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Butler, Elizabeth Thompson (1846–1933)

Butler, Elizabeth Thompson (1846–1933)

One of the most successful English painters of military subjects in the 19th century, who brought a new realism to the depiction of war in British art. Name variations: Elizabeth Southerden Thompson; Lady Butler. Born Elizabeth Southerden Thompson on November 3, 1846, near Lausanne, Switzerland; died on October 2, 1933, at Gormanston Castle, County Meath, Ireland; daughter of Thomas James Thompson and Christiana (Weller) Thompson; sister of Alice Meynell ; studied at the Female School of Art, South Kensington (1866–1870), and Giuseppe Bellucci's Academy in Florence (1869); married Major William Butler on June 11, 1877; children: Elizabeth (b. 1879); Patrick (b. 1880); Richard; Eileen (b. 1883); Martin (b. 1887); and a daughter, Mary, who died in infancy.

Visited the battlefield of Waterloo (1865); exhibited at the Society of Women Artists and the Dudley Gallery (1867); received commission for The Roll Call (1872); had Missing accepted by the Royal Academy (1873), and The Roll Call (1874); traveled extensively (1885–92), including time in Egypt where her husband was serving; toured Palestine (1891) and published Letters from the Holy Land (1903); published From Sketch-Book and Diary (1909); exhibited watercolors at the Leicester Galleries (1912); exhibited at the Waterloo Centenary Exhibition held at the Leicester Galleries (1915); published An Autobiography (1922).

Major works:

The Roll Call (1874, collection of Her Majesty the Queen); The 28th Regiment at Quatre Bras (1875, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne); Balaclava (1876, Manchester City Art Galleries); The Defence of Rorke's Drift (1880, collection of HMQ); Scotland for Ever! (1881, Leeds City Art Galleries); "Steady the drums and fifes!" (1897, collection of The Queens' Regiment, Canterbury). Signed works E.T. or E.S.T. before marriage, E.B. after.

During the 1870s, painting in England reflected the growing public concern over the failure of Victorian prosperity to reach the working classes. The resulting school of painting, known as British Social Realism, emphasized the stark, unromanticized, depiction of the poor and disadvantaged members of society. At the same time, a series of reforms of the military, known as the Cardwell Reforms (after Edward Cardwell, the war minister), was eroding the system of privilege and elitism that had until then characterized the British army. So, when in 1874 a young artist, Elizabeth Thompson, exhibited her painting The Roll Call at the Royal Academy, its realistic portrayal of the enduring strength of the common British soldier resonated strongly with popular sentiments. Elizabeth Thompson, virtually overnight, became one of the most renowned British military painters of the 19th century, with her works reproduced in thousands of prints.

The parents of Elizabeth Thompson first met in 1844, when, after attending a piano recital by Christiana Weller, Thomas Thompson and Charles Dickens called on the Wellers the next day. Thomas Thompson's background was somewhat unusual for an English gentleman of leisure. His grandfather, Thomas Pepper Thompson, made the family fortune in Jamaican sugar, before returning to England. Thomas Thompson was the illegitimate son of Mary Edwards and James Thompson, himself the illegitimate son of Thomas Pepper Thompson. Curiously, the inheritance that came to Thomas Thompson from his grandfather was, should there be no direct heir, to pass to the heirs of Edward Moulton Barrett; this included Elizabeth Barrett Browning , the poet. Whether they were related is unknown, but the Brownings apparently believed so. The Weller family was initially opposed to the relationship that developed between Thompson and Weller, but in the end they were married on October 21, 1845. The couple embarked upon a lifestyle of travel that was to continue for most of their lives. Elizabeth, their first child, was born on November 3, 1846; she was always known to her family as Mimi. Alice, their second daughter, was born in 1847.

Meynell, Alice (1847–1922)

English poet and essayist. Born Alice Christiana Gertrude Thompson at Barnes, Surrey, England, on September 22, 1847 (some sources cite August 17); died on November 27, 1922; second daughter of Thomas and Christiana Weller Thompson ; younger sister of Elizabeth Thompson Butler ; married Wilfred Meynell (a journalist), 1877; children: eight, including Francis, Everard, and Viola Meynell (1886–1956).

