Saturday, February 13, 2016

"Florence Nightingale of the brush"

Some of the most famous and impressive 19th Century battle scenes ever painted were done by a woman, Elizabeth Southerden Thompson, better known simply as Lady Butler.

Born in Switzerland in 1846 she and her multi-talented sister, the poet and suffragette, Alice Meynell, received an extraordinarily enlightened education for any woman of the time. Their father, Thomas James Thompson, was a man of “independent means and artistic leanings” who decided to tutor his daughters himself rather than entrusting them to a governess.

National Portrait Gallery London

Elizabeth spent much of her childhood in Italy where she first began to paint, later continuing formal art studies both in Florence and London. But it was in France where she found her true metier when she encountered the new style of battle scenes being pioneered by French painters.

The Roll Callfirst shown in 1874, became one of the most famous and popular paintings of the era and people queued for hours to see it when it went on tour around the country. It has been much copied for everything from calling cards to the lids of chocolate boxes and jigsaw puzzles. The fact this very masculine subject was painted by a pretty young woman who couldn’t possibly know what the battlefield was really like somehow added to its appeal. Several of her subsequent paintings went on to equal acclaim.

The Roll Call, Royal Collection
28th Regiment at Quatre-Bras, National Gallery of Victoria
In 1879, by a margin of a couple of votes, Elizabeth lost her opportunity of becoming the first-ever female associate of the Royal Academy and she made no further attempts to pursue what should have been her rightful accreditation.

Scotland for Ever! Leeds Art Gallery

Although she painted what is perhaps her best known work Scotland for Ever! after her marriage to Sir William Francis Butler, giving birth to a total of six children and globe-trotting with a military husband created obstacles to her output. It also didn’t help that Elizabeth’s approach to the glorification of war and battle altered with time. Her husband was an Irish Catholic and together they started to take a more critical view of the British Empire and what it stood for. Her painting Evicted is a strong indictment on the treatment of the Irish people at the time of the Famine.

Evicted, University College Dublin

Inevitably, she was increasingly ignored by the establishment and left behind with changing tastes in art. By the time of World War I, battles bore little resemblance to the old-fashioned glorified reflections of “Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die” * ideals for which she had become famous. Although she continued to paint interpretations of WW1, they never reached the fame of her earlier works.

Yet when one looks carefully at her sketches and smaller studies of the men she portrayed, her sympathy with the fears and stoicism of the fighting man remains the same, no matter the era or type of conflict.

Man of Kent (The Buffs - Royal East Kent Regiment)
Remnants of an Army, Tate Britain

Study of a wounded Guardsman,
National Army Museum

Lady Butler also wrote a number of books, including her own Autobiography, Sketch Book and Diary and Letters from the Holy Land, all of which include lesser-known paintings and sketches from her world travels and they are free to read or browse online.

Lady Butler at her easel, Dover Castle 1898

Her entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Biography concludes with: 
"Lady Butler has a dual claim to fame. She pioneered a new, more realistic depiction of warfare in British painting, one which was to prove immensely influential at the end of the nineteenth century. And she briefly enjoyed critical and popular success of such magnitude that, for a while, it seemed a new era for women artists in Britain was about to dawn."
It is interesting to discover there was more enlightenment and willingness to accept a woman artist in the 1870s than in subsequent years. Although two women had been instrumental in the founding of the Royal Academy in 1768 (Angelica Kaufman and Mary Moser) it wasn’t until 1922 that Annie Swynnerton was admitted as an associate, with Dame Laura Knight receiving full membership in 1936.

Sir William received Bansha Castle in County Tipperary as a grace-and-favour house after he retired from the Boer War, even though he had often upset his superiors over their handling over that War and was even accused of being a Boer sympathiser. (While his wife remains comparatively famous, there is much about Sir Williams own illustrious Empire career that is now forgotten, not least his involvement in Canada in the establishment of the North-West Mounted Police, now known as the Mounties.) 

After Sir William died, his wife lived on at Bansha until she was driven out by the IRA in 1922, leaving many paintings and other possessions behind. It is said one of those paintings called The Camel Corp has a bullet hole in it. Whether apocryphal or not, it reflects a certain irony.

Lady Butler spent her later years at Gormanstan Castle, County Meath. She died on 2 October 1933.

Last page in Lady Butler's Autobiography

* From “Charge of the Light Brigade”, Alfred , Lord Tennyson.

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