Elizabeth Thompson, who later became Lady Butler, was one of the few British artists to whom fame came overnight. When her painting 'Calling the roll after an engagement, Crimea' (popularly known as 'The roll call') was exhibited at the Royal Academy in May 1874, it caused a sensation; so great were the crowds that flocked to see it that a policeman had to be stationed beside it - a procedure only previously paralleled by the rail put up to hold back crowds of viewers when Wilkie's 'Chelsea pensioners reading the Gazette of the Battle of Waterloo' and Frith's 'Derby Day' were exhibited at the Academy in 1822 and 1858 respectively. The leading painters of the day, Millais among them, joined in the popular acclaim, and the twenty-seven-year-old painter and her work were singled out for praise at the Academy Banquet by both the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Cambridge, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army. Crimean veterans vouched for the accuracy of the most minute details of the painting, and, at her request, 'The roll call' was taken to the bedridden Florence Nightingale and earned her approval.
The painting had been commissioned for a sum of £100 (raised to 120 guineas) by Charles Galloway, a Knutsford industrialist, and the owner found himself the recipient of offers from people who wanted to buy the painting from him, the Prince of Wales among them; but he refused to part with it. 'The roll call' was briefly taken to Buckingham Palace in order that Queen Victoria could view it - the first time this had happened to any Academy picture - and the Queen expressed a wish to buy it; this time Mr Galloway could not reasonably refuse, and agreed on condition that the artist paint another picture for him (Miss Thompson took the opportunity of her new-found fame to raise the price from £126 to £1,126).
Thus Elizabeth Thompson's first major painting was the painting of the year at the Academy, and one of the handful of most successful Academy pictures of the century; it entered the Royal Collection, and was further popularised as an engraving by F. Stacpoole (it was again engraved in 1882, by W. T Hulland). According to Wilfrid Meynell, a quarter of a million copies of her photograph were sold in the wake of her Academy success.
Although depictions of battles and military campaigns were often painted and exhibited by a variety of artists, there was no longstanding English tradition of such painting - there are notable earlier examples such as Benjamin West's 'The death of General Wolfe' and John Singleton Copley's 'The death of Major Peirson', but nothing to compare with the immensely popular French tradition of paintings of the Napoleonic and Franco-Prussian wars by artists such as Meissonier (1815-1891; these include 'Jena 1806', 'Solferino' and 'Campagne de France, 1814', popularly mistitled 'The retreat from Moscow'), Philippoteaux (1815-1884; including 'Waterloo' and 'Fontenoy'), Detaille (1848-1912) and Gerome (1824-1904).
Rather, there was an expectation on the part of the British public that important events be commemorated in the form of paintings, and each Royal Academy Summer Exhibition had its selection of battle-scenes and processions, triumphs and disasters. It was a kind of journalism - alongside engravings in periodicals such as The Illustrated London News and The Graphic , such paintings provided the public with the visual imagery for the great events of their times, until photo-journalism came into its own and made such cumbersome and time-consuming representations redundant. Paintings were commissioned to commemorate great public events (eg Frith's 'The Prince of Wales's Wedding' and H.C. Selous's 'The opening by Queen Victoria of the Great Exhibition'), or made to recreate major battles or important spectacles of the recent past; painters gauged popular preoccupations and produced paintings in response to them, hoping for a ready sale for the painting itself and a further income from engravings of the painting.
In the last quarter of the Nineteenth Century the prestige of the British Army was probably higher than at any time before or since; there was a succession of brilliant Imperial campaigns which captured the public imagination; minor reversals in the wars with the Ashanti, the Zulus and the Sudanese were more than vindicated by the triumphs that succeeded them, and soldiers such as Wolseley, Buller and Roberts enjoyed a kind of stardom. The British public was provided with a seemingly endless succession of glorious events, all enhancing the prestige of the nation, and was helped in its enjoyment of these events by poets like Austin, Newbolt and Henley, (and, later, Kipling), by the writers of drawing-room ballads, and by the painters of battle-scenes such as Lady Butler and W. Caton Woodville. It was a national theatre of the most spectacular and dramatic kind. Patriotism took on an aggressive aspect, the jingoism which foreigners found ominous; and the Army in the midst of all this enjoyed an almost sacrosanct role in the public mind. It was a mood of great public confidence with a belligerent edge to it, and the poet Alfred Austin was able to opine a contemporary definition of Heaven: it was to be sitting in a garden receiving a succession of messengers alternately bringing news of British victories on land, and British victories by sea.
