Winning Friends and Influencing People.
“You know that the elite have been presented to me this day, all with the same hearty words of congratulation on their lips and the same warm shake of the hand ready to follow with a the introductory bow”
Elizabeth Thompson writing to her father about the success of the Roll Call.
The galleries of the Royal Academy were already heaving with people by the time John Ruskin arrived there. Making his way through the crowds that were alternating between critically scrutinising the many paintings covering the walls and studying their catalogue to see what they were looking at, Ruskin was there to see a particular piece and threaded his way towards gallery two with purpose. It was the spring of 1875 a year since Elizabeth Thompson’s Roll Call had caused so much fuss across the country, making her the second most famous woman in Britain. The powerful art critic was sceptical that a woman could achieve such notoriety in art and he was there to see whether the phenomenon held up under his exacting gaze. Having finally found the right room Ruskin made his way around walls until he found the corresponding number in his catalogue next to, The 28th (North Gloucester) Regiment at Quatre Bras by Ms. Elizabeth Thompson.
Unlike her debut piece, her new offering was an action packed swirl of motion, showing one of the Duke of Wellington’s famous squares fighting off French cavalry during the 1815 campaign. Ruskin’s view would have been instantly arrested by the focal point of the painting, the corner of the square, where the redcoats of the 28th kneel and stand in the legendary formation with fixed bayonets, presenting a wall of steel to the viewer who is placed in the midst of the enemy attack. Each has a personality, no soulless stiff upper lipped clones here; rather the soldiers present a sweep of emotions. Some look on with dogged determination, others shrink back in fear, one wounded soldier standing smack bang in the centre, a bandage around his head coolly reloads while an officer directs the firing behind him, in the front ranks a desperately wounded man, his face deathly pale, leans against the knapsack of his comrade while resolutely keeping his position, while on his other side an older soldier watches a French Cuirassier tumble from his horse. As the rear ranks fire their heads, one man in the kneeling front of the square laughs as his friend cracks a joke, creating a perverse point of interest as not a foot away from him, on the trampled crops lays a pile of three dead men. On either side the French ferociously hurl their mounts at the British, on the left a lancer is riddled by a volley and on the right the Cuirassier’s try a frontal attack. All the while the Union jack flies through the musket smoke above them. Elizabeth had needed to pull out all the stops for her next Academy Painting and she had done it; there has never been a depiction of a square in action to match her iconic image. Ruskin entered the Royal Academy positive that the hype about the new wonder woman of the art world was so much inflated hokum; he left with an altogether different view, writing candidly in his Academy notes that:
“I never approached a picture with more iniquitous prejudice against it than I did Ms. Thompson’s; partly because I had always said that no woman could paint; and secondly, I thought what the public made such a fuss about MUST be good for nothing. But it is Amazons work this, no doubt about it; and the first fine Pre-Raphaelite picture of a battle we have had; profoundly interesting and showing all manner of illustrative and realistic faculty… (It exhibits) gradations of shade and colour of which I have not seen since Turner’s death.”
He was not alone in his admiration and the new Thompson soon became a talking point amongst the critics who tried to identify what it was about her paintings that so enraptured her audience. In his Academy Notes for 1875, Henry Blackburn suggested that:
“The interest attaching to this much talked of picture is in the study and delineation of character, conceived, as it is in the truly Hogarthian spirit of analysis… The spectator is, as it were, in the very thick if the action, with the dead, the wounded, and the fainting on the ground around him”
Nevertheless Ruskin’s initial prejudice was not uncommon amongst those who had been surprised to find that the artist who painted such good battle scenes was a woman, and an uncommon pretty one at that. The girl who had been surprised to have woken up famous had not been content with just being an overnight success, she had immediately returned to the easel. Having found her niche and style, and most importantly what the public wanted she played to her audience and produced Quatre Bras, which proved she could keep delivering, patriotic, realistic and moving depictions of Britain’s armed forces. Showing not only a scene from a battle or war, but at the same time telling a powerful story, look closely at one of her paintings and you will find there are often several personal little dramas being playing out in each of them.
Twenty years had passed since the great Crimean War had ended; when she was young Elizabeth had heard of the legendary incidents of the Thin Red Line and the Charge of the Light Brigade. At that time perhaps only Waterloo held a more prestigious place in the heart of a true patriot, she had begun her career with the Crimea and now she returned to it. In 1876 she presented Balaclava and it was classic Thompson. It portrayed the return of the survivors of the light Brigade after their fatal charge. It is a painting shot through with courage and pain, wounded men and wounded horses mixed together in a picture of chaos, posed in an almost classical composition, but endowed with Elizabeth’s human touch. For me as a horse lover it is especially hard to look at as a poor beast falls exhausted in the background while a dragoon leans over the still body of his fallen mount, and a seemingly well horse picks up its hoof, revealing a painful wound while others stagger and blow with exhaustion and throw their heads in fright. The human tragedy is no less poignant as you survey the scene of wounded and blinded hero’s asking after comrades and stumbling around grasping for a handhold, while you gaze into the haunted eyes of Private W.H Pennington of 11th Hussars who is staggering stiffly towards the viewer, deaf to the calls of the men around him. Melodramatic, yes, is there genuine emotion and feeling there, definitely, the added realism to the scene was added by the fact that she had invited veterans, including Pennington, to pose for her in their uniforms.
Perhaps it was this painting that brought her to the Poet Laureate’s door in early 1876. It would be strange if the writer of the “Charge of the Light Brigade” did not take notice of her picture of Balaclava and the more famous Roll Call. Much like Ruskin he was intrigued by this Amazon of the brush, his interest was probably heightened when he heard that she had a sister who was a poet, and Tennyson invited her to visit him at his house, probably 9 Upper Belgrade Street in Belgravia, so that he might indulge his curiosity. Elizabeth accepted and brought her sister Alice Thompson (As yet unmarried, she is better known as Alice Maynell) who had published her first book of poetry “Preludes” in 1875. It had been both illustrated by Elizabeth and admired by Ruskin. Which sister was more nervous at meeