoting Female Emigration (established 1849 by Sidney Herbert and specialising in the recruitment of unemployed needlewomen), and the Family Colonisation Loan Society (which, devoted to supporting Caroline Chisholm’s work, sent its first ship to Australia in 1850), to name only the most prominent. (Other organisations were mooted by the Governesses’ Benevolent Institution and by Hyde Clark, who planned a ‘National Benevolent Emigration Fund for Widows and Orphan Daughters of Gentlemen, Clergymen, Professional Men, Officers, Bankers and Merchants’.) As Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal declared in writing about Chisholm (‘the emigrant’s friend’) in March 1850, ‘Never was there a period at which the public mind was more deeply stirred by the question of emigration than at the present moment’,13‘Mrs. Chisholm’, Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal, 30 March 1850, vol. 13, p. 201. and the press teemed with reports, comments and readers’ letters on the subject. 

The ‘public mind’ was, indeed, engaged more and more fully by the question of emigration as the 1850s proceeded, although the problems associated with it continued to be as evident as its benefits. The ‘rehabilitation’ of single working-class women by means of government-assisted emigration was followed by the concerted attempts of Wakefield and others to lure the middle classes over the water, and, as Patricia Clarke writes in her study of female emigration between 1862 and 1882: ‘There were continual complaints from the colonies that the women who were arriving as emigrants did not fit the category of servant. As early as 1852, the Immigration Agent in Victoria, Edward Grimes, complained that there was no demand for nursery-governesses, companions to ladies or artificial flower-makers’.14Patricia Clarke, The Governesses: Letters from the Colonies 1862–82, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1985, p. 5. Such contributions to the debate as ‘The Art of Successful Emigration’, an article in the Illustrated London News in 1850, presented the colonies as lands of opportunity for the skilled, educated man and his family who wanted a change and better prospects than could be expected in Britain; outside a family, however, the single middle-class female emigrant was more difficult to transplant.15‘The Art of Successful Emigration, Illustrated London News, 24 August 1850, p. 167. 

A stream of more personal testimonies, all designed to aid the more comfortable, less desperate (but still unsatisfied) Briton in making up his or her mind about whether or not to emigrate, flowed from the middle-class press during the 1850s.16The regular reader of the Illustrated London News, for instance, was met with reports from ‘A Port Phillip Settler’ during 1850; numerous accounts of the discovery of gold in Victoria and descriptions of ‘An Emigrant’s Cottage in New Zealand’ the following year; and letters from ‘A Working Man’ on ‘Life in Australia’ throughout 1852, 1853 and 1854. Similarly, the Household Words reader was regaled with ‘Cape Sketches’ (1850), ‘A Woman’s Experience in California’ (1851), ‘A Musician in California’ (1851), ‘From a Settler’s Wife’ (1852), ‘Emigration from Liverpool’ (1852), ‘Off to the Diggings!’ (1852) and ‘A Digger’s Diary’ (1853), among others. Emigration was discussed more obliquely, and more theoretically, in more intellectual papers such as the Quarterly Review (‘A Hunter’s Life in South Africa’, December 1850, vol. 88, no. 175, pp. 1–41; ‘The History of British India’, September 1851, vol. 89, no. 178, pp. 257–76; ‘Reports and Letters on the Highlands of Scotland’, December 1851, vol. 90, no. 179, pp. 163–205; ‘Reports on the Gold Findings’, September 1852, vol. 91, no. 182, pp. 504–40; ‘Recent Books on India’, December 1852, vol. 92, no. 183, pp. 46–76). Emigrants by the dozen wrote ‘instant autobiographies’ for the home market from the late 1840s on, the tide of published material continuing unabated into the late 1850s and early 1860s, though the rate of emigration dropped to a less startling and steadier rate after the mid-1850s.17The total number of emigrants from Britain in the period 1850–54 was 1,638,945; for 1855–59, 800,640; and for 1860–64, 744,111 (see Garrett, p. 125). Equally common became the emigration novel, with which both male and female emigrants could hope to bolster the income they could glean from their new country.18For instance: Alexander Harris, Settlers and Convicts, or Recollections of Sixteen Years’ Labour in the Australian Backwoods (London, 1847) and The Emigrant Family, or The Story of an Australian Settler (London, 1849); Mrs Charles Clacy, Lights and Shadows of Australian Life (London, 1854); Caroline Atkinson, Gertrude the Emigrant (Sydney, 1857); and Charles Reade, It Is Never Too Late to Mend (London, 1856). Accounts of life in Australia, both fictional and allegedly factual, appeared also on stage: Charles Reade’s play Gold ran very successfully at the Drury Lane Theatre through 1853 (see Victor Emeljanow, ‘How Different from Smoky, Thankless London’, in Australasian Victorian Studies Association, Conference Papers, University of New England, Armidale, New South Wales, 1988, p. 128). 

In the early 1860s, female emigration became again a particular bone of contention when a clash occurred between the feminist movement and conservatives concerned about the social consequences of the numerical disparity between the population of marriageable women and single men, as revealed by census returns. Feminists anxious to expand British women’s opportunities for self-determination saw paid work, along with education, as the key. This applied to middle- and working-class women in different ways of course, and an aspect of the middle-class woman’s situation that particularly attracted feminist energy was its habitual idleness. Colonial society, the feminists felt, would give women paralysed by privilege something to do. The result of this train of thought was the Female Middle-Class Emigration Society (FMCES), announced in 1861 and established in 1862 with Maria Rye at its head.19See A. James Hammerton, ‘Feminism and Female Emigration, 1861–1886’, in A Widening Sphere: Changing Roles of Victorian Women, ed. Martha Vicinus, Methuen, London, 1980, pp. 52–71. 

While the Society attracted enormous interest, both public and private, and considerable support, some of this approval was quite unwanted. The school of thought exemplified by William Greg’s 1862 essay ‘Why Are Women Redundant?’ welcomed organised and systematic emigration as a solution to the apparent problem of large numbers of women, chiefly in the middle classes, being unable to find a husband. The idea of emigration as transnational marriage-broking was, of course, not new, but the baldly stated contention that single women in any number were an aberration that Britain could not tolerate was an unashamedly confrontational perversion of the feminist organisers’ aims. The republication of Greg’s essay in 1868 and again in 1869 kept this argument going, while the FMCES itself survived until 1886. By contrast with governmental schemes of emigration, it made great efforts to secure jobs for its charges, whom Clarke characterises as ‘[e]ducated and genteel, but unmarried and unemployed’.20Clarke, p. 1. 

Single men and families continued to emigrate steadily, but it was the single woman who dominated the continuing discussion of emigration in the 1860s. Where government initiatives in the 1840s had worried about how best to manage working-class women emigrants, the female emigrant in the limelight in the 1860s was emphatically middle-class. Like her less privileged sister, though, she was expected by the mainstream of concerned opinion to emigrate for marriage and motherhood. The good woman, after all, had no other ambition but to be an angel in the house. 