Alice Meynell shared with her sister Elizabeth a liberal education and a wide experience of travel. Their mother Christiana, who was an accomplished concert pianist, took an active interest in all the arts, and encouraged her daughters to sing, write, and draw. In 1872, Alice converted to Catholicism, as her mother had before her, after which she became involved with the Catholic literary circle in England. Her first book of poems, Preludes, was published in 1875, with illustrations by Elizabeth. Meynell was praised and encouraged by Tennyson and Ruskin, among others, but in later years she expressed dissatisfaction with her earliest work.

Journalist Wilfred Meynell read a review of Preludes and was so impressed by the poem included in it that he contacted Alice regarding the possibility of contributing to the magazine that he edited. In 1877, they were married, and for many years they shared various writing and editing projects. First, in 1880, they edited and wrote for The Pen, then from 1881 to 1898 they worked on The Weekly Register. From 1883 to 1895, they ran Merry England, a monthly founded by the Meynells themselves, which, unlike the other periodicals Wilfred Meynell had been involved with, was intended to find an audience beyond the Catholic community. In 1893, Alice Meynell's first book of essays, The Rhythm of Life, was published; it contained mainly essays originally written for the Dublin Review and the Scots Observer. Also in 1893, the poems from Preludes were republished as Poems. She began writing weekly articles for the Pall Mall Gazette in 1894, some of which were collected as The Color of Life in 1896. Other volumes of poems and essays followed, as she remained a prolific writer of essays and journalism throughout her career, although her output of poetry was small. She wrote for The Spectator, The Saturday Review, The Magazine of Art, and The Art Journal, among others. Somehow Alice maintained this pace while raising eight children born in the years 1879 to 1891.

Alice Meynell, though she emphasized that she was not a militant, was an active and vocal supporter of the women's suffrage movement. She noted, in a letter to The Times, that "it is a fact of human life that 'sex' troubles man at least as much as it troubles woman, but it does not disfranchise man." When Alfred Austin, England's poet laureate, died in 1913, Alice Meynell was among those championed in the literary press to assume the post. In one poll, she came second to Rudyard Kipling in popularity, although in the end neither of them was chosen. Alice Meynell died on November 27, 1922, leaving behind a reputation as one of England's most thoughtful poets and insightful essayists.

The Meynell family was very close, and from a young age the children were closely involved with writing and editing. Francis Meynell worked as an editor on several Socialist newspapers. Everard Meynell was an accomplished writer, particularly on art, including volumes on Corot and Bellini; he also wrote a biography of Francis Thompson. Viola Meynell (1886–1956) was a writer, poet, and biographer.

William MacKenzie , University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada

The Thompson sisters benefitted from their parents mobile lifestyle, traveling throughout Italy for the first of many times in 1851, where they became attached to Fanny and Tom, their father's children from his first marriage. In 1852, the family took up residence at the Villa dei Franchi in Sori, where they frequently returned over the years. It was here that Thomas Thompson began the education of his daughters, which he undertook entirely by himself. He had attended Trinity College, Cambridge, and was a demanding teacher. Both sisters were keen students of history, and avid linguists. They worked particularly hard on their Italian, learning first the Genoese and then the Tuscan dialect. The sisters were also included in the numerous festivities that attended the visits of friends, among them Dickens, at the Thompson household. They spent a year (1854–55) in England, but continued to travel Europe at a frenetic pace with their parents. Both of the sisters were avid readers, and Alice began to write poetry by the time she was nine. By 1860, Elizabeth was filling sketchbooks with her drawings, which already emphasized military topics; she sketched Garibaldi's troops while they were bivouacked near Genoa, where the Thompsons were staying.

Elizabeth first studied painting under W. Standish, in London in 1862. On her 19th birthday, she visited the site of the battle of Waterloo, where she felt the "awful glamour" that characterized her feelings about war. She enrolled briefly in the Female School of Art, South Kensington, but withdrew because of the school's emphasis on design over figure painting. However, she returned in 1866 and engaged in rigorous study of figure drawing; she also attended a private class, drawing female nudes. In 1869, she spent much of the summer studying in Florence under Giuseppe Bellucci at the Academy of Fine Arts, further refining her ability to draw figures.

