This work is typical of the social moralist pictures that were popular in Victorian art. The Pulleyne family has been forced to sell the ancestral home, Hardham Court, and its contents, thanks to the irresponsible behaviour of a feckless spendthrift.
The picture contains a number of visual clues, which, when taken together, form an elaborate narrative. Family portraits and items of furniture bearing the initials of previous Pulleynes indicate that the family has a long pedigree. The miniature case in the father's hand and the sporting print in the left foreground tell us that he has gambled his inherited fortune away on the horses. Lot numbers have been attached to various items of furniture and works of art, and, together with the Christie's catalogue on the floor, reveal that the family's possessions are soon to be sold. In the background, a man is already gathering the objects that will be sent for auction. To the left of the picture, an old woman (probably the grandmother) is giving a five-pound note to the butler, who is clutching the keys to the house. A newspaper protrudes from the blotter beside her, the word 'Apartments' clearly visible. The moral is clear: gambling only leads to debt, and the accumulated wealth of centuries can be lost in one generation.
Despite the hopelessness of their situation, only the women in the family appear concerned, while the man - we learn from the sale catalogue that he is Sir Charles Pulleyne - and his son raise glasses of champagne, preferring to live for the moment. Sir Charles rests one foot carelessly on an antique chair and puts his arm around his son's shoulders. The implication is that he will pass his hedonistic lifestyle and gambling habit down to the next generation. The view out of the window, however, indicates that this family has reached the autumn of its life, and the bare branches of winter are tapping on the pane. The fire is low in the grate, and it will not be long before they are completely bereft.
A pupil of William Holman Hunt, Martineau appears to have inherited his teacher's interest in social themes, as well as the Pre-Raphaelite taste for painstaking detail. The dark interior reflects the Victorian taste for heavy oak furniture and carved panelling, and yet the picture is also characterised by bright colour and contrasting patterns and textures. The richly carved mantel is based on that of the Great Chamber of Godinton Park in Ashford Kent. This house was the seat of the Toke family from 1440 to 1895.
Lionel Lambourne, Victorian Painting, London 1999, p.360, reproduced p.358, in colour.
Christopher Wood, Victorian Painting, London 1999, pp.57-9, reproduced pp.58-9, in colour.