20.2.08

Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler

Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler (3 November 1846–2 October 1933) was a British painter, the first woman painter to achieve fame for history paintings, right at the end of that tradition. She was married to Lieutenant General Sir William Butler.

Born at Villa Claremont in Lausanne, Switzerland, she specialized in painting scenes from British military campaigns and battles, including the Crimean War and the Battle of Waterloo. The Roll Call, The Defence of Rorke's Drift, and Scotland Forever! are among her better-known works. She wrote about her military paintings in an autobiography published in 1922: "I never painted for the glory of war, but to portray its pathos and heroism."


...Depicts Dr. William Brydon, an assistant surgeon in the Bengal Army arriving at the gates of Jellabad on his exhausted and dying horse. He was thought to be the sole survivor of some 16,000 strong army and followers from Kabul, which was forced to retreat the 90 miles over snow covered passes to Jellabad during the first Aghan war. A few others eventually struggled through to the fort. Was this the insipration for Dr John Watson in the Sherlock holmes series? (1879 – Tate Gallery)

She was the daughter of Thomas James Thompson (1812–1881) and his second wife Christiana Weller (1825–1910). Her sister is the famous essayist and poet Alice Meynell. Elizabeth began receiving art instruction in 1862, while growing up in Italy. In 1866 she went to South Kensington, London and entered the Female School of Art. She became a Roman Catholic along with the rest of the family after they moved to Florence in 1869. While in Florence, under the tutelage of the artist Giuseppe Bellucci (1827–1882), Elizabeth attended the Accademia di Belle Arti. She signed her works as E.B.; Elizth. Thompson or Mimi Thompson.

Initially she concentrated on religious subjects like The Magnificat (1872), but upon going to Paris in 1870 she was exposed to battle scenes from Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier and Édouard Detaille, and switched her focus to war paintings. With the painting Missing (1873) a Franco-Prussian War battle scene, depicting the common solders' suffering and heroism, she earned her first submission to the Royal Academy.
















After The Roll Call (1)was shown in 1874 at the Academy, she became a nineteenth century celebrity, due to the paintings' immense popularity. As the paintings toured Europe, along with photographs of Elizabeth, she gained even more notice because people found out that she was both young and pretty, something normally not associated with painters of battle scenes. It also helped that during this time there was an incredible amount of Victorian pride and romanticism for the growing British Empire.

Her career and fame peaked with her 11 June 1877 marriage to Sir William Francis Butler (1838–1910), a distinguished officer of the British Army, from Tipperary in Ireland. Not only was this beauty now married, breaking the heart of many a young man, but also she would now travel to the far reaches of the Empire with her husband and raise their five children. During this time she also came under the influence of her husband's Irish-inclined beliefs that the colonial imperialism of countries like Great Britain may not be in the best interest of the native people in far-off lands, but continued to paint scenes showing the valour of the ordinary British soldier.

On her husband's retirement from the army, she moved with him to Ireland, where they lived at Bansha Castle, County Tipperary. She was widowed in 1910, but continued to live at Bansha until 1922, when she took up residence with her daughter (one of six children), Eileen, Viscountess Gormanston, at Gormanston Castle, County Meath. She died there shortly before her 87th birthday and was interred at nearby Stamullen graveyard.


...Probably the best known painting of the gallant charge of the Royal North Dragoons, The Scots Greys at the Battle of Waterloo. According to an eyewitness Alexander Armour at the start of the charge of the greys had to pass through the ranks of the Highland Brigade and armour recalled The highlanders were then ordered to wheel back, when they did so we rushed through them at the same time they heard us calling Now my boys Scotland Forever. 1881 (1881 – Leeds City Art Gallery)

...
The remnants of the Light Brigade (Hussars, Lancers, and Light Dragoons) returning from the disastrous charge during the Battle of Balaclava, 25th October 1854 (1876 – City of Manchester Art Gallery)

(1) Property of HRM Queen Elizabeth II

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