Elizabeth Thompson (married name Southerden, Title Lady Butler) was born in Lausanne, Switzerland to Thomas Thompson and Christiana Weller. Her artistically minded father took a keen interest in her education and the family spent good deal of time in Italy before she returned to Egnland to train at the Female School of Art, South Kensington, London, in 1866. In 1869 she moved back to Florence where she converted to Roman Catholicism and seemed to embark on a career of religious artistry.
Her focus changed however when she visited, amidst the Franco-Prussian War, Paris in 1870 and saw for herself the dynamic realism of artists such as Edouard Detaille and Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier. These artists portrayed scenes from the Franco-Prussian and earlier Napoleonic Wars in vivid almost lifelike detail. Indeed her first successful submission to the Royal Academy was 'Missing' which showed ordinary soldiers in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War. Encouraged by this painting's reception she decided to switch her focus to British military history. 'The Roll Call' touched a patriotic nerve whilst identifying with the ordinary soldier. In fact it was so popular that a policeman had to be stationed in front of the painting to protect it from its own popularity. The popularity of this painting was further confirmed when it was taken on tour. Many of the public were intrigued to discover that the artist did not conform to their expectations of a military painter. The young and vivacious artist's image was almost as popular as her painting and photographs of her proliferated.
Realising that there was potential for her realistic military artistry, she began to paint more and more scenes from the Crimean and the earlier Napoleonic Wars. She retained her focus on the ordinary and gentle heroism of the common soldier in works such as The 28th Regiment at Quatre Bras, Balaclava, and The Return from Inkerman. One commentator gave her the sobriquet of 'Florence Nightingale of the brush' due to her sympathies to the common soldier.
Her marriage to Sir William Francis Butler in 1877 brought new responsibilities and opportunities. She was to have five children of her own and followed her husband on service around the Empire. These experiences saw her widen her artistic scope to take in more colonial subjects and topics. However her sympathies for the down-trodden soldiers and also increasingly the native peoples who they fought found her increasingly at odds with the public who were craving more patriotism and less criticism in their art appreciation. Her Irish husband was also becoming increasingly cynical and disillusioned of the imperial endeavour and encouraged her to be more 'honest' still in her portrayal of the realities of colonial conflicts. By contrast, contemporary military painters such as Richard Caton Woodville, Charles Fripp and William Barnes Wollen were more willing to paint to the public taste and their popularity increased even as hers waned.
She continued with her output for the rest of her life though and was undaunted by the vagaries of popular taste. By the time of World War One though celebrations of colourful earlier and colonial conflicts seemed more out of place than ever. This was despite the fact that she continued to concentrate on the stoicism of the common soldier. She continued to paint though until her death in Ireland in 1933.
She should be remembered though as a pioneer of both military and of female professional painting. She confounded stereotypes and was content to plough her own furrow. Her paintings came to identify many of the colonial conflicts in an era before colour photographs dominated our perception of events. Her paintings were regarded by many as the most approachable way to understand events in the far flung Empire and the many wars that Britain embarked upon in the 19th and early 20th Centuries.