The artist 

Marshall Claxton is a particularly apposite author of such a painting as An emigrant’s thoughts of home. Born in 1813 in Lancashire, he might have been expected to go into the Church rather than become an artist, his father being a Wesleyan minister.21There is no full biography of Claxton; he appears in the Dictionary of National Biography, eds L. Stephen & K. Lee, vol. 4, Smith, Elder & Co., London, 1908, p. 463, and in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, ed. Douglas Pike, vol. 3, eds Ν. B. Nairn, A. G. Serle & R. B. Ward, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1969, pp. 424–5. Instead, however, he went to train as an artist, with a fellow Wesleyan – portraitist John Jackson. Graduating to the Royal Academy schools in 1831, Claxton made his exhibition debut at the RA the following year with a portrait of his father. Other early successes included the first prize for painting in the RA schools in 1834 and the Royal Society of Arts gold medal for a portrait in 1835. 

Despite Claxton’s promising start, the record of his career is a mixed one. He quickly added the British Institution and the Society of British Artists to his regular exhibition venues,22Claxton would contribute to various exhibitions at the RA between 1832 and 1876; at the Society of British Artists between 1832 and 1876; and at the British Institution between 1833 and 1867 (the British Institution closed in 1867). but took the curious step of departing for Italy a few years after he had established himself on the London circuit. Arriving in the land of classicism in 1837, Claxton remained in Italy (chiefly Rome) until 1842, though sending back exhibits for the London shows the while. In 1843 he won a prize in the first round of the Palace of Westminster frescos competition, although this award was not followed by a commission from the competition’s organisers. He became a frequent exhibitor at the RA, the British Institution and the Society of British Artists, with a motley range of subject pictures and portraits. 

Claxton’s departure for Australia in 1850 – not a common step for members of the British community of artists – was explained by his obituarist thus: ‘[After his success of 1843] his activity and energy resulted in the production of more pictures than his patrons could consume. Ambition and energy combined with necessity and prompted the execution of an idea that then showed much courage’.23Athenaeum, 13 August 1881, p. 216. Claxton’s first biographer took a similar line, saying that ‘[h]is activity and power of production … exceeded the demand for his works, and in 1850, having a number of pictures undisposed of, he conceived a new, and in those days original, plan’.24Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 4, p. 463. 

Certainly, after sixteen years of almost continuous exhibition at the RA (1832–47), fourteen at the British Institution (1833-46) and a more sporadic record at the Society of British Artists from 1832, Claxton may have begun to feel in the late 1840s that his career was in danger of stultification, if not decline. He had not been seen at the Society of British Artists since 1841, and his regular appearances at the British Institution and the RA faltered in 1846 and 1847 respectively, and again in 1849. A cursory appearance in the Art Journal of 1849, with an illustration to Milton’s L’Allegro, would have done little to alleviate his anxiety.25‘Good Morrow’, one of sixteen engravings published under the heading ‘Passages from Poets’, appeared in the Art Journal, 1 May 1849, p. 142. Despite having entered the 1844 and 1847 rounds of the apparently endless Palace of Westminster fresco competitions, he again failed to attract a commission from the administrators. Having married in 1837, Claxton now had his wife, Sophia, and their two daughters, Florence and Adelaide, to support, and in August 1850 the whole family set sail for Australia, assisted by the government.26Commentators disagree on the Claxtons’ date of departure and arrival, some giving July and September, others August and November. The dates preferred here are given in Tim Bonyhady, Australian Colonial Paintings in the Australian National Gallery, Australian National Gallery, Canberra, & Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1986, p. 53. It is possible that the Claxtons had more than two children, since some sources state that ‘one of his [Claxton’s] sons’ died in Sydney. While Florence Claxton’s birthdate is uncertain, it is known that Adelaide Claxton was born in 1842.

Claxton could well have known, through assiduous reading of the recent British press, not only that white Australian society was now allegedly becoming more stable and respectable, but, more specifically, that music and opera were flourishing in Sydney and Melbourne, that professionals in these fields had been visiting the two colonial cities to apparent acclaim, and that amateur interest in art was common in the more privileged classes of colonial society. He may also have heard that some convicts had turned artist,27See some of the artists discussed in Daniel Thomas (ed.), Creating Australia: 200 Years of Art 1788–1988, International Cultural Corporation of Australia Limited, Sydney, & Art Gallery Board of South Australia, Adelaide, 1988; and Patricia R. McDonald & Barry Pearce, The Artist and the Patron: Aspects of Colonial Art in New South Wales, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1988. but probably felt, as biographers of the first artists to become famous in Australia have claimed, that ‘there were few painters of any talent in the early days, merely dilettantes with a faculty for sketching or amiable ladies with a taste for watercolours’.28Vance Palmer, National Portraits, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1940, p. 86. Palmer’s comments are made in the context of a discussion of the artist Louis Buvelot, who did not arrive in Australia (Melbourne) until 1865. Why, then, should not a professional painter find the Australian colonies a receptive, and perhaps lucrative, field? 

Certainly, some British immigrants in Australia were convinced by the early 1850s that such a climate had been established in the Australian cities. ‘Really there is no giving up of civilisation to reside in such a city as Sydney’, wrote one John Hardwick to his brother in June 1853, comparing his adopted city with London.29Quoted in Suzanne Mourot, This Was Sydney: A Pictorial History from 1788 to the Present Time, Ure Smith, Sydney, 1969, p. 48. An immigrant to Melbourne, a loyal Protestant like Claxton, John Davies Mereweather sang similar praises of his new home one month after his arrival in June 1850: 

Here am I, after a voyage of thirteen thousand or fourteen thousand miles through the great ocean, arrived on a vast continent, the existence of which was unknown to the world [sic] until two hundred years ago, and which was not inhabited by white men until 62 years ago. More than that, I have been partaking of an excellent repast, served in a way which would be considered creditable in London or Paris, in the society of educated and wealthy men, in a portion of that continent which was only discovered seventeen or eighteen years ago [sic], and in a city which sixteen years back was a savage waste, trodden by savage men in chase of the emu and the kangaroo … What wonderful civilising tendencies the Anglo-Saxon race seems to have!30Quoted in John Hale, Settlers, Faber & Faber, London, 1950, p. 185. 

