Elizabeth Southerden Thompson, Lady Butler 1846 – 1933
Until about a year ago, Elizabeth Butler’s name was unknown to me. Then I became intrigued to know how a woman could become a nationally famous war artist in Victorian England, but afterwards disappear from view. This brief summary focuses on Butler’s few years in the limelight, from 1874 to 1879.
In the 1870s, Lord Palmerston and Queen Victoria were two of the presiding geniuses over British foreign policy. Although Palmerston died in 1865, his influence lingered on in the ‘patriotic bellicosity’ summed up by the music-hall song of 1878:
‘We don’t want to fight, but by Jingo, if we do, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the ships, we’ve got the money too’
As far as European conflicts were concerned, this was all bluster and ‘making a clatter’ as Palmerston put it. However Britain was using force of arms (among other things) to pursue its ‘manifest destiny’ further afield, where Victoria became a symbol of the country’s ‘romantic imperialism’. In 1876 she was anointed Queen Empress, after Whitehall had taken over India’s administration, and the Suez Canal had been acquired to facilitate trade with this ‘jewel in the crown’.
The Royal Navy played a major role in maintaining the empire – Britannia really did rule the waves – but the other wing of the armed forces, the British Army, came under a series of clouds from the Crimean War onwards: the Indian Rebellion, the Afghan invasions and numerous conflicts in Africa did not always go to plan. In the 1870s Cardwell’s reforms finally got under way – two major improvements being that flogging and the purchase of commissions were abolished – but during this time, the Army’s reputation was not at its highest.
The visual arts
Meanwhile, on the home front, the arts were booming. This was The Age of Capital, when members of the newly prosperous bourgeoisie filled their households with classic novels and queued up to see plays and art exhibitions. Between 1850 and 1880, the number attending the Royal Academy’s annual show quadrupled to almost 400,000 – this at a time when the population of England was only about 20 million (less than half what it is today). According to one historian:
‘By [the end of the 1870s, the RA’s] ‘private views’ had become fashionable occasions for the upper classes, as sure a sign of the rising social status of painting as the social glitter of theatrical “first nights”, in which London began to compete with Paris after 1870.’
He goes on to remark that ‘in both cases [this popularity had] disastrous effects on the arts concerned’ – though he does exempt the French visual arts from his strictures.
Presumably, the kind of paintings our historian was talking about were narrative pictures like these by Yeames and Fildes. Their didacticism and pathos may not appeal to modern tastes, but perhaps it ill behoves us to condescend. While paintings and novels held up a mirror to Victorian society, their modern equivalents include TV programmes like Benefits Street.
Fildes’s painting proved very popular at the RA’s annual show in 1874, but an even bigger hit was a more restrained picture: Thompson’s Roll Call, which became a national sensation. It attracted big crowds in London – a police guard was needed at the RA – and when it toured the country, was preceded by men wearing sandwich-boards announcing simply: ‘The Roll Call is Coming!’. It subsequently made a small fortune from the sale of prints. The Queen sent the Prince of Wales to buy the original and eventually secured it for £1,000 – nearly 10 times the initial price.
The scene is an imaginary one from the Crimean War, of nearly twenty years earlier. In the aftermath of battle, a mounted officer is counting the survivors, many either exhausted or injured, and one of whom has actually collapsed (perhaps died). The painting is quite small (6’ by 3’) and the colours and mood are subdued; the composition breaks all the rules, and consists of three horizontal strips stretching right across the canvas, with no diagonals and the subject at eye-level on a flat plane.
The painting was such a success that Thompson reused some of its ideas in later pictures: the rutted road, the arc of birds and, of course, the the line of stout-hearted rank and file. It was the latter – the concept of ‘the manly soldier’ – that, her biographers argue, ‘became an essential feature of the genre’.
The The Roll Call was successful because of its novelty and intrinsic merits, but it also helped that the artist was a woman – and a young and pretty one.
Before the 19th century, any woman wanting to become an artist had to be born into an artistic family – or at least (like Mary Beale) find an artistic patron. But during the 19th century, women artists also began to emerge from backgrounds that were not artistic but (usually) prosperous and cosmopolitan – like Thompson and her contemporaries Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot.
