Masters of Battle: Elizabeth Butler Part 2.


Over 200 (and counting) of you kind Adventurers stopped by to read my first post of the Master’s of Battle Series. So in a way this is backed by popular demand. Therefore without further ado (and with an imaginary drumroll, please pause for a moment and imagine one) I give you part two of Elizabeth Butler, Master of Battle.

Hearing the Call.

Elizabeth Thompson had a happy childhood, travelling with her family in an extended sort of Grand Tour which had taken them from the cool refreshing breezes of Lake Geneva, were she sketched the Alpine Ibex and the far off points of the Alps, to the sultry heat and beautiful architecture of Florence.

Her Father Thomas James Thompson had married into wealth allowing him no little security to wander were he chose and send his children to good schools. His wife Christina (nee Weller) was a talented pianist and a fair artist in her own right and was adored by Elizabeth and her sister Alice because, she being rather undomesticated, gave them pretty much free rein to do as they pleased.

They were a very easy, relaxed family, who were not without famous connections. Charles Dickens (yes that one) was a friend of Elizabeth’s father Thomas and an admirer of her mother. Thomas must have rejoiced in Dickens’ company, being a man who as his daughter Alice said “loved literature but never picked up a pen except to write a letter” Dickens visited the family in Italy they left such an impression on him that he wrote about it.

Charles Dickens  by (George) Herbert Watkins,photograph,1858
Charles Dickens by (George) Herbert Watkins,photograph,1858

“I found them in a Beautiful situation in a ruinous Albaro-like Palace. Coming upon them unawares I found Thompson with a pointed beard, smoking a big German pipe, in a pair of slippers; the two little girls very pale and faint from the climate… one (heaven knows why) without stockings, and both with their little short hair cropped in a manner never before beheld, and a little bright bow stuck on top of it. C (Christina) said she had invented this head gear as a picturesque thing, adding that, perhaps it was not… We had disturbed her at her painting in oils, and I have rather received an impression that, what with that and the music, the household affairs went a little to the wall.”

Elizabeth used to sit and listen through an open window to her mothers light soprano being drowned by “The strong tenor of some Italian friend in a duet” and she always resented the strong tenor overpowering her mother.

But happy as she undoubtedly was, as she grew in talent, progressing from light-hearted and playful scenes to more serious works (probably when she began proper studies), Elizabeth wanted more. “They shall hear of me one day!” she wrote resolutley in her diary when she was twenty, and hear of her the world would, and in part it was because of a Frenchman named Edouard Detaille.

Eduarde Detaille
Edouard  Detaille

He was a battle painter of great renown, who had studied under the great (perhaps unrivalled) Ernest Meissonier and kept to his master’s motto “Do it like me” he told young Edouard “Realism always Realism.” And doing as his master told him paid off for it made him famous.

Ernest Meissonier
Ernest Meissonier

He had seen for himself what war was during the Franco Prussian War serving as a Sous Lieutenant in the Chasseurs a pied and aid de camp to General Ducrot, witnessing the fighting around Paris and on the Marne, his paintings reflected his experience.

Elizabeth Thompson, now in her twenties and studying in Florence was on a trip to Paris in 1870. (All well born people had to see at least some of the cities of Europe) While there she was exposed to the modern French school of art, which by any standard was almost peerless and the envy of Europe and it was either at the Academie de Belle Artes or at Les Invalides that Elizabeth, who had been trying to find a way to employ her artistic talents effectively, found her direction.

She stood, perhaps by herself, or perhaps with a friend in the gilded hall, ignorant of passers by and oblivious of conversation, her appreciative eye flicking across the canvass before her. As Elizabeth stared up into the grand cavalry charges of the Napoleonic wars or into the embattled courtyard at Champigny rendered brilliantly by a man named  Edouard Detaille, she realised that this was what she wanted to paint.

It is hard to properly explain how much awe this man could inspire by his pictures but it is a sense that you are not looking at a painting but a photo of how it really was, for he had learned much from Meissonier. These paintings are more than just chauvinistic scenes of violence, martial uniforms and death; here is accuracy, strength, courage, pain and glory in every painting, everything a Victorian Romantic loved in art. These stunning paintings fired a passion in Elizabeth to paint as Detaille, or Alphonce de Nueville (another academy war artist whose paintings she admired) had done.

When Elizabeth returned home she was no longer searching for a subject to paint she had found it. No doubt rather tickled by the fancy of a lady painting battles, she now embarked on her quest to he heard. From around 1870 her focus was recast, she had always been drawn to military uniforms and pomp, especially cavalry, though she still painted some religious scenes but her concentration now went into experimenting with soldiers. She displayed some watercolours at the Dudley Gallery, which was a lesser light of the London spring expedition season.

If you had gone to visit the gallery with a group of friends one fine day, among the many eye catching studies of redcoats you and your party might possibly have seen Promoted on the morrow of Talevera a poignant Peninsular war study of two redcoats carrying a dead comrade form the field while in the distance the Duke of Wellington looks on, touching his hat in salute, I could assure you that you may have left the gallery feeling that you had just witnessed something special.

Feeling confident enough in her talents to realistically portray military subjects from 1871 to 1873 she submitted several paintings to the Royal Academy but with little result. Irritatingly I cannot find any copy, representative of her painting entitled Missing which she submitted to the Royal Academy in 1873, nor can I find one of the work that likely inspired it, The Drummers Halt (1862) by Detaille, but it was this painting that laid the groundwork for her rise to the fame she had predicted for herself.

Waking Up Famous.

The scene would not have been dissimilar to Charles West Cope’s The Council of the Royal Academy Selecting pictures for the Exhibition 1876.

