The Victorian-era artist never saw a battle, but her paintings show a deep knowledge of the soldiers’ plight.
Among the most widely reproduced cautionary images during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan a decade ago was a classic of 19th century British military art entitled Remnants of an Army. Painted in 1879, at the height of the Victorian era, it is singularly bleak and inglorious. Indeed, the “remnants” number just two figures: a lone, exhausted rider— Dr. William Brydon, a military surgeon—and his nearly dead horse. The army in question was an 1842 British formation of 4,500 soldiers and some 12,000 camp followers forced into a catastrophic 70-mile retreat from Kabul to Jalalabad during the First Anglo-Afghan War. For some time Brydon was thought to be the sole survivor. A few dozen others eventually straggled home.
While Remnants of an Army commemorated one of the great disasters in British army history, an 1881 painting by the same artist memorializes that army’s greatest victory. Entitled Scotland for Ever! it depicts the famous mounted charge of the 2nd Dragoons—the legendary Royal Scots Greys —at Waterloo in 1815. British military lore had long enshrined their attack, and the painting, with its oncoming mass of wild-eyed galloping horses and howling red-jacketed cavalrymen, quickly became the most widely reproduced image of its genre. It remains one of the most stirring battle portraits in British art history.
The painter of both military episodes— and hundreds of others—was Elizabeth Sotherden Thompson, Lady Butler (1846–1933). Lady Butler never witnessed a battle in person, yet war somehow became her signature subject and, in her painterly hands, a subject of more than occasional artistic greatness. Her own colorful, upper-class personal history was film worthy.
The intelligent, talented daughter of a British eccentric of independent means and a cultivated mother with significant gifts as a pianist, singer and watercolorist, Elizabeth led an independent early life devoted to art studies and a career as a professional painter. In her early 30s she married Major William Francis Butler, eight years her senior. Butler rose to become a lieutenant general, briefly in command of British forces in South Africa on the eve of the Second Boer War, but he was recalled home after openly expressing antiimperialist views.
Retiring to Ireland, the Butlers took up residence at Bansha Castle in County Tipperary. The general became a member of the Irish Privy Council and a strong sympathizer with the Catholic emancipation and Irish independence movements. Falling somewhat out of popular favor for her own apostate Irish sympathies and increasingly bleak depictions of the ongoing wars of empire, Lady Butler nonetheless pursued her career for several more decades. By the time of her death this model of genteel Victorian and Edwardian womanhood had amassed a body of work, securing a legacy as perhaps the greatest battle painter in British history.
What was the secret of Lady Butler’s talent? What did she somehow know about war and soldiering and the lives and deaths of men-at-arms? What was it that granted her work a power of both physical and emotional evocation that often outstripped her male contemporaries? Writers and critics made various attempts to “explain” her. Some praised her uniquely visible concern—at odds with other practitioners of the theatrical battle painting of the era—not for great captains or gold braid but for the common soldier. (At the turn of the century her sister, poet and essayist Alice Meynell, went so far as to claim, “Lady Butler has done for the soldier in art what Mr. Rudyard Kipling has done for him in literature—she has taken the individual, separated him, seen him close and let the world see him.”) Others enthusiastically worshipped her as a singular if not preternatural evolution of her sex, a warrior art-goddess in the mold of the ancients. (Of another of her Waterloo classics, her portrayal of the famous clash at Quatre Bras, the estimable John Ruskin—famously on record as asserting that women could not paint—was forced to confess, “It is Amazon’s work this; no doubt of it, and the first fine pre-Raphaelite picture of battle we have had.”)
A third characterization, commingling aspects of the first two, comes from the artist herself, looking back over a long and celebrated career: “I never painted for the glory of war,” she wrote in a 1922 autobiography, “but to portray its pathos and heroism.” Put simply, she somehow knew what the soldier knew. She set out at once to show the savagery of battle and pathos of its aftermath while still honoring the age-old traditions of soldiering and the enduring elements of individual and collective bravery and self-sacrifice—for want of a better word, heroism.
Here, a central piece of evidence is her bleakly moving 1874 painting The Roll Call (or, properly, Calling the Roll After an Engagement, Crimea), a depiction of the depleted ranks of battle-weary British Grenadier Guards attempting reassembly on a snowy morning in the aftermath of combat. The backdrop is gray, muted, elegiac. Against this landscape the uniformed survivors attempt to present ranks, complete with walking wounded and gaping holes in place of those killed. One infers the roll call in question is an attendance roster of the dead. Still, Butler conveys the impression of a disciplined familiar military formation—soldiers helping their fellows to stand, attended silently by NCOs and officers. Purchased by Queen Victoria herself, it was the painting that made Butler’s career.
The Roll Call also stands at center chronologically for the artist in a unique body of work, from depictions of the imperial era “thin red line”—actually a misquote of war correspondent William Howard Russell’s description of the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders in the Crimea as a “thin red streak tipped with a line of steel”—to the khaki-clad mass combatants of late 19th and early 20th century battlefields, ranging from the South African veldt to World War I Palestine and Flanders. In classic moments we see a forced march with Wellington on the peninsula; the retiring columns of wounded at Inkerman and Balaklava; the desperate band of holdouts against the Zulus at Rorke’s Drift. In the pale light of a new century we see Lancers during the retreat from Mons, and dusty, plodding infantry in France passing a roadside crucifix.
The paintings speak to the changes in warfare. They also chart the evolution of a sensibility that kept faith with the soldier even as those changes unfolded. Butler’s pathos is evident in her 1879 work Listed for the Connaught Rangers. Perhaps the saddest scene she ever painted, it depicts two hale conscripts from the Irish backcountry marching down a road toward enrollment in the regiment. Their threadbare civilian togs contrast with the military peacockery of the recruiting sergeant and his drummer boys. They have taken the queen’s shilling and will soon enter the world of war in which each roll call may be their last. With eloquent austerity it testifies to the soldierly virtues of loyalty, determination and willingness to sacrifice.
A 1914 watercolor entitled Patrick, Au Revoir! depicts another lone figure on horseback—an officer in modern uniform rendering a hand salute. The soldier in question has already seen combat. His officer turnout is that of the regular, albeit in the muted tones of the British army in France, a divisional headquarters of which he is about to join. Shortly, he will be badly wounded at First Ypres, invalided home and then returned to duty to serve in Macedonia and Palestine. In many ways, save his survival, his will be the experience of the British regular soldier of World War I. Already counted a remnant of yet another army, the soldier is named Patrick Butler. He is the artist’s own son.