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'Sweethearts and Wives' - John Lee

Sailor steadies rowing boat while man on board hugs woman on dock

  • Oil on canvas 84.5 cm x 71.3 cm (33 1/4" x 28 1/8")
  • Signed with monogram and dated 1860
  • Walker Art Gallery


This depicts the parting of sailors to take up duties on HMS Majestic, an obsolete 80-gun, ex-Crimea, screw-driven, wooden warship anchored in the Mersey as part of the port defences. She fulfilled this role from 1860-66 and was scrapped two years later. In 1863, she is recorded as having prevented two American Confederate battleships from leaving Laird's shipyard.

detail showing church and windmill

The view is from the Liverpool dock shore looking towards Birkenhead, with St Mary's Church and Bidston windmill clearly visible in the centre. It has been suggested that the sailor on the right is a self-portrait of the artist, and that heads of two other sailors may also be self-portraits.

detail showing sailor on the right

Dockside parting scenes were a well-developed Victorian genre, especially those connected with emigration. Lee may have been influenced in his choice of subject by the hugely successful picture 'Eastward Ho, August 1857' by Henry Nelson O'Neil, shown at the Royal Academy in 1857 and depicting soldiers leaving for India after the Indian Mutiny; the engraving of it was published in 1860. Lee's parting scene, however, is rather forced in view of the mundane nature of the sailors' short-term duties, anchored peacefully in the Mersey. Few viewers though would have realised the role of HMS Majestic, and probably saw it as a departure prior to some prolonged voyage.

'Sweethearts and Wives' is Lee's most important work and is of great local topographical and maritime interest.

detail showing parting group


John Lee (active 1850-1870), like Windus, Davis and other Merseyside painters, came under the influence of the London Pre-Raphaelites. Very little is known about his life. Only four of his paintings can be identified with certainty - three of these are in the Walker Art Gallery. He exhibited at the Liverpool Academy from 1859-67 and at the Royal Academy from 1863-67. His family were Liverpool merchants and he lived at Rock Ferry prior to moving to London in 1866.

An extended study of 'Sweethearts and Wives' is also available online as part of our Artwork of the Month series.

detail showing ship

Detail showing HM Majestic