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Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

Elizabeth Thompson

Elizabeth Thompson

Elizabeth Thompson

Elizabeth Southerden Thompson, Lady Butler (1846 – 1933) was a British painter, who specialised in painting scenes from British military campaigns and battles, 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”. She married Lieutenant-General Sir William Butler, becoming Lady Butler.  Famous for her portrayals of battle scenes, Elizabeth Butler was a remarkable artist and one of the few 19th-century women to acquire fame for her historical paintings.

In 1866 she entered the Royal Female School of Art in London, and after moving to Florence in 1869, she continued her studies at the Accademia di Belle Arti. After became a Roman Catholic, she initially concentrated on religious subjects, but upon going to Paris in 1870, she was exposed to battle scenes by famous French artists and switched her focus to war paintings. In the 1874 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, her painting “The Roll Call” became so popular that a policeman had to be stationed next to the picture to regulate the crowds that came to see it. Butler wrote that after the Exhibition, she awoke to find herself famous. In 1879, Butler came within two votes of becoming the first woman to be elected as an Associate Member of the Royal Academy.

After her marriage in 1877 to Sir William Francis Butler (1838–1910), an officer of the British Army, from Ireland, Butler travelled the far reaches of the Empire with her husband. On her husband’s retirement from the army, they moved to County Tipperary, Ireland. During the Irish Civil War, a collection of watercolours she had created from their time in Palestine were moved for safekeeping, later again they were moved to London. Ironically most of them were destroyed during the WWII German Blitz of London.

Elizabeth Thompson raised six children and continued to paint. She was widowed in 1910 and died in 1933, shortly before her 87th birthday.

A Tour of Elizabeth Thompson’s Art

  • Scotland Forever!
    • Scotland Forever! by Elizabeth Thompson depicts the start of the charge of the Royal Scots Greys, a British cavalry regiment that charged alongside the British heavy cavalry at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The title comes from the battle cry of the soldiers who called “Now, my boys, Scotland forever!” as they charged. Butler had never observed a battle; however, she did watch her husband’s regiment during training manoeuvre, and she positioned herself in front of charging horses to study their movement. The painting has highly popular and was reproduced many times and is considered an iconic representation of the battle itself, and heroism more generally. Tzar Nicholas II of Russia and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany both received copies, and later during the First World War, both the British and the Germans used the image in their propaganda material, with the Scots Greys transformed into Prussian cavalry by the Germans. Museum: Leeds Art Gallery
  • Floreat Etona!
    • Floreat Etona! by Elizabeth Thompson shows two mounted British officers in blue jackets, with swords drawn, leading red-coated infantry in a charge and the flat-topped mountain of Majuba in Natal can be seen in the background. The horse to the right is stumbling, and the officer to the left shouts encouragement. A Queen’s Colour is just visible in the background. The scene depicts an incident in 1881, during the First Boer War, in which Lieutenant Elwes of the Grenadier Guards, shown on the left was killed at the Battle of Laing’s Nek in 1881. Elwes was one of 84 killed. The officer Monck who’s horse stumbled, survived the battle. The British Army was attempting to force its way through a pass in the Drakensberg Mountains, in South Africa when Elwes joined a hopeless frontal assault into the guns of the Boer defence, charging up a hill on horseback. He reported encouraging his fellow Eton old boy, with a shout immediately before he was shot and killed: “Come along, Monck! Floreat Etona! We must be in the front rank!” The title of the painting is the Latin motto of Eton College, “May Eton Flourish”. This attack was the last time a British battalion carried its colours into action. Private Collection.

Elizabeth Thompson

A Tour of Women Artists

Reflections

  • One of the few 19th-century women to acquire fame for her historical paintings.

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“After rain comes sunshine.“
– French Proverb

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Photo Credit: Elizabeth Thompson [Public domain]

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