While in London for the winter, the Thompsons were visited by John Ruskin, who examined some of Elizabeth's drawings and was also one of the first to read some of Alice's poetry. Elizabeth had already settled on military painting as her specialty and was pleased to be able to make use of local farms to observe and paint horses, an essential skill in military painting. In Italy for the summer of 1868, Elizabeth set up a studio to paint, while Alice continued to write poetry. It was while in Italy that Elizabeth painted and exhibited her first major work. Her Magnificat (now in the Church of St. Wilfred, Isle of Wight), using her mother as a model for the Virgin Mary, was included in the Pope's International Exhibition, although because of her gender she was not herself allowed into the exhibition.

In 1868, Thompson exhibited two paintings with the Society of Female Artists; in 1872, the society changed its name to the Society of Lady Artists, and Thompson was one of the 23 full members. By 1872, Elizabeth had for several years been moderately successful at exhibiting and selling watercolors of military topics, some inspired by the Franco-Prussian War. The first watercolor that she exhibited publicly, Bavarian Artillery Going into Action (1867), was based on an incident during the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. In the fall of 1872, Elizabeth was able to observe British soldiers on manoeuvres near Southampton, and this inspired a number of watercolors that were exhibited at the Dudley Gallery in London. One of these, Soldiers Watering Horses (1872), was purchased by Charles Galloway, who subsequently commissioned an oil painting from Thompson. Her first military oil painting, Missing, inspired by the Franco-Prussian War, was accepted by the Royal Academy in 1873; her earlier work, The Magnificat, had been turned down by them in 1871. In the fall of 1873, Elizabeth and Alice went on pilgrimage to Paray-le-Monial, Elizabeth having recently followed her mother and sister in converting to Catholicism. When she received her commission from Galloway, she set up her own studio in London in December 1873 and began work on The Roll Call. Also in 1874, Elizabeth joined the New Watercolor Society, which was admitting women gradually; this was faster than the Royal Academy, which admitted no women in the 19th century.

Thank God, I never painted for the glory of war, but to portray its pathos and heroism.

—Lady Butler

Meynell, Viola (1886–1956)

English writer, poet, and biographer. Born Viola Meynell at Phillimore Place, Kensington, in 1886; died in 1956; daughter of Alice Meynell (1847–1922) and Wilfred Meynell; married John Dallyn, 1922; children: one son.

Viola Meynell's first novel, Lot Barrow, was published in 1913. She produced 20 volumes of prose and poetry, as well as editing others, including selections from George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans ). Viola wrote a memoir of her mother, as well as one on her father's association with Francis Thompson, the poet. Her short stories, perhaps her best work, were collected in 1957.

William MacKenzie , University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada

When the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy opened in 1874, indeed even before, the center of attention was The Roll Call by Elizabeth Thompson. The man who had commissioned it, Charles Galloway, was promptly inundated with requests to purchase the painting, all of which he declined, until Queen Victoria expressed a desire to purchase the work. A relatively static composition for a military painting,The Roll Call shows a scene from the Crimean War, a unit of Grenadier Guards mustering in the snow after an apparently gruelling engagement. The painting was not, as many of her others were, explicitly identified with a particular action; it was, instead, a tribute to the endurance and bravery of the common soldier. Elizabeth Thompson was the first British artist to utilize the realistic approach to military painting, which was then flourishing in France. Three of the principal artists of this movement, Meissonier, De Neuville, and Detaille, influenced her work. The Roll Call toured the country after the exhibition, attracting thousands of viewers, achieving a remarkable popularity. Thousands of engravings were sold by the Fine Art Society, which held the copyright to reproductions of the painting. Even after the turn of the century, The Roll Call still evoked enthusiastic responses from the public when it was exhibited.