The Selection Committee, Charles W Cope 1876
The Selection Committee,                            Charles W Cope 1876

In preparation for the coming 1874 season, the council of the Royal Academy met to examine the submissions for that year. The cluster of wise heads, scrutinized many fine paintings and portraits with a critical eye and many did not make it. After her many tries, Elizabeth may have not have been too confident that her painting would make the grade that year, but if I had painted the Role Call I would have found it hard not to be optimistic.

The laborious process of selection would continue for most of the day, painting after painting, some that thrilled some that did not but thus far nothing extraordinary had been found for the centrepiece of the exhibit. Then the secretary called out the name of the next painting “Calling the Role after an engagement in the Crimea by Elizabeth Thompson”, the name was familiar from the year before and the grey heads rose as the porters hauled in the large canvass and as they looked on they beheld a masterpiece.


Calling the Roll after an engagement in the Crimea, E Butler 1874.
Calling the Roll after an engagement in the Crimea, E Butler 1874.


A cold pallet of white, grey and brown had been used to create the frigid chill of a Crimean winter, the only jot of colour being the glimpse of a red tunic beneath a greatcoat or the colours hanging limply from their poles in the middle distance. Chilled by the setting of snow and loneliness, the viewers saw, appearing form the left hand side a mounted field officer, so realistic you might even have heard the curb chain jingle on his horse’s bridle, he is sunk in his saddle and looks unimaginably tired a he shares the view of the beholder behind him. A long line of dishevelled and weary yet firm Grenadiers stand in the snow, they are wounded, frozen and listless, only one has come to full attention, while others comfort a soldier who has broken down at the sight of a dead friend who has just collapsed in the snow and behind the horses head another officer grimly takes the role call. As they gazed no Victorian heart could help but be moved and stirred.

This was the Role call and it made Elizabeth Thompson famous. The committee apparently applauded it and accepted it into the collection as the centrepiece of spring forthwith. It was hung on the line with all despatch in the prestigious number two gallery of the Royal Academy’s rooms. When the exhibition opened it caused a sensation. Elizabeth proudly recorded that she saw a “Dense crowd before my Grenadiers” and very soon she was informed that her painting had attracted such crowds as to warrant the rare laurel of having a railing be put across it and a policeman stationed nearby to protect it from the eager fans who pressed in to see it more closely.

The painting was sent on tour forthwith and the nation clamoured to get a glimpse. Men with sandwich boards reading “The Roll Call is coming!” were seen in Newcastle advertising it, and a quarter of a million post cards sold within a week. At Liverpool 20,000 people saw the painting over a period of three weeks and at the Royal Academy dinner the Prince of Wales gave a toast to the Roll call and its marker.

Even the press was enthralled the Telegraph raved ecstatically:

“…Miss E. Thompson, a young lady scarcely heard of hitherto, with a modest, sober, unobtrusive painting, but replete with vigour, with judgement, with skill, with expression, and with pathos – such expression as we marvel at in Hogarth for its variety, such pathos as we recognize under the rough or stiff militarism of Horace Vernet – has shown her sisters which way they should go, and has approved herself the valiant compeer even of most famous and most experienced veterans of the line. To the unselect many, to the general public, Miss Thompson is as new as the Albert Memorial at Kensington; and it is for that reason that we hail her appearance with this honest, manly Crimean picture, as full of genius as it is of industry. We say that this sign is a wholesome one; because in every work of art-excellence executed by a woman, and commanding public acceptance and applause, we see a manacle knocked off a woman’s wrist, and a shackle hacked off her ankle. We see her enlarged from wasting upon fruitless objects the sympathies which should be developed for the advantage of humanity. We see her endowed with a vocation which can be cultivated in her own home, without the risk of submission to any galling tyranny or more galling patronage…”

More plaudits were to come. The Roll Call had been commissioned for £100 by a Manchester Industrialist named Charles Galloway who manufactured boilers and heavy engineering equipment. He was doubtless overjoyed that he was to own a work of art painted by this new phenomenon, one wonders if he pictured himself entertaining, with it hanging in his drawing room or parlour, and basking in the manifold compliments and envies that his guests poured upon him. However there was a snag to his phantasy. There was another important person who wanted to own the Roll Call, Indeed they had arranged to view it in private so as to properly appreciate it. Queen Victoria herself was bidding for Elizabeth’s painting and she was determined to have her way.

An extremely interested party: Queen Victoria.
An extremely interested party: Queen Victoria.

Galloway was reluctant to part with it despite the royal interest, but faced now with the unthinkable proposition of turning the Queen down or parting with the painting, he eventually conceded to let Victoria buy it but only if the following was agreed upon.

That Elizabeth should sell him her next Academy Painting for the same price and that Queen Victoria should sign six of the artist’s proofs when the painting came out as an engraving. The queen got her Roll Call and as it turned out did not have to fulfil any of the face saving demands put upon her by Mr. Galloway.

Elizabeth in 1877 by Fradelle & Marshall.
Elizabeth in 1877 by Fradelle & Marshall.

The Roll Call made Elizabeth Thompson a celebrity, a star overnight. Almost at once and without warning she had become the most famous woman in Britain next to the Queen. I can feel nothing but happiness for her when, bent over her writing desk quite overcome with the thrill of it all, as she wrote in her Diary the words, full of wonder and surprise: “I mean to say, that I awoke this morning and found myself famous.”

Well thats it for part 2, nothing left to say but I hope to see you all soon on the next Adventure in Historyland.


0 Replies to “Masters of Battle: Elizabeth Butler Part 2.”

  1. ive always liked history and particularly articles that bring it to life again, excellent article, i look forward to more

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