Strangely, Elizabeth Thompson, whose painting 'The roll call' met with such unprecedented success in 1874, had nothing military or Imperialistic in her background; indeed, her mother, who had been a concert-pianist before being introduced by Dickens to Thomas James Thompson, a friend of his, was distressed that her elder daughter should wish to paint nothing but soldiers and battles. Both Elizabeth and her younger sister Alice (who is perhaps better known as Alice Meynell, the poet) had an unusual upbringing; their father, having studied at Cambridge and twice stood unsuccessfully for Parliament as a Free-Trade candidate, became a man of leisure and letters, living off inherited income from property in Lancashire and the West Indies, and devoting his attention to the education of his two daughters. This, in his view, entailed travel, and Elizabeth's childhood was spent in a succession of temporary homes, particularly on the Italian Riviera above Genoa. The literary and artistic talents of the two daughters were carefully fostered by their parents, and Elizabeth studied painting with a tutor, Mr Standish, and then at the South Kensington School of Art; from the start, her subject-matter was confined to soldiers, horses and battles.
She exhibited watercolours at the Dudley Gallery in London, and, during a long family visit to Rome in 1870 at the time of the first Vatican Council (she, her mother and her sister had been converted to Roman Catholicism), exhibited a painting of 'The Magnificat' (also known as 'The Visitation') at the International Exhibition there, receiving an honourable mention; this painting was subsequently submitted to the Royal Academy in 1871, but rejected, as was the painting she submitted in 1872. 'Missing', an imaginary scene of the aftermath of a battle of the Franco-Prussian War, was accepted by the Academy in 1873, but was 'skied' (hung so high on the Academy walls as to be virtually lost to the public view); this painting did, however, bring Mr Galloway's commission for 'The roll call'.
In her Autobiography , Lady Butler recounts in detail the story of the success of this work; one of the Academy Selecting Committee, J.R. Herbert, wrote of the outcome of their deliberations when the painting was up for consideration: 'I was so struck by the excellent work in it that I proposed that we should lift our hats and give it and you, though, as I thought, unknown to me, a round of huzzahs, which was generally done.' She wrote to her father, 'You know that "the elite have been presented to me this day, all with the same hearty words of congratulation on their lips and the same warm shake of the hand ready to follow the introductory bow.'
Following the success of 'The roll call' in 1874, Elizabeth Thompson in 1875 exhibited 'Quatre Bras', which took as its subject the encounter in a field of rye between the 28th Regiment and the French cavalry, two days before Waterloo. This painting earned high praise from John Ruskin, whose opinion was still capable of making or breaking an artist's reputation. In his 1875 Academy Notes , Ruskin wrote:
I never approached a picture with more iniquitous prejudice against it than I did Miss Thompson's; partly because I have always said that no woman could paint; and, secondly, because I thought that what the public made such a fuss about must be good for nothing. But it is amazon's work this; no doubt of it, and the first fine Pre-Raphaelite picture of battle we have had; - profoundly interesting, and showing all manner of illustrative and realistic faculty. Of course, all that need be said of it, on this side, must have been said twenty times over in the journals; and it remains only for me to make my tardy genuflexion, on the trampled corn, before this Pallas of Pall Mall.
Writing in his Academy Notes 1875 , Henry Blackburn suggested: 'The interest attaching to this much talked of picture is in the study and delineation of character, conceived, as it is, in the truly Hogarthian spirit of analysis... The spectator is, as it were, in the very thick of the fight, with the dead, the wounded, and the fainting, on the ground around him.'
The same year, Elizabeth Thompson met Major William Butler, and two years later, in June 1877, they were married at the Servite Fathers' Church in London, by Cardinal Manning. Born in 1836 into the Irish Catholic gentry, William Butler had by 1877 already served in Burma, Madras, Canada, the Ashanti campaign, and in Natal with Sir Garnet Wolseley; he had published several books, including a history of his regiment, the 69th, two books on his arduous journeys in the Canadian Northwest (The Great Lone Land and The Wild North Land ), and an account of his experiences in the Ashanti campaign, provocatively entitled Akim-Foo: the History of a Failure . In James Morris's words, he had emerged from these experiences 'an intuitive sympathiser with rebel nationalists all over the Empire'. In November,1875 he had joined headquarters staff as deputy quartermaster-general.