No doubt convinced that he could play a part in the process of civilisation, Claxton arrived in Sydney in November 1850. He had with him some two hundred paintings, which he intended to exhibit and hoped to sell,31It is usually said that these works were not all Claxton’s own, but this belief seems to stem directly from an unsubstantiated comment by the artist’s obituarist that ‘[these] could not have been all of his own production, and were, probably, not all his own property’ (Athenaeum, 13 August 1881, p. 216). If Claxton had, indeed, gathered other artists’ works together before emigrating, his apparent failure to sell many of them would surely have given rise to some evidence, in the form of memoirs, letters, press comment etc., of the arrangement he had entered into with colleagues. However, the artist’s daughters were living at the time of his death and would presumably have been consulted about his obituary. with a view to setting himself up as a teacher of art in an institution devoted to the purpose. Whether or not Claxton had ever taught art in Britain on a private basis (he certainly had not done so institutionally) is unknown. His progress was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald and Bell’s Life in Sydney, with generous notices of his vast display of paintings at the Sydney University College. The former called it ‘this delightful galaxy of art’, describing several of the exhibits in detail and thanking Claxton for ‘the rich treat he has afforded us, and which, at considerable expense and trouble to himself, he generously offers gratuitously to the public’.32‘Mr Marshall Claxton’s Free Exhibition of Paintings in Sydney College’, Sydney Morning Herald, 18 January 1851, p. 2. Although, curiously, none of the Sydney press reports of Claxton’s display clarifies the question of the paintings’ authorship, the Sydney Morning Herald article does contain the following comment: Our first impression on entering his gallery was, that the pictures exhibited, from their number, variety, and difference of style, must have been the work of different hands. Our next impression was that the same hand could be traced through them all (the copies excepted), but that a marked difference of style and handling was clearly perceptible in various pictures, showing a sort of progress in the artist’s style. Bell, for his part, though reserved in his assessment of the artist’s stature, declared that ‘Mr. Claxton’s arrival is a national benefit’.33Bell’s Life in Sydney, 25 January 1851, p. 2. 

Word of his enterprise was also fed to the British press, the Art Journal noting in mid-1851 that ‘Mr. Marshall Claxton has arrived in Sydney New South Wales, and had placed at his disposal, by the Government authorities, Sydney College which he has had fitted up as a gallery, and which is attracting considerable attention’.34Art Journal, 1 July 1851, p. 202. In fact, the said exhibition had already ended, since the hall in which it had been held was requisitioned by the College towards the end of March 1851, some two and a half months after Claxton’s show opened. That this seemed to mark the end of Claxton’s ambitions for the city’s cultural future was bewailed by the Herald as an indictment of Sydneysiders’ intelligence, taste and priorities, the closing of the exhibition being seen as especially inexcusable given that ‘the Sydney College Hall was every week thronged with visitors, who evinced the warmest interest in what to many of them was an entirely new field of study’.35Sydney Morning Herald, 22 March 1851, p. 4. As Claxton’s obituarist recorded tersely: ‘Nothing came of the venture, but it was the first public exhibition of works of art at [sic] the antipodes’.36Athenaeum, 13 August 1881, p. 216. This claim, repeated by several subsequent writers, is very arguable; for the opposing view, see Robert Holden, ‘Fine Art Exhibitions and Collectors in Colonial Sydney, 1847–1877’, in McDonald & Pearce, pp. 161–7. 

Nevertheless, Claxton attracted some private commissions, mostly for portraits from the Sydney and Melbourne upper class, over the next few years and in 1851 won a competition for an emblem for the University of Sydney.37The Art Gallery of New South Wales holds sixteen portraits by Claxton of local people, and more such works are in private collections in the Sydney area. The Geelong Art Gallery holds another such work, but in this case of a Melbourne personality, Mrs Hugh (Margaret) Chambers. He continued to find support in the local press, which had promoted his initial venture. Drawings of current events and sketches of local personalities appearing from time to time in the Illustrated London News, of which the Illustrated Sydney News was the sister publication, kept Claxton’s name before the British public too.38See, for instance, ‘Arrival of the Government Gold Conveyance at the Colonial Treasury on 21 August 1851’, a sketch of the arrival in Sydney of the gold findings from Bathurst, in the Illustrated London News, 24 January 1852, p. 72, and portrait sketches of the government surveyor and the government commissioner for the gold diggings district, in the Illustrated London News, 3 July 1852, p. 9. He was given at least two commissions for Queen Victoria: View of the harbour and city of Sydney (1852) and the undated Portrait of the last queen of the Aborigines.39Both works are now in the Royal Collection. Further solo exhibitions were held in Sydney in 1854 and 1857. 

Claxton’s success cannot, however, have been enough to support either his own ambitions or a family of four, for in September 1854 the family left Australia for India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), apparently still in possession of many of the two hundred paintings that the artist had shown in 1851. The biographer of Claxton’s daughters, writing within their father’s lifetime, would have it that ‘[f]rom sheer love of travel, the family wandered to Calcutta’,40Ellen Clayton, English Female Artists, vol. 2, Tinsley Brothers, London, 1876, p. 46. but economic necessity seems a more likely explanation for the Claxtons’ removal to British Asia. In the elite of Anglo-Indian society Claxton found purchasers for many of his painted ‘albatrosses’, but the family soon left for England, via Egypt and the Mediterranean, arriving back in 1858. 

Claxton had primed his erstwhile public for his return, sending works to the RA in 1856, and to the British Institution and the RA the following year. The subjects of these works were drawn from his travels: a portrait of Daniel Wilson, Lord Bishop of Calcutta, in 1856; and Scene at a Ghaut on the banks of the Ganges (RA), Government House, Town Hall, Ochterlony Monument and part of Chowringhee, Taken from the Fort Road, Calcutta (British Institution) and Gibraltar Belle (British Institution) in 1857. Of most topical use to Claxton after his return to England were his recollections of India, since the Mutiny of 1857 had thrust that part of the world to the forefront of the British mind, and accordingly a painting called The escape, India appeared at the British Institution in 1859. Religious painting, a favourite genre of the artist’s pre-emigration career, was given a new lease of life by his foreign experience, with works in this genre including Ruth and Naomi (RA, 1858) and The mother of Moses (RA, 1860). Further, Arab woman of Aden (British Institution, 1861) and Algerian lady (British Institution, 1862) attest to the artist wringing as much pictorial capital out of his time abroad as contemporary taste might bear. A souvenir of his Australian experience executed later than An emigrant’s thoughts of home was his 1867 exhibit at the Society of British Artists, The Southern Cross, which featured a nude figure floating in the heavens, and which may well have been a reworking of his University of Sydney emblem design.41Whereabouts of these works by Claxton (with the exception of An emigrant’s thoughts of home) are now unknown. 

Claxton’s daughters, too, who turned to art-making on their return to Britain, can be seen deploying their experience of India, Ceylon and Australia in the work they produced for the illustrated papers in the next ten years. For the Illustrated Times in 1863 they collaborated on a series of fourteen engravings called ‘England versus Australia’ (fig. 2), and brought colonial locations into anecdotal drawings and serial story illustrations for such papers as London Society, the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine and Judy.42See, for instance, Adelaide Claxton’s illustrations to the story ‘Riddles of Love’, serialised in London Society in 1870. See also her ‘The Course at Calcutta’, in the Illustrated Times, 30 July 1859 (cover page); and Florence Claxton’s ‘Arrival of Overland Travellers at Point de Galle, Ceylon’, in the Illustrated Times, 31 March 1860, p. 198.

