Volunteers, by Arthur Boyd Houghton (1836-1875). c. 1861. Oil paint on canvas. Support: 305 x 394 mm; frame: 490 x 591 x 70 mm. Collection: Tate Gallery. Purchased 1926. Reference: N04207. Image kindly released by the gallery under the Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported) license. Commentary by Jacqueline Banerjee.

In this painting, and another one of c.1860 entitled Volunteers Marching Out (see Lambourne pp. 133 and 135), Boyd captures the point in Victorian history when men were being recruited for volunteer battalions in case of disturbances abroad or at home. The gallery label of July 2007 adds:

the volunteers were mainly recruited from the middle classes. They felt it was their patriotic duty to enlist in one of the volunteer battalions. But there appears to be a general lack of interest from the civilians in this painting. The gentleman on the left is carefully not looking at the soldiers.

Here, the women who have stopped to watch, the gaggle of uncomprehending children on the lower left, the children in the baby carriage towards the right, the gentleman above them raising his hat to someone, and people passing (higher still, in a carriage?) all add to the sense of a busy scene. The fallen chestnut tree leaves on the ground also help to give it both atmosphere and specificity.

There is no doubt, though, that the volunteers are the real focus. Their uniforms added to a new dash to such surroundings: Arthur Munby wrote in his diary entry of 17 May 1862, "The streets of London ... are now on Saturdays and Sundays almost ... as lively and picturesque as those of a continental town. Beards, knickerbockers, volunteer uniforms, and a general laxity and individuality of costume, have done it... " (122). Since Houghton himself was one of the few to paint street scenes, his work is of particular interest and value.


Lambourne, Lionel. Victorian Painting. London and New York: Phaidon, 1999.

Munby, Arthur. Mumny: Man of Two Worlds: The Life and Diaries of Arthur J. Munby, 1828-1910. London: Abacus, 1974.

Created 2 June 2018