Butler's subsequent military career took him to Zululand, Egypt, the Sudan and South Africa just before the outbreak of the Boer War; he rose in rank to lieutenant-general (1900) and was awarded the KCB in 1886 and the GCB in 1906, but his career was clouded by a serious conflict with Milner during his command in South Africa in 1899, leading to his resignation. Butler retired to Bansha Castle, Co. Tipperary, in 1905, and died in June 1910; his later books include an account of the Gordon Relief Expedition, The Campaign of the Cataracts , biographies of Gordon, Napier and Colley, an autobiography, and further accounts of his travels in Canada and South Africa.
Lady Butler's life from 1877 followed the dictates of her husband's career; she went with him to Egypt and South Africa, lived in Ireland and at home in military residences in Devonport, Aldershot, Farnborough and Dover Castle, and made occasional journeys to Italy and France. They had six children; she survived her husband by twenty-three years, and spent her last years with her youngest daughter (who had married Lord Gormanston) in Gormanston, Co. Meath, and Flax Bourton, near Bristol. Two of her sons took part in the First World War, one of them (Richard Butler, ordained into the Benedictine Order in 1911) as a Roman Catholic Chaplain; the other son, Patrick, was seriously wounded in November 1914 in the first Battle of Ypres.
She published three books - Letters from the Holy Land (1903, a travel-book consisting mostly of letters written to her mother during her journey to Palestine with her husband in 1891), From Sketch-Book and Diary (1909, impressions of her travels in Ireland, Egypt, South Africa and Italy) and An Autobiography, published in 1923; the latter book is a very reticent and fragmentary account of her life, drawing Victorian veils of discretion over much that would have been of interest, and relying heavily on diaries and letters recording rather superficial impressions of her various journeys (Lady Butler was not one of the world's great travel-writers). The Autobiography is a book that belongs to the Victorian age, that is filled with its attitudes and evasions.
Lady Butler continued to paint large, meticulously-executed canvases of scenes of battles and military manoeuvres, at the rate of one a year, which she exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy. They were well received (at least up to the end of the century), but became increasingly anachronistic: when the First World War began, it was not the rhetorically representational paintings of Lady Butler, such as 'The charge of the Dorset Yeomanry at Agagia, Egypt' and 'The Canadian bombers on Vimy Ridge', but the fragmented and explosive visions of Bomberg and Nevinson which adequately expressed a war which was light-years away from the colonial wars which had so fascinated her in her youth. She herself became an anachronism - in a foreword to her Autobiography (surely written with her approval), M.E. Francis wrote that 'In this age of insistent ugliness, when the term "realism" is used to cloak every form of grossness and degeneracy, it is a privilege to commune with one who speaks of her "experiences of the world's loveliness" and describes herself as "full of interest in mankind"... a worshipper of beauty in its spiritual as well as its concrete form'. Such attitudes belonged to an age long buried. In 1924 the painting she submitted to the Royal Academy (exactly fifty years after 'The roll call') was rejected.
'Balaclava' (1875-6) and 'The return from Inkermann' (1876-7) returned to the period of 'The roll call', while 'Listed for the Connaught Rangers', painted in 1877 and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1879, drew on her experiences of living in Ireland. 'Remnants of an army', painted in 1879 and exhibited in the same year, is one of her most evocative paintings; the full title was 'The remnants of an army, Jellalabad, January 13th, 1842', and the picture shows Dr William Brydon, a surgeon of the Army Medical Corps, the sole survivor of the disastrous retreat under General Elphinstone of the 16,500-strong British garrison allowed by Akhbar Khan to leave Kabul, approaching the walls of Jellalabad. The painting is a powerful image of the endurance of all armies, of survival and tragedy in a barren and merciless land which has soaked up the blood of many such armies.