Marshall Claxton continued to paint for exhibition until the 1870s, when he became ill with the condition that was to kill him in 1881. He remained essentially a jobbing artist, ready to turn his hand to any of the higher genres in the search for patronage, quick to take up the subjects and themes that the mainstream public would buy; in the verdict of the Dictionary of National Biography, ‘Claxton was an ambitious and industrious painter, but lacked the strength requisite to rise to a high position in his art’.43Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 4, p. 463. 


This, then, is the background to An emigrant’s thoughts of home, shown at the British Institution in 1860. In this work, Claxton taps the vein of a social and artistic trend with which he could claim personal involvement, and which had remained on the cultural agenda since the artist himself had joined the exodus from Britain a decade before. 

The painting 

Emigration became at the mid-century perhaps the most vivid theme that painters of modern life could tackle. As the seamstress had been an icon of topical, socially concerned art in the 1840s, so the emigrant moved to the centre of the realists’ stage in the 1850s, whether an artist was a bourgeois realist, engaged in producing a reassuring and anecdotal image of contemporary life, or a social realist, concerned to bear witness to Victorian Britain’s problems and controversies. Artists, audiences and critics were equally likely to be drawn to the subject as one of moment. As Susan Casteras has pointed out, an emigration subject can be found appearing at the RA as early as 1838 (P.F. Poole’s The emigrant’s departure), but it was between the late 1840s and the mid-1860s that the theme became established as a staple of the annual exhibitions, in a variety as great as that of the emigrant population itself.44Susan P. Casteras, ‘“Oh! Emigration! Thou’rt the Curse …”: Victorian Images of Emigration Themes’, Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies, vol. 6, no. 1, November 1985, pp. 1–23. 

Certain formulae emerged from this variety and number of emigration paintings, however, and Claxton’s painting belongs to one of the distinct variants. The simplest and perhaps the most direct, this type of image presents the viewer with a figure or figures in the most obvious act of emigration: sailing or steaming away. In this schema, the given figure is meant to embody the feelings that the artist could expect the audience to have experienced or imagined: regret, fear, nostalgia, loss, sorrow on the one hand, and hope, excitement, relief on the other. So readily would the 1860 audience have entered into this subject – by then familiar, it could be surmised, beyond any other except the royal family – that the artist could rely on any of these emotions being read into the image with satisfaction by the viewer. 

Even so, Claxton’s emigrant exudes very little identifiable emotion, and her surroundings are devoid of the narrative detail so often used by the mid-Victorian artist to amplify a picture’s basic premise. Claxton deploys the elements of the feminine ideal – madonna type, large-eyed and rosy-cheeked, modest in demeanour and fresh-faced – to evoke the ‘good woman’ dear to the authorities’ hearts, neither a potential prostitute nor a probable drunkard but a natural member of God’s police: the angel en route from the poet Patmore’s idealised house to new horizons. Claxton’s emigrant clearly belongs to the Victorian moralists’ category of ‘poor but honest’, and is perhaps one of the distressed needlewomen assisted to emigrate by Sidney Herbert’s Fund for Promoting Female Emigration, or a decent girl, taken under the wing of a respectable family emigrating with Mrs Chisholm’s support. 

The simplicity of Claxton’s entry in this subject arena is underlined if An emigrant’s thoughts of home is compared with other works of this type. In 1855, Anna Blunden showed a painting called The emigrant (now lost, presumably destroyed) at the Society of British Artists; the subject of this work was described by the Art Journal reviewer as ‘a girl absorbed in grief, resting on the bulwark of a ship’.45Art Journal, 1 May 1858, p. 143; this review was on the occasion of the painting’s second showing, at the Society of Female Artists exhibition. For a discussion of Blunden’s work, see Jan Marsh & Pamela Gerrish Nunn, Women Artists and the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, Virago, London, 1989. Although this work, known from descriptions, was very close to Claxton’s image, it is interesting to note that Blunden turned her emigrant’s back to the spectator, abjuring the easy appeal of a pretty face, and attempting thereby an expressive rather than a sentimental effect. A further comparison can be made with John Watson Nicol’s painting of 1863 Lochaber no more (fig. 3), wherein two figures and a heap of belongings evoke a complexity of emotions far surpassing those provoked by Claxton’s bland treatment of the motif.46Nicol’s painting, like many others, refers particularly to Scottish emigration enforced by the Highland Clearances. A case could be made for these works constituting a distinct type of emigration painting, although they vary formally. See note 55 below for another example. No less complex, though simple in intention, were some of the engraved images of departing emigrants published in the illustrated papers with poems or songs on this topical subject. The song supplement of the 19 June 1852 edition of the Illustrated London News included ‘The Emigrants’, written and illustrated anonymously (fig. 4), in which a representative swathe of the British population is shown on deck looking its last on the coast of England, bidden by the lyrics to temper its sorrow at parting, with optimism of a better life.47Illustrated London News supplement, 19 June 1852 (no pagination). The three stanzas of lyrics begin: ‘Farewell to thee, England! oh land of our birth, / The pride and the glory and queen of the earth! / We sail with sad hearts to a land far away, / In search of the bread that may fail if we stay. / New faces glow bright in the blaze of our fires, / The stranger sits down in the halls of our sires. / Farewell! oh, farewell to thy beautiful shore! / England! dear England! farewell ever more!’. 


The emigrant tribe is also mustered on deck in the most celebrated example of the emigration painting, Ford Madox Brown’s The last of England (1852–55, exhibited Liverpool 1856) (fig. 5). Though prompted by Brown’s friend the sculptor Thomas Woolner’s departure for Australia in 1852, and enriched by Brown’s own consideration of emigration to India, this work fits into the artist’s already declared programme of painting the history of the modern day, history in the making as it were. ‘This picture is in the strictest sense historical’, he wrote in the catalogue accompanying the painting’s first London showing in 1865. ‘It treats of the great emigration movement which attained its culminating point in 1852’.48Ford Madox Brown, Catalogue Notes, p. 8, quoted in Lucy F. Rabin, Ford Madox Brown and the Pre-Raphaelite History Picture, Garland, New York, 1978, p. 226. Accordingly, in his diary the artist refers to the painting as simply ‘The Emigrants’.49To accompany the painting, the artist wrote a poem whose first words have become the work’s usual title (see Rabin, p. 231). Its leading figures – a lower-middle-class couple with unfulfilled or frustrated expectations and a growing family – are typical of the kind of emigrant with which Brown would have compared himself. ‘I have … in order to present the parting scene in its fullest tragic development’, he wrote, ‘singled out a couple from the middle classes, high enough, through education and refinement, to appreciate all they are now giving up’.50Ford Madox Brown, Catalogue Notes, p. 8, quoted in J. B. Priestley, Victoria’s Heyday, Heinemann, London, 1972, p. 18. In the artist’s words, the other figures in his painting comprise: an honest family of the green-grocer kind, father (mother lost), elder daughter, and younger children, [which] makes the best of things with tobacco-pipe and apples, &c., &c. Still further back a reprobate shakes his fist with curses at the land of his birth, as though that were answerable for his want of success; his old mother reproves him for his foul-mouthed profanity, while a boon companion, with flushed countenance, and got up in nautical togs for the voyage, signifies drunken approbation. (Catalogue Notes, p. 9, quoted in Rosemary Treble, Judith Bronkhurst & Malcolm Warner, Great Victorian Pictures: Their Paths to Fame, Arts Council of Great Britain, London, 1978, p. 26). Despite this apparent objectification, the likenesses of the couple are in fact those of Brown and his wife, Emma, and thus Brown individualises the British emigrant with a Pre-Raphaelite rigour and authenticity that some contemporaries found discomfiting to look upon. 

