From 1867, Samuel Butler studied at Heatherley’s art school in Newman Street, London. John Butler Yeats was a younger fellow pupil, and wrote: “We were art students and tried to be Bohemian, or would have done so had not Butler been one of us.”.
Henry Festing Jones (1851-1928), an English solicitor and writer, is remembered as Butler’s friend and posthumous biographer. He wrote:
“The school skeleton was always getting knocked about, and no wonder; the students used to dress it up in the costumes and dance with it.”.
The picture’s title was intended to be “Tinkering a Skeleton”, featuring old Tom, an assistant at the art school. By the time it was completed, old Tom had been replaced by the Principal, and the title became “Mr Heatherley’s Holiday: an incident in studio life”, the private joke being that Heatherley reputedly never went on holiday.
Elinor Shaffer comments: “The classical and the popular gothic are in dialogue in this painting.”.
Butler listed the painting’s failure to sell as one of his reasons for abandoning painting to concentrate on writing. Raby, p146:
“….he had the pleasure of seeing “Mr Heatherley’s Holiday” hung in the Academy. On June 10th, 1874 he sailed for Montreal.”.