'And when did you last see your father?' - the painting

'And when did you last see your father ?', WF Yeames, 1878|

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The painting

"I had at the time I painted the picture, living in my house a nephew of an innocent and truthful disposition, and it occurred to me to represent him in a situation where the child's outspokenness and unconsciousness would lead to disastrous consequences and a scene in a country house occupied by the Puritans during the Rebellion in England suited my purpose."

William Frederick Yeames

The people in the painting are composed like characters on a stage. This adds to the sense of drama in an already tense setting. The viewer is left guessing what the boy will answer. The painting deals cleverly with the themes of innocence and childhood. We wonder whether the boy, who will have been told that honesty is a virtue, will realise in time the gravity of the situation. The small size of the boy, his blonde hair and blue suit highlight his innocence. In order to save his father, he may have to lose some of his innocence and lie to the men questioning him.

Yeames does not appear to favour one side over the other, letting the drama of the situation speak for itself. Although we are aware of the purpose of the soldiers' visit to the house, he invests the scene with a sense of their 'moral duty'. The Victorians believed that men in the Civil War fought out of a sense of conviction and loyalty. This is shown by Yeames as, despite the situation, he depicts the men's human qualities. The soldier in the left of the scene is seen comforting the little girl, who appears aware of the significance of the question.

The painting is an example of narrative painting|, which was popular in 19th century England. Yeames has chosen a historical setting for the story. This allows him to use the themes of childhood and innocence within a setting the audience would recognise and find appealing.

The painting was bought from the artist by the Walker Art Gallery in 1878. Although narrative painting was not regarded as highly (by art historians and critics) as other schools of the time such as the Pre-Raphaelites|, Yeames' picture became one of the most popular in the Walker Art Gallery's collection. The painting appeared in history textbooks as an illustration of the English Civil War and a waxwork tableau of the scene was created at Madame Tussaud's in London in 1933.