The couple’s fellow seekers after good fortune, crammed together on the Eldorado, are meant to illustrate the diversity of the emigrant population which the Illustrated London News and other commentators were so keen to describe. The idiosyncratic intensity of Brown’s contribution to the discourse on emigration contrasts strongly with Claxton’s Book of Beauty simplicity. Characteristically, Claxton has mounted the bandwagon by way of the easiest step, while Brown has, equally characteristically, taken the most laborious way up. 

The departure scene – that essential element of the emigration experience – was also chosen as the point of entry to the subject by other artists, whose works vary in salient ways from Claxton’s, Blunden’s, Nicol’s and Brown’s. Their inventiveness, indeed, makes these works difficult to categorise, though they definitely exploit the topicality and compulsion of the idea of exile. So Abraham Solomon’s Second class: the parting (RA, 1855), for example, utilises a second contemporary touchstone, the railway. Solomon’s young emigrant sits in a second-class compartment with his mother and sister, riding to Southampton whence he will depart for Australia. In case the point is not immediately made, their companions include a sailor, who is accompanied by a woman whose vivid jollity contrasts with the devoted mother’s respectable sorrow. Solomon’s keenness to mine the vein of sentimentality almost smothered the social subject underpinning his picture, though, as Jeffery Daniels has pointed out, the emigration theme was developed quite pointedly in the engraving after the painting. When Second class: the parting was engraved in 1857 with its predecessor, First class: the meeting (1855), which showed a young officer trying to make the acquaintance of a young lady riding in the same carriage accompanied by a father or uncle, the two images were transposed, rendering the pair positive propaganda for emigration. The boy emigrant of the second-class carriage returns years later as a lieutenant who now travels first-class!51See Jeffery Daniels, ‘Catalogue of Works: Abraham Solomon’, in Geffrye Museum, Solomon: A Family of Painters, Inner London Education Authority, London, 1985, p. 53. 

Just as individually, Richard Redgrave’s 1858 RA exhibit The emigrant’s last sight of home (fig. 6) presents a departure quite different in spirit from the run of partings suffered by the painted emigrant.52Redgrave’s commitment to contemporary social problems as subjects for painting is discussed in Susan P. Casteras & C. Ronald Parkinson (eds), Richard Redgrave, 1804–1888, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, & Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut, 1988. Redgrave shows the members of a large family on their way from an English village, pausing at the top of the hill to wave a last goodbye. The countryside they cannot hope to find replicated in the land to which they are bound, and the rustic idyll that the English landscape stood for in the mid-Victorian viewer’s mind, are as much the painting’s subject as its protagonist and his family. The picture’s sunny palette and pastoral setting – which make Redgrave’s point keenly, of course – set this emigration painting apart from nearly all others of the period. Even those others that are set outdoors tend to give their emigrants a gloomy sky under which to leave their homeland. 

In examples such as Thomas Faed’s The last of the clan (1859, exhibited RA 1865), the melancholy betokened by a grey sky is essential to the vision of emigration presented – a vision common to most artists’ depictions of departures by Scottish emigrants. For here, in the wake of the Highland Clearances, the emigration is enforced, hardly chosen, and results from a series of actions widely agreed to be iniquitous.53Faed saw himself as a painter of Scotland rather than as a painter of social problems: in some cases the two subjects combined (see Mary McKerrow, The Faeds: A Biography, Canongate, Edinburgh, 1982). Even in such a leave-taking as Henry Nelson O’Neil’s The parting cheer (RA, 1861), the positive title is belied by the blustery weather, prevailing chaos and huddled foreground figures in this quayside scene. Even though viewers at the 1861 RA exhibition were directed by the catalogue entry to take O’Neil’s picture as the emigration of Dickens’s Peggotty and Micawber, an ‘event’ they would know had a happy outcome,54David Copperfield was serialised in 1849 and 1850 in Household Words. Dickens had treated emigration in an earlier story, Martin Chuzzlewit (1843), but in this case the emigrant’s destination was the USA and the outcome negative. the work’s pictorial type was well established by the early 1860s as negative. 

Departure paintings, of which Claxton’s is an uncomplicated example, were complemented by another important kind of emigration picture, the letter scene. Letters written, letters received, letters sighed and cried over, concealed or shown off, were a staple element of mid-Victorian painting, and were called for not only by the contemporary preoccupation with emigration but also by the subject of the Crimean War (1854–56), which engaged painters throughout its duration. The incidence of letters in representations of romance was also high, and in many cases of emigration paintings using the letter theme, critics complained that the specificity of the subject was quite impossible for the viewer to glean from the work’s appearance, so easily did the motif of the letter allow for other readings. 

The domestic interior, which could be assumed to be the appropriate setting for the letter scene, was as accessible to novice artists as to veterans, and it is in the early work of the reluctant Pre-Raphaelite James Collinson that two typical letter paintings on the theme of emigration appear. Reading the emigrant’s letter (sometimes called Answering the emigrant’s letter) was painted in 1850 and The emigration scheme in 1852. Like Richard Redgrave’s painting (fig. 6), both these works situate the emigration theme within the family, but what distinguishes letter scenes from departure scenes most trenchantly is the different range of emotions that their protagonists mobilise in the viewer (and in the critic as self-appointed spokesman for the audience). The emigration painting that uses the letter motif deals in doubt, wistfulness, discontent, ambition, longing. 

The later of Collinson’s paintings was recognised by the Illustrated London News reviewer as ‘taking up another phase of the “emigration mania”, as it is called, and which only shows how art can find themes, and worthy themes, in the great practical interests of life if it will only seek for them’.55Illustrated London News, 1 May 1852, p. 343. Discussed immediately before Collinson’s exhibit was Scottish artist Fanny Mclan’s painting ‘The Highlands, 1852’, treating of the surge of emigration brought about by the Clearances. The two paintings together had clearly put the reviewer in a sober mood: ‘It is a scene to pause over’, he wrote, ‘and when we quit it, to leave us ruminating strongly, but not altogether so hopelessly as the poor emigrants themselves, about the destinies of nations’. 