Elizabeth Thompson was born in Lausanne to itinerant upper-middle class parents. Her father had inherited a competence and, after failing to get into Parliament in the Liberal interest, he devoted his energies to educating his two daughters. His wife, to whom he’d been introduced by Charles Dickens, was musical and an accomplished amateur watercolourist. When Elizabeth showed promise as a draughtsman she got every encouragement from both parents. She was exposed to art during the family’s travels in Italy, France and Germany, and developed a particular admiration for Italian religious art (by this time, the family had converted to Catholicism).
Even people less well-travelled than the Thompsons would have known about at least one successful contemporary female artist (The Horse Fair). Rosa Bonheur was French, but the cross-Channel art market then could be compared with the fashion industry now: practitioners worked across both cities, were influenced by each other, and sold their work in both countries. Because of these strong literary and artistic links, French artists were popular in England and vice versa.
Art Training for Women
By the time Bonheur (who was an artist’s daughter) became well known, the expansion of the arts in the 19th century meant that British art schools were finally beginning to open their doors to women – initially in Birmingham, Bloomsbury and South Kensington. Thompson trained in South Kensington, where one of her contemporaries and rivals was Kate Greenaway. A few years ahead of them had been Gertrude Jekyll, whose talents took her in another direction, but whose success illustrated the growing acceptability of artistic training for women. One writer in the Daily Telegraph commented that such training could free women ‘from the degrading and soul-making bondage of the needle and the wearisome servitude of governessing among the stuck-up classes’ – although admittedly he was thinking in terms of their earning pin-money rather than making a living on equal terms with male artists.
French battle painting
Thompson was ambitious and determined. She wanted to become ‘a great artist’ and not one confined to doing still lives, portraits, or animal or allegorical painting – which were the main options for artists without training in life-drawing. So she augmented her London training with life-drawing lessons in Florence – presumably using models who did not have to be fully clothed. She later stressed how important this was, explaining that she initially drew the models for The Roll Call in tight shell jackets, so that whatever greatcoats, crossbelts and haversacks were added later, she knew that the soldiers were anatomically ‘safe and sound’ underneath.
She also thought seriously about choosing a genre that would help her, in her father’s words, to ‘stand out from the ruck’. She knew that history painting in general and battle painting in particular were very prestigious in France, but that in England the latter was ‘unexploited’. She also knew the work of its most celebrated exponent, Ernest Meissonier, and could well have seen one of his most famous paintings (Campagne) on one of her visits to Paris. She also knew that one reason for his prestige was his great skill in portraying men and horses – demonstrated in this beautifully modelled statuette, currently on show in the Musee des Beaux Arts in Lille (Voyager).
Thompson’s years of fame
The year after her success with The Roll Call, Thompson repeated the trick with another battle painting, this one looking further back, to Waterloo (Quatre Bras). Like The Roll Call, the viewpoint is head-on rather than elevated, and the focus is on a small group of unnamed soldiers.
As always, Thompson had gone to great lengths to get the details right. She read up the battles, interviewed veterans and tramped round the slums of Chelsea to buy old bits of army kit. For this painting she and her mother even bought part of a field and got some local children to trample down the rye-grass in it to help her with the foreground. By this time, she was also getting enthusiastic help from the Army, with whom her paintings were extremely popular. In this painting, most of the soldiers were modelled by policemen – because, unlike most Victorian men, they didn’t wear moustaches – but the horse on the right belonged to the Army’s riding school in Knightsbridge (and apparently had a horrid time being posed).
John Ruskin, who knew Thompson and had encouraged her, was greatly impressed, and wrote that:
’I never approached a picture with more iniquitous prejudice… partly because I always said that no woman could paint, and secondly because I thought 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…’
On the face of it, this seems a strange thing to say. He must have known that Thompson had been influenced by French, not British artists. Although Millais was a friend and supporter, Quatre Bras owes nothing to paintings like Ophelia. Most likely, Ruskin was talking about the original idea of Pre-Raphaelitism, which was to ‘test and defy all conventions of art’.
The Royal Academy schools taught that paintings should have
- pyramidal groupings of figures,
- one major source of light at one side matched by a lesser one on the opposite, and
- an emphasis on rich shadow and tone at the expense of colour.
Although the group in the centre of Quatre Bras is roughly pyramidal, the painting breaks the other two rules, and The Roll Call had broken all three of them.
Ruskin would also have approved of Thompson’s humanism. French battle painting was certainly an influence, but her approach tended more towards ‘history from below’. Her pictures seldom show a general at the head of his troops (as in Meissonier’s picture of Napoleon) or an actual battle scene, as in Friedland. She almost never showed contemporary conflicts, wanting a decent interval to have elapsed so that the meaning could be absorbed. Above all, she wanted to highlight the stoicism and courage of the ordinary soldier – which would certainly have appealed to Ruskin’s leftish sympathies and fitted in with his ideas about ‘truth to nature’.
After 1876, for various reasons – sometimes because her pictures weren’t ready in time – Thompson’s pictures were initially shown elsewhere than the RA. Balaclava was first shown at the Fine Art Society, who paid 3,000 guineas for it – a huge sum. It shows the remnants of the Light Brigade after their disastrous escapade in the Crimea, again with the emphasis on ordinary soldiers. It was quite well received, though some critics thought the central figure ‘lacked restraint’ – one of the things Thompson was admired for – and suggested that the actor who modelled him should return to the stage – somewhat ironically, because he had actually seen service in the Crimea.
The following year, her third Crimean scene, Inkerman, went on show, but was less successful, possibly because the novelty was beginning to wear off.
By this time, Thompson had married a tall, handsome up-and-coming soldier, William Butler (later General Sir William). Interestingly for a well-regarded and successful military man, he was also an Irish nationalist with strong radical views. Typical of them was his comment that:
‘…it is a misfortune of the first magnitude in the lives of soldiers today … that the majority of our recent wars have their origins in purely financial interests or sordid Stock Exchange ambitions’.
Although he wrote this in 1911, after his retirement, his support for the underdog and lost causes had never been in doubt. Eventually he got into trouble when, as High Commissioner in South Africa, he argued strongly that Cecil Rhodes was wrong and that fighting a war against the Boers would be a bad idea. Although the Army subsequently admitted that he had been quite right, his military career was over.
1879 turned out to be the high point of Butler’s career, and she had two pictures in the RA’s annual show. The first, Listed, was the first to be set in her husband’s homeland, with two cousins modelling the local lads being rounded up as conscripts. Its political message seems not to have attracted much comment.
In the second, Remnants, her largest picture, the politics are more obvious. It was shown a year after the second invasion of Afghanistan (of which William Butler strongly disapproved). The subject of the painting was a famous incident from the first (equally unfortunate) first invasion in 1842. Because the picture went on show before the British public became aware that the war was going badly, it had a favourable reception notwithstanding its message of disillusion. Although it ran counter to the ‘imperial triumphalism’ of the 1870s, the Butlers were surely not the only Victorians to wonder if the North West Frontier was really worth 16,000 lives.
This painting (the only one of Butler’s owned by a major national art gallery) had a starring role in the Tate’s ‘Art and Empire’ exhibition of 2015/6, and it is worth noting that, hanging nearby at that exhibition, were paintings by two of her rivals, Fripp and Wollen. Both paintings obviously owe a lot to Quatre Bras, the painting that had so impressed Ruskin; by the 1880s, other (male) artists were showing their admiration for Butler – and were also competing with her.
The Royal Academy election
After her success with The Roll Call and Quatre Bras, there were calls in the press and among artists (including Millais and Powell Frith) for Butler to put herself forward for election to the Royal Academy. The RA was still men-only – although it had accidentally opened its doors to women as students in 1860 when L Herford was accepted for admission and it was only discovered too late that the L stood for Laura. By the time Herford died ten years later about 40 women were studying the full curriculum there, including drawing from live models (doubtless with clothes on).
In the RA election, Butler led on the first ballot but was overtaken by Herbert von Herkomer in the second, and he won the run-off. It would be nearly another fifty years before the Academy finally elected its first full woman member (Laura Knight).