Thompson's next two works, The 28th Regiment at Quatre Bras of 1875, a Napoleonic scene, and Balaclava of 1876, another Crimean scene, were both well received, and again, many engravings of these works were sold. Thompson's decision to exhibit the later work at the Fine Art Society, rather than the Royal Academy, elicited criticism from the press, but, like The Roll Call, Balaclava toured the country with great public success. Despite warnings from critics that a woman artist could not adequately deal with the subject, Thompson rapidly became the most prominent military painter in the nation. She contributed illustrations to a number of projects, including a volume of her sister's poems (1875) and an edition of Thackeray's ballads (1879). The Return from Inkerman of 1877 was Thompson's third Crimean War subject, and it was also displayed by the Fine Arts Society. However, it did not receive the critical or public attention of her earlier work, and indeed she never again achieved the prominence she had in the early 1870s. This was partially due to the generation of painters who, after the success of Thompson, produced something of a glut of similar work.

In 1879, in the wake of her remarkable rise to prominence, Elizabeth Thompson was nominated for election as an associate of the Royal Academy. The success of The Roll Call initiated a public debate over the issue of women artists, and the lack of female associates of the Academy was one element of this debate. In the end, Thompson came very close to being the only woman prior to the 20th century accepted into the Academy; the man chosen instead won by 27 votes to her 25. Strangely, though, having come so close, she was never even nominated again. A combination of the decline in pressure for reform and the decline of her own popularity contributed to this oversight. There is also the fact that Thompson herself was skeptical about suffragist issues, with which her sister Alice was so closely involved, and was not inclined to lobby for membership.

As a result of her success, Elizabeth was welcomed into the social sphere of the prominent Catholics in England. Consequently, she met Major William Francis Butler (1838–1910), a distinguished soldier from a poor Irish Catholic family. They were married on June 11, 1877. After her marriage, Elizabeth continued her career as a professional painter, which was somewhat unusual for the times, but her efforts were hampered by the demands of being a soldier's wife. In 1879, she exhibited two paintings with the Royal Academy, The Remnants of an Army and Listed for the Connaught Rangers. Both of these departed from her pattern of displaying the triumph over adversity in war but were still well received. In the 1870s, she also contributed illustrations to the Graphic, the main outlet of Social Realist work, and later to the Daily Graphic. Thompson's last major success at the Royal Academy was The Defence of Rorke's Drift, January 22nd, 1879, which was commissioned by the queen in 1879, completed in 1880, and exhibited in 1881. The dramatic Scotland for Ever! of 1881 was again much reproduced, and served as the model for many subsequent military paintings by other artists. Its success came in spite of the fact that it was not exhibited at the Royal Academy.

Thompson did not exhibit for four years after 1881, and her work received little attention during the 1880s. She had turned to the painting of modern actions and her approach to such topics may have been influenced by her husband, who was extremely critical of British Imperial policy. Her work showed less emphasis on victory and more on perseverance. During the decade, Thompson contributed illustrations to Merry England, a monthly paper established in 1883 by Alice and her husband Wilfred Meynell, the editor. In 1886, William Butler was knighted, and Elizabeth became Lady Butler.

The 1890s saw something of a rise in Thompson's fortunes, as her own return to historical subjects was paralleled by a general rise in interest in such works. Dawn of Waterloo (1895), exhibited at the Royal Academy, showed not the glory of the battle, however, but the trepidation preceding it. Similarly, "Steady theDrums and Fifes!" (1897) placed emphasis on the young musicians facing death in the immanent battle. In 1891, the Butlers toured Palestine on horseback for a month, during which Elizabeth kept up her family's tradition of voluminous correspondence. Elizabeth's mother, Christiana Thompson , eventually encouraged the publication of a collection of Elizabeth's letters to her, with 16 illustrations by Elizabeth, as Letters From the Holy Land (1903).

From the turn of the century until World War I, Thompson exhibited only six paintings, a substantial decline in production. Additionally, her work began to place less emphasis on the heroism of the British soldier at war. Possibly she shared some of her husband's growing disillusionment with British imperialism. Sir William Butler was appointed commander in chief in South Africa in 1898, but only remained in the position for less than a year because he felt that the War Office's policy of instigating war with the Boers was unreasonable. As a result, he was a target for accusations in the press during the Boer War. After his retirement in 1905, the family moved to Bansha Castle, County Tipperary, in Ireland. He died in 1910, and their youngest daughter, Eileen, married in 1911, after which Elizabeth lived alone at Bansha until she moved to Gormanston Castle.