Certainly a few artists tried to take up emigration in all its phases, clearly judging it to be one of the public’s enduring interests. The artist who produced more emigration paintings perhaps than any other, Thomas Faed, managed even to vary the letter scene adumbrated in Collinson’s two pictures. While he similarly represented the recipients of colonists’ letters in the home country (as in The first letter from the emigrants (Royal Scottish Academy, 1849)), Faed later showed the writers themselves in their new setting. Sunday in the backwoods (more correctly entitled The Scottish Emigrants’ Sunday in the backwoods), shown at the RA in 1859, was posited by its catalogue entry as the visualisation of the scene described in a letter written home from Canada, and although none of the figures within the scene is actually depicted writing, this reinvigoration of the emigrant’s letter theme was warmly received by critics, both on the work’s initial exhibition and in 1864 when the engraving after the painting was shown at the same venue. 

The public’s desire for their lost friends and relatives to appear again before their eyes, and for their own experience of loss to be acknowledged, was likewise gratified, but in a less concise and clever way, in more popular manifestations of the ‘emigration mania’, such as a pair of Baxter prints which circulated in the 1850s: News from home (1853) and News from Australia (1854) (fig. 7). 

Claxton’s painting, then, it will be seen, belongs to a large clan. In addition to the two main types of emigration pictures described above, the gallery-going public of mid-nineteenth-century Britain was presented with emigrants in history, emigrants from other European countries, and ex-emigrants, returned to their homeland. Indeed, perhaps the single most original painting touching on the theme of emigration to appear in a British exhibition was Claxton’s daughter Florence’s Women’s work: a medley (1861), which got a very poor reception from critics, who generally found it too political. In this work a crowd of female figures demonstrate the various ways in which mid-Victorian society trapped women into the service of men, but one figure on the fringe of the scene looks out across the sea, implying an escape route. In an explanatory note accompanying the painting on its second exhibition, the artist described this figure thus: ‘A wide breach has been made in the ancient wall of Custom and Prejudice, by Progress – Emigration – who points across the ocean’.56Catalogue of the Liverpool Institution Exhibition, 1862, Liverpool Institution, Liverpool, 1862 (no pagination). Another perhaps unique variant on the emigration theme is Bendigo Art Gallery’s ‘A Primrose from England’ (RA, 1855) by Edward Hopley, in which a typical English flower usurps the part played in other pictures by the letter from home. Casteras suggests the subject remained conspicuous until the late 1880s.57Casteras, ‘“Oh! Emigration!”’, Appendix, p. 16. The following emigration figures suggest that it was probably changes in art and exhibition practice towards the end of the century, rather than a decrease in emigration, that would explain the theme’s decline in late Victorian painting: 1885–89, 1 732 815; 1890–94, 1 506 380; 1895–99, 1 172 871; 1900–04, 1 890 798 (see Garrett, p. 125). Significantly, it was at about that time that circumstances indicated to the FMCES that its useful life might have come to an end. 

Unlike the majority of emigration pictures, popular or fine, Claxton’s concentrates on the female emigrant, who was such a focus of the written debate. Where the family, in so many emigration scenes, crowds the canvas, like the thousands of hopeful and desperate voyagers thronged the emigrant ships of the 1840s and 1850s, the family is conspicuous by its absence from Claxton’s simple image. That it did not sell at the time of its exhibition at the British Institution, and that it attracted no notice from the principal newspapers, perhaps indicates that it was too simple, indeed, to satisfy current taste, which had grown used, by 1860, to the ‘all human life is here’ approach – which the press had early adopted in its discussion and reporting of emigration and which it never really disavowed. 

While it is presently unclear what happened to the painting between its introduction to the nineteenth-century public and its entry into the National Gallery of Victoria’s collection in 1974, it was, appropriately, given a resting place by the National Gallery Women’s Association. Placed as she is by the artist literally all at sea between her abandoned home and her promised land, hovering, like the angel she is meant to embody, between the two hemispheres, this acquiescent and imperturbably feminine emigrant has reached her putative destination on the Gallery’s walls. Perhaps in the future some suitable company might be acquired for her, to contextualise for the late-twentieth-century viewer this disarming view of what was, in fact, one of the most complex topics of Victorian painting. 

Pamela Gerrish Nunn, School of Fine Arts, University of Canterbury, Christchurch (in 1992).


I am grateful to Ms Alison Inglis and Ms Sonia Dean, and Ms Catherine Snowdon (Sydney) and Ms Susie Shears (Geelong), for their help in learning about nineteenth-century art in Australia and in preparing this article. 



1          For a general account of British emigration in the nineteenth century, see Richard Garrett, The Search for Prosperity: Emigration from Britain 1815–1930, Wayland, London, 1973. 

2          ‘The Tide of Emigration to the United States and the British Colonies’, Illustrated London News, 6 July 1850, p. 15. 

3          It was relevant to the emigrant’s choice of destination that the USA had a lower immigration tax than other countries, and that ship passage across the Atlantic was cheaper than that to other parts of the world open to British emigrants. 

4          The newspaper’s table gave figures from 1825 to 1849 inclusive, showing a continued rise in emigrant numbers (Illustrated London News, 6 July 1850, pp. 15, 17). 

5          Punch made the following caustic comment on this trend under the heading ‘Advantages of the Australian Gold Fever’: 


Think of the emigration that must ensue. People of all trades, callings and pursuits. What people? Of course those to whom gold is the prime object. All the lawyers and doctors who practise chiefly with a view to fees. All the divines who look, in the first place, to the loaves and fishes. All and sundry who labour in their vocation principally to get money. The respectable solicitors, honourable barristers, exemplary parsons and bishops, fair dealers, reasonable tradesmen, disinterested authors, and well-paid work people, will all be left behind – and will be, if not very numerous, how very select. (Punch, July–December 1851, p. 123)


6          See, typically, ‘The Depopulation of Ireland’, Illustrated London News, 10 May 1851, p. 386; ‘Two Aspects of Ireland’, Household Words, 27 September 1851, pp. 6–10, and 4 October 1851, pp. 26–32; Article 9, Edinburgh Review, January 1851, vol. 93, no. 189, p. 208; and Article 8, Edinburgh Review, July 1854, vol. 100, no: 203, p. 236. For retrospective accounts of the matter, see Arnold Schreier, Ireland and American Emigration 1850–1900, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1956; and Gordon Donaldson, The Scots Overseas, Robert Hale, London, 1966. 

7          A. James Hammerton, Emigration Gentlewomen, Croom Helm, London, 1979, pp. 46–7. 

8          ‘First Stage to Australia’, Household Words, 10 September 1853, p. 42. Dickens’s, and therefore his magazine’s, general stance on emigration can be gauged from his energetic promotion of Caroline Chisholm’s efforts. 