It seems absurd now that there was any controversy; not only was Butler very skilful – Millais thought she was ‘the best draughtsman of us all’ – she had clearly caught the imagination of the masses. Germaine Greer argues that she was, ‘perhaps the last European painter to [do so]’. In her autobiography, Butler passes it all off with a shrug; it is doubtful if she regarded herself as a feminist, and she was certainly not a Suffragist (worrying about her sister, the poet, Alice Meynell, who was). However, it would be amazing if she were not privately incensed.
Butler’s last popular success at the RA was Rorke’s Drift – the only painting in which she broke her rule not to show contemporary battles. The Queen had asked her to commemorate a heroic incident from the Zulu War, when a mission station held off an attack by 4,000 of King Cetewayo’s soldiers. A record number of VC’s had been awarded and all eleven men concerned are shown in the picture. The painting was technically challenging because the fighting took place at night, and personally challenging because of William Butler’s view that, ’…five-sixths of our African wars have their beginning in the wrongs done in the first instance by white men upon natives.’ True to form, he visited Cetewayo in prison, bearing creature comforts – and reducing the King to tears.
After this, Butler’s submissions to the Academy were intermittent and sales were few.
She had her last popular success with a famous incident from Waterloo (Scotland), which she was inspired to paint after walking in disgust out of a show by the Aesthetes. It was not shown at the Academy but was favourably reviewed, has been much reproduced, and is still on show (in Leeds).
She carried on painting, undeterred by marriage, motherhood (the Butlers had five children) and constant travel. In her memoirs she mentions practical problems like sand blowing into the paint in Egypt, or wind nearly blowing her off a hillside in Ireland. What she doesn’t say is that she could no longer give painting the time and energy needed to compete successfully with the artists following in her wake – often men who had seen active service themselves. At the same time, publications like The Illustrated London News were increasingly satisfying public taste for artistic images of war.
A few years later (1890), when Butler did try a new tack (Evicted), there was a mixed reception. Her second Irish painting was based on a forced eviction that she actually witnessed. The victim was apparently ‘very philosophical’, not rising to ‘my level of indignation as an ardent English sympathiser’. Unfortunately for the artist, the painting was shown at the Academy just as her husband’s friend, Charles Stewart Parnell, was being sued for divorce, causing great scandal and threatening the entire Home Rule movement. Nor was its political message designed to appeal to the speaker at that year’s Academy Banquet, who happened to be the Prime Minister. Salisbury made a facetious comment to the effect that he wouldn’t mind being evicted himself in a landcape with such an ‘air of breezy cheerfulness and beauty’. He might have been less flippant if he had known that Butler herself would effectively be evicted in later life.
 – when the new Irish Republic sequestrated her home. Admittedly, unlike the subject of her painting, she did have a daughter’s castle to retire to.
Changing fashions in art
Butler came from a liberal family, married a radical, and showed great humanity and concern for the ordinary soldier (and horse), but in many ways was a traditionalist. When she embarked on her career, she opted for an artistic genre which in France was already being overshadowed.
While she was still in training, Dejeuner sur l’Herbe went on show. By 1874, while London was enthusing about The Roll Call, Paris was being treated to its first exhibition of paintings named after Impression, Soleil Levant.
Although she was still painting by the time of the First World War, when she was heading into her eighth decade, (Retreat) her style and subject-matter had not developed. Nor, unlike younger artists, had she responded to Modernism, which by then was producing images like La Mitrailleuse.
However, I wonder if it is possible to see a line of descent from Butler’s early work, especially The Roll Call, to another of Nevinson’s war pictures (Paths of Glory), showing an unknown soldier and the horror rather than the glory of war.
We still have war artists, but over the last century they have taken second place to photographers. The iconic images of war from the mid-20th century onwards have mostly been photographic: the flag being raised at Iwo Jima, the girl running away from a napalm attack in Vietnam, the tank-driver burnt to a crisp in Iraq.
One critic argues that Modernism could not accommodate history painting. Maybe modern warfare cannot accommodate it either.
© Carol Orchard