The next painting was 'Scotland for ever!', completed in 1881 and exhibited at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, in the same year (Lady Butler's Autobiography speaks mysteriously of a law-suit that prevented exhibition at the Royal Academy); it was occasioned by a visit to the Grosvenor Gallery, which was the stronghold of the Aesthetic movement, with which she could have no sympathy:
I owe the subject to an impulse I received that season from the Private View at the Grosvenor Gallery, now extinct. The Grosvenor was the home of the 'Aesthetes' of the period, whose sometimes unwholesome productions preceded those of cur modern 'Impressionists'. I felt myself getting more and more annoyed while perambulating those rooms, and to such a point of exasperation was I impelled that I fairly fled and, breathing the honest air of Bond Street, took a hansom to my studio. There I pinned a 7-foot sheet of brown paper on an old canvas and, with a piece of charcoal and a piece of white chalk, flung the charge of 'The Greys' upon it. Dr Pollard who still looked in during my husband's absences as he used to do in my maiden days to see that all was well with me, found me in a surprising mood.
'Scotland for ever!', now in the collection of the Leeds City Art Gallery, is Lady Butler's finest painting, a spectacularly successful image of an army charging straight out of the canvas towards the viewer, heavy white horses thundering forward beneath a tempestuous sky; it is a magnificent image of momentum and glory, and a memorial to a certain conception of war held by a past age. Lady Butler writes, 'I twice saw a charge of the Greys before painting "Scotland for ever!" and I stood in front to see them coming on. One cannot, of course, stop too long to see them close.' As in a Kipling story, the soldiers are individualised, a tight-packed confused mass of men and horses in an overwhelming mass-experience. An indication of the power of Lady Butler's painting is the fact that a version of the work, with the helmets and uniforms suitably altered to represent those of the Prussian cavalry, was used on a New Year greeting card sent by the German troops in 1915.
Painting 'Scotland for ever! ' was interrupted by a Royal Commission - through Sir Henry Ponsonby, Queen Victoria asked Lady Butler to paint her a much more contemporary battle-scene, and 'The defence of Rorke's Drift' was painted in 1879, and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1880; for this painting, Lady Butler made studies from survivors of the 24th Regiment, but 'The Zulus were a great difficulty... Mr Pollard got me a sort of Zulu as a model from a show in London'. It is a disappointing painting, weak in composition and merely rhetorical in effect, and fails to come to terms with the intense drama of the scene. It did, however, meet with the Queen's approval: 'I was counselled to give Her Majesty the description of every figure. She spoke very kindly in a very deep guttural voice, and showed so much emotion that I thought her all too kind, shrinking now and then as I spoke of the wounds, etc'. 'Floreat Etona!', exhibited in 1882, 'look as its subject a true incident from the First Boer War - in the charge at Laing's Neck, Elwes and Monck are shown at the moment when Elwes tried to inspire his colleague with memories of their ald school, moments before being shot dead; it is a scene reminiscent of the ethos of Newbolt's 'Vitai Lampada': 'The voice of the schoolboy rallies the ranks: "Play up! play up! and play the game!" '
The remainder of Lady Butler's later paintings are generally concerned with past events - 'A desert grave' (1886), 'Forced march: the retreat to Corunna' (1892), 'The native Camel Corps at Cairo' (1893), 'The reveil in the bivouac of the Scots Greys on the morning of Waterloo: early dawn' (1895), 'Steady the drums and fifes! ' (1877), 'Within the sound of the guns', and 'Rescue of wounded, First Afghan War' all evoke the military glories of the past; only two paintings, 'An eviction in Ireland' (1890) and 'Homeward in the afternoon: a Cistercian shepherd in medieval England' (1908) are outside this mould. In all, she exhibited twenty-four paintings at the Royal Academy between 1873 and 1920.
Lady Butler lived into old age; her Autobiography appeared in 1923, a year after T. S. Eliot published The Waste Land and long after the representational artistic tradition of centuries had been shattered by the Cubists, Futurists and Dadaists; it is an echo of a past age, resonant with her incomprehension of the present. But her images of Imperial glory remained popular long afterwards, in the form of coloured prints on classroom walls and illustrations in school history-books. Her paintings, once regarded as true and valid images of the events they portrayed, are now eloquent of how the age saw itself - the imagery that fed an insatiable popular appetite for national glory, and which helped provide the popular support for the imperial adventures of the military heroes of the Victorian age.
By Krzysztof Z. Cieszkowski