9          ‘Emigration to Sydney’, Illustrated London News, 13 April 1844, p. 227. 

10        Letter from S. Walcott, Secretary to the Colonial Land and Emigration Commission (published in answer to readers’ complaints of the authorities’ discrimination against certain applicants for aid), Illustrated London News, 29 May 1852, p. 429. 

11        Edward Gibbon Wakefield, A View of the Art of Colonization, London, 1849, p. 155. Wakefield’s publications on the question of emigration already included A Letter from Sydney, the Principal Town of Australia (London, 1829) and England and America: A Comparison of the Social and Political State of Both Nations (London, 1833). For an interesting contemporary contextualisation of Wakefield’s position on the emigration question, see Article 1, Edinburgh Review, January 1850, vol. 91, no. 183, p. 1. 

12        For a contemporary account of Caroline Chisholm’s life, see H. Ledder, The Story of the Life of Mrs. Caroline Chisholm, a work of hagiography published in London by the Family Colonisation Loan Society in 1850. There are numerous retrospective biographies; see, for instance, Suzanne Fabian & Morag Loh, The Change-Makers: Ten Significant Australian Women, Jacaranda, Milton, Queensland, 1983. 

13        ‘Mrs. Chisholm’, Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal, 30 March 1850, vol. 13, p. 201. 

14        Patricia Clarke, The Governesses: Letters from the Colonies 1862–82, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1985, p. 5. 

15        ‘The Art of Successful Emigration, Illustrated London News, 24 August 1850, p. 167. 

16        The regular reader of the Illustrated London News, for instance, was met with reports from ‘A Port Phillip Settler’ during 1850; numerous accounts of the discovery of gold in Victoria and descriptions of ‘An Emigrant’s Cottage in New Zealand’ the following year; and letters from ‘A Working Man’ on ‘Life in Australia’ throughout 1852, 1853 and 1854. Similarly, the Household Words reader was regaled with ‘Cape Sketches’ (1850), ‘A Woman’s Experience in California’ (1851), ‘A Musician in California’ (1851), ‘From a Settler’s Wife’ (1852), ‘Emigration from Liverpool’ (1852), ‘Off to the Diggings!’ (1852) and ‘A Digger’s Diary’ (1853), among others. Emigration was discussed more obliquely, and more theoretically, in more intellectual papers such as the Quarterly Review (‘A Hunter’s Life in South Africa’, December 1850, vol. 88, no. 175, pp. 1–41; ‘The History of British India’, September 1851, vol. 89, no. 178, pp. 257–76; ‘Reports and Letters on the Highlands of Scotland’, December 1851, vol. 90, no. 179, pp. 163–205; ‘Reports on the Gold Findings’, September 1852, vol. 91, no. 182, pp. 504–40; ‘Recent Books on India’, December 1852, vol. 92, no. 183, pp. 46–76). 

17        The total number of emigrants from Britain in the period 1850–54 was 1,638,945; for 1855–59, 800,640; and for 1860–64, 744,111 (see Garrett, p. 125). 

18        For instance: Alexander Harris, Settlers and Convicts, or Recollections of Sixteen Years’ Labour in the Australian Backwoods (London, 1847) and The Emigrant Family, or The Story of an Australian Settler (London, 1849); Mrs Charles Clacy, Lights and Shadows of Australian Life (London, 1854); Caroline Atkinson, Gertrude the Emigrant (Sydney, 1857); and Charles Reade, It Is Never Too Late to Mend (London, 1856). Accounts of life in Australia, both fictional and allegedly factual, appeared also on stage: Charles Reade’s play Gold ran very successfully at the Drury Lane Theatre through 1853 (see Victor Emeljanow, ‘How Different from Smoky, Thankless London’, in Australasian Victorian Studies Association, Conference Papers, University of New England, Armidale, New South Wales, 1988, p. 128). 

19        See A. James Hammerton, ‘Feminism and Female Emigration, 1861–1886’, in A Widening Sphere: Changing Roles of Victorian Women, ed. Martha Vicinus, Methuen, London, 1980, pp. 52–71. 

20        Clarke, p. 1. 

21        There is no full biography of Claxton; he appears in the Dictionary of National Biography, eds L. Stephen & K. Lee, vol. 4, Smith, Elder & Co., London, 1908, p. 463, and in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, ed. Douglas Pike, vol. 3, eds Ν. B. Nairn, A. G. Serle & R. B. Ward, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1969, pp. 424–5. 

22        Claxton would contribute to various exhibitions at the RA between 1832 and 1876; at the Society of British Artists between 1832 and 1876; and at the British Institution between 1833 and 1867 (the British Institution closed in 1867). 

23        Athenaeum, 13 August 1881, p. 216. 

24        Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 4, p. 463. 

25        ‘Good Morrow’, one of sixteen engravings published under the heading ‘Passages from Poets’, appeared in the Art Journal, 1 May 1849, p. 142. 

26        Commentators disagree on the Claxtons’ date of departure and arrival, some giving July and September, others August and November. The dates preferred here are given in Tim Bonyhady, Australian Colonial Paintings in the Australian National Gallery, Australian National Gallery, Canberra, & Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1986, p. 53. It is possible that the Claxtons had more than two children, since some sources state that ‘one of his [Claxton’s] sons’ died in Sydney. While Florence Claxton’s birthdate is uncertain, it is known that Adelaide Claxton was born in 1842. 

27        See some of the artists discussed in Daniel Thomas (ed.), Creating Australia: 200 Years of Art 1788–1988, International Cultural Corporation of Australia Limited, Sydney, & Art Gallery Board of South Australia, Adelaide, 1988; and Patricia R. McDonald & Barry Pearce, The Artist and the Patron: Aspects of Colonial Art in New South Wales, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1988. 

28        Vance Palmer, National Portraits, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1940, p. 86. Palmer’s comments are made in the context of a discussion of the artist Louis Buvelot, who did not arrive in Australia (Melbourne) until 1865. 

29        Quoted in Suzanne Mourot, This Was Sydney: A Pictorial History from 1788 to the Present Time, Ure Smith, Sydney, 1969, p. 48. 

30        Quoted in John Hale, Settlers, Faber & Faber, London, 1950, p. 185. 

31        It is usually said that these works were not all Claxton’s own, but this belief seems to stem directly from an unsubstantiated comment by the artist’s obituarist that ‘[these] could not have been all of his own production, and were, probably, not all his own property’ (Athenaeum, 13 August 1881, p. 216). If Claxton had, indeed, gathered other artists’ works together before emigrating, his apparent failure to sell many of them would surely have given rise to some evidence, in the form of memoirs, letters, press comment etc., of the arrangement he had entered into with colleagues. However, the artist’s daughters were living at the time of his death and would presumably have been consulted about his obituary. 