In 1906, Elizabeth was granted a semi-private audience with the pope while in Rome, and Alice accompanied her. While Alice was closely involved in the women's suffrage movement, Elizabeth distanced herself from it. When she heard of Alice's intention to attend the demonstration in Hyde Park in 1912, she wrote her, commenting, "the papers say all the marchers will wear 'Caps of Liberty.' I hope there will be some exceptions if you are one of the marchers." In 1909, Thompson published her second book, From Sketch Book and Diary, which contained accounts of some of her experiences traveling in Europe and Africa over the years. It was illustrated with 28 color plates of her watercolors.

In 1913, she began to organize a Waterloo Centenary Exhibition to be held at the Leicester Galleries. The exhibition opened in 1915 and featured Scotland for Ever!, along with one other oil painting and 24 watercolors. In contrast to the prior decades, the war years saw Elizabeth Thompson (now known as Lady Butler) again producing studies of the stalwart British soldier. She avoided dealing with the more horrific realities of modern war, however, partially by choice and partially because she was not herself witness to any of it. The realism of the Official War Artists made her work seem outmoded, but she defended her approach with the philosophy that while war brought out the worst in man, it also brought out the best, and it behooves the artist to focus on that. Elizabeth mounted two war-related exhibitions, "Some Glimpses of the Great War" in 1917 and "Some Records of the Great War" in 1919, both at the Leicester Galleries. Her earlier work remained her most popular, though, as indicated by the reenactment of The Roll Call, which took place at the Aldershot Tattoo in 1909.

When the war ended, Thompson ceased to paint contemporary scenes and mostly produced versions of earlier works for the remainder of her career. In 1922, she moved to her daughter Eileen's home at Gormanston Castle, where she lived for the rest of her life. She died on October 2, 1933, and was buried in Stamullen, a nearby village. Her reputation had already faded by the end of her career, but at the peak of her success she was perhaps the best known, and most popular, painter in England.


Badeni, June. The Slender Tree: A Life of Alice Meynell. Padstow, Cornwall: Tabb House, 1981.

Greer, Germaine. The Obstacle Race. London: Secker & Warburg, 1979.

Lalumia, Matthew. "Lady Elizabeth Thompson Butler in the 1870s," in Woman's Art Journal. Vol. 4, no. 1. Spring-Summer 1983, pp. 9–14.

Lalumia, Matthew Paul. Realism and Politics in Victorian Art of the Crimean War. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1984.

Meynell, Alice. Prose and Poetry. London: Jonathan Cape, 1947.

Meynell, Viola. Alice Meynell: A Memoir. London: Jonathan Cape, 1929.

——. Francis Thompson and Wilfred Meynell. London: Hollis & Carter, 1952.

Nunn, Pamela Gerrish. Victorian Women Artists. London: The Women's Press, 1987.

Oldcastle, John (Wilfred Meynell). "Elizabeth Butler (nee Thompson)," in The Magazine of Art. 1897, pp. 257–262.

Usherwood, Paul, and Jenny Spencer-Smith. Lady Butler, Battle Artist, 1846–1933. London: Alan Sutton Publishing and the National Army Museum, 1987.

Yeldham, Charlotte. Women Artists in Nineteenth-Century France and England. NY: Garland, 1984.

Obituary. "Lady Butler," in The Times. October 3, 1933.

suggested reading:

Butler, Elizabeth. From Sketch-Book and Diary. London: Adam and Charles Black, Burns and Oates, 1909.

——. Letters From the Holy Land. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1903.

——. An Autobiography. London: Constable, 1922.


Some correspondence in the collection of Hermia Eden, Catherine Eden, and Elizabeth Hawkins at Greatham, Sussex, England.

Works in many private and regimental collections; notable collections held by the National Army Museum and Her Majesty the Queen.

William MacKenzie , graduate student, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada

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