…or, to give it its full title, Calling the Roll after an Engagement, Crimea, a large military history painting exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1874, was so popular as an exhibit that a policeman, ‘poor, hot man’, had to be posted to guard it and the ‘two lovely little pictures of Leighton’s, past which the people scraped’, and which had to be inspected for damage every day after closing time. Presumably one of the reasons it was so sensational was that the artist was a twenty-seven-year-old, rather pretty, woman.
Elizabeth Thompson (1846–1933), born in Switzerland, brought up peripatetically in Italy (which she spoke completely fluently but with a Genoese accent), southern England, and the Isle of Wight, was the elder of two intelligent daughters of Thomas James Thompson (1812–81) and his second wife Christiana, a talented amateur pianist, who was introduced to him by Charles Dickens. (Her sister, Alice Meynell became a poet and editor, and the mother of two more writers.)
Unusually, the girls were educated by their father, whose grandfather was a prosperous Jamaican planter: he had raised his grandson (the offspring of his own son’s alliance with a Creole mistress) after the father’s early death, and the grandson, brought up in and inheriting wealth, did not expect to have to earn his own living. However, the family money dwindled, and although Elizabeth does not make it clear, it seems that their frequent changes of address (always living in rented houses) were a matter of economy as much as free-spirited Bohemianism.
Elizabeth’s talent for drawing became evident from an early age: she was especially fascinated by horses and their movements, and was also intrigued by the military uniforms of the different nations, especially prominent in pre-unification northern Italy. Her father encouraged her desire to become a professional artist, and in 1866 she began to study at the South Kensington School of Art.
However, one of the most important influences on her life had occurred the previous autumn: with he family, she had toured the Waterloo battlefield, guided by a veteran of the battle fifty years before: her diary entries from the time show both her revulsion at the thought of the slaughter, and the painterly imagination with which she reconstructed the events of 18 June 1815. Two of her most famous paintings, The 28th Regiment at Quatre Bras (1875) and Scotland Forever! (1881) commemorate key moments in the battle.
Elizabeth continued her studies in Florence, the family travelling with her: during this stay in Italy, she, her sister and mother, converted to Catholicism. She was greatly disturbed by the Franco-Prussian War, and the first of her paintings to be accepted by the Royal Academy, Missing (1873) was an imaginary scene involving ordinary soldiers in the aftermath of a battle.
The following year, with ‘The Roll Call’, a scene from the Crimea, again involving ordinary soldiers and no heroics – except by implication – she really did wake up on Varnishing Day and find herself famous. Two days after the exhibition opened, the picture was removed from display so that Queen Victoria could view it at Buckingham Palace, and it subsequently went on a tour round Britain, to great acclaim. It is now in the Royal Collection, the Glasgow art dealer who had commissioned it having done the gracious thing by his Sovereign. But thousands of prints were sold, as were carte de visite photographs of the young artist: she once came across one staring out at her from a bunch of bananas on a market stall.
As she describes in her 1922 autobiography, she was a stickler for accuracy in her paintings, paying great attention to detail as to uniforms, insignia, weaponry and landscapes: she did not want the heroism and stoicism of the scenes she depicted undermined by criticism of inaccuracy. She searched old-clothes shops for remnants, and persuaded army commanders to have their troops drill for her: efforts to get the kneeling positions in Quatre Bras correct are given in detail.
She was also ‘lent’ soldiers as models for the individual, anonymous faces which brought her such acclaim. She chose eight men as models for the picture, ‘but only five were brought now by the sergeant, as I had managed to pitch upon three bad characters … and these could not be sent to me’.
In June 1877, Elizabeth married William Butler, an Irish Catholic soldier who had served in India, Africa and Canada (his experiences there are recorded in The Great Lone Land, which we have reissued). She subsequently accompanied or followed him to postings from Egypt to Dover Castle and to South Africa, where his objection to British treatment of the Boers led to his resignation after what his wife describes as a malicious personal campaign against him. (With hindsight, the subsequent events of the Boer War more than justified his stance.)
It goes without saying that there is no mention of another notorious incident in Sir William Butler’s life: his citation as one of four co-respondents in the scandalous divorce case of Lord and Lady Colin Campbell in 1886 (the others were the then Marquess of Blandford (later the eighth duke of Marlborough), Captain Eyre Massey Shaw, chief of the London Fire Brigade (see Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe), and a surgeon, Thomas Bird). There is no evidence that any of the four actually had ‘criminal conversation’ with the notorious Lady Colin, however.
Lady Butler (as she became) continued to paint battle scenes throughout her married life and the childhood of her three boys and three girls: both historical scenes and contemporary images from the Boer War and the First World War (a recurring and anguished theme of these memoirs being the impossibility of imaging that two nations with as much in common, and as many ties of friendship, as Britain and Germany could ever fight each other).
However, by the time of the new century and the old queen’s death, the fashion for her large, detailed paintings had passed. In spite of her hopes (and the expectations of others) she never became an associate of the Royal Academy, falling short by two votes in 1879 and never standing again. These memoirs, and her 1909 From Sketch-Book and Diary (which we have also reissued), are illustrated with sketches and studies for her paintings, showing the serious hard work she put into each one. She was a pioneering woman at more than one level: it’s a pity her life is almost forgotten today.