32        ‘Mr Marshall Claxton’s Free Exhibition of Paintings in Sydney College’, Sydney Morning Herald, 18 January 1851, p. 2. Although, curiously, none of the Sydney press reports of Claxton’s display clarifies the question of the paintings’ authorship, the Sydney Morning Herald article does contain the following comment: 


Our first impression on entering his gallery was, that the pictures exhibited, from their number, variety, and difference of style, must have been the work of different hands. Our next impression was that the same hand could be traced through them all (the copies excepted), but that a marked difference of style and handling was clearly perceptible in various pictures, showing a sort of progress in the artist’s style. 


33        Bell’s Life in Sydney, 25 January 1851, p. 2. 

34        Art Journal, 1 July 1851, p. 202. 

35        Sydney Morning Herald, 22 March 1851, p. 4. 

36        Athenaeum, 13 August 1881, p. 216. This claim, repeated by several subsequent writers, is very arguable; for the opposing view, see Robert Holden, ‘Fine Art Exhibitions and Collectors in Colonial Sydney, 1847–1877’, in McDonald & Pearce, pp. 161–7. 

37        The Art Gallery of New South Wales holds sixteen portraits by Claxton of local people, and more such works are in private collections in the Sydney area. The Geelong Art Gallery holds another such work, but in this case of a Melbourne personality, Mrs Hugh (Margaret) Chambers. 

38        See, for instance, ‘Arrival of the Government Gold Conveyance at the Colonial Treasury on 21 August 1851’, a sketch of the arrival in Sydney of the gold findings from Bathurst, in the Illustrated London News, 24 January 1852, p. 72, and portrait sketches of the government surveyor and the government commissioner for the gold diggings district, in the Illustrated London News, 3 July 1852, p. 9. 

39        Both works are now in the Royal Collection. 

40        Ellen Clayton, English Female Artists, vol. 2, Tinsley Brothers, London, 1876, p. 46. 

41        Whereabouts of these works by Claxton (with the exception of An emigrant’s thoughts of home) are now unknown. 

42        See, for instance, Adelaide Claxton’s illustrations to the story ‘Riddles of Love’, serialised in London Society in 1870. See also her ‘The Course at Calcutta’, in the Illustrated Times, 30 July 1859 (cover page); and Florence Claxton’s ‘Arrival of Overland Travellers at Point de Galle, Ceylon’, in the Illustrated Times, 31 March 1860, p. 198. 

43        Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 4, p. 463. 

44        Susan P. Casteras, ‘“Oh! Emigration! Thou’rt the Curse …”: Victorian Images of Emigration Themes’, Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies, vol. 6, no. 1, November 1985, pp. 1–23. 

45        Art Journal, 1 May 1858, p. 143; this review was on the occasion of the painting’s second showing, at the Society of Female Artists exhibition. For a discussion of Blunden’s work, see Jan Marsh & Pamela Gerrish Nunn, Women Artists and the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, Virago, London, 1989. 

46        Nicol’s painting, like many others, refers particularly to Scottish emigration enforced by the Highland Clearances. A case could be made for these works constituting a distinct type of emigration painting, although they vary formally. See note 55 below for another example. 

47        Illustrated London News supplement, 19 June 1852 (no pagination). The three stanzas of lyrics begin: ‘Farewell to thee, England! oh land of our birth, / The pride and the glory and queen of the earth! / We sail with sad hearts to a land far away, / In search of the bread that may fail if we stay. / New faces glow bright in the blaze of our fires, / The stranger sits down in the halls of our sires. / Farewell! oh, farewell to thy beautiful shore! / England! dear England! farewell ever more!’. 

48        Ford Madox Brown, Catalogue Notes, p. 8, quoted in Lucy F. Rabin, Ford Madox Brown and the Pre-Raphaelite History Picture, Garland, New York, 1978, p. 226. 

49        To accompany the painting, the artist wrote a poem whose first words have become the work’s usual title (see Rabin, p. 231).

50        Ford Madox Brown, Catalogue Notes, p. 8, quoted in J. B. Priestley, Victoria’s Heyday, Heinemann, London, 1972, p. 18. In the artist’s words, the other figures in his painting comprise: 


an honest family of the green-grocer kind, father (mother lost), elder daughter, and younger children, [which] makes the best of things with tobacco-pipe and apples, &c., &c. Still further back a reprobate shakes his fist with curses at the land of his birth, as though that were answerable for his want of success; his old mother reproves him for his foul-mouthed profanity, while a boon companion, with flushed countenance, and got up in nautical togs for the voyage, signifies drunken approbation. (Catalogue Notes, p. 9, quoted in Rosemary Treble, Judith Bronkhurst & Malcolm Warner, Great Victorian Pictures: Their Paths to Fame, Arts Council of Great Britain, London, 1978, p. 26.) 


51        See Jeffery Daniels, ‘Catalogue of Works: Abraham Solomon’, in Geffrye Museum, Solomon: A Family of Painters, Inner London Education Authority, London, 1985, p. 53. 

52        Redgrave’s commitment to contemporary social problems as subjects for painting is discussed in Susan P. Casteras & C. Ronald Parkinson (eds), Richard Redgrave, 1804–1888, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, & Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut, 1988. 

53        Faed saw himself as a painter of Scotland rather than as a painter of social problems: in some cases the two subjects combined (see Mary McKerrow, The Faeds: A Biography, Canongate, Edinburgh, 1982). 

54        David Copperfield was serialised in 1849 and 1850 in Household Words. Dickens had treated emigration in an earlier story, Martin Chuzzlewit (1843), but in this case the emigrant’s destination was the USA and the outcome negative. 

55        Illustrated London News, 1 May 1852, p. 343. Discussed immediately before Collinson’s exhibit was Scottish artist Fanny Mclan’s painting ‘The Highlands, 1852’, treating of the surge of emigration brought about by the Clearances. The two paintings together had clearly put the reviewer in a sober mood: ‘It is a scene to pause over’, he wrote, ‘and when we quit it, to leave us ruminating strongly, but not altogether so hopelessly as the poor emigrants themselves, about the destinies of nations’. 

56        Catalogue of the Liverpool Institution Exhibition, 1862, Liverpool Institution, Liverpool, 1862 (no pagination). Another perhaps unique variant on the emigration theme is Bendigo Art Gallery’s ‘A Primrose from England’ (RA, 1855) by Edward Hopley, in which a typical English flower usurps the part played in other pictures by the letter from home. 

57        Casteras, ‘“Oh! Emigration!”’, Appendix, p. 16. The following emigration figures suggest that it was probably changes in art and exhibition practice towards the end of the century, rather than a decrease in emigration, that would explain the theme’s decline in late Victorian painting: 1885–89, 1 732 815; 1890–94, 1 506 380; 1895–99, 1 172 871; 1900–04, 1 890 798 (see Garrett, p. 125).