The painting of modern-life subjects was popularised during the 1850s by such artists as William Frith (1819-1909). Artists deliberately chose subjects such as racetracks, seaside resorts and busy streets where all classes of society could be represented in the one picture. Following this trend, Egley exhibited Omnibus Life in London at the British Institution in 1859. He may have been inspired by the French artist Honoré Daumier's pictures of the cramped interior of railway carriages, but comparisons can also be drawn with such works as Charles Rossiter's To Brighton and Back for 3s 6d (Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery), painted in the same year as Egley's picture.
The omnibus - a horse-drawn carriage that picked up and deposited people along an established route - was introduced into London on 4 July 1829 and quickly became a popular mode of transport. One observer commented that, 'Among the middle classes of London the omnibus stands immediately after air, tea, and flannel, in the list of the necessaries of life…the Londoner cannot get on without it.' (M.E. Purgini in Victorian Days and Ways, London 1936). To achieve as authentic an effect as possible, Egley painted the interior of the omnibus in a coachbuilder's yard in Paddington. The view out of the back of the bus is of Westbourne Grove, painted from the chemist's shop at the corner of Hereford Road where Egley lived. He posed the sitters in a makeshift 'carriage' constructed from boxes and planks in his back garden.
Egley painted the scene as if glimpsed through a window and attempted to convey the claustrophobic and cramped conditions that the passengers were forced to endure. The subject permitted him to portray every class of society, from an old country woman, perhaps a family servant, with her piles of baggage, to the city clerk with his cane. The old woman stares sympathetically towards the young mother and her children, who avert their gazes, in a gesture of gentility. The mother was modelled on Egley's wife and the ringletted daughter was posed for by a twelve-year old girl, Susannah (Blanche) Rix.
Egley worked on the picture for 44 days and sold it to a man called William Jennings for £52 10s. It was described by the Illustrated London News as follows: 'a droll interior, the stern and trying incidents of which will be recognized by thousands of weary wayfarers through the streets of London.'
Lionel Lambourne, Victorian Painting, London 1999, p.267, reproduced in colour p.266.
Malcolm Warner, The Victorians - British Painting 1837-1901, National Gallery of Art, Washington 1997, pp.108-9, reproduced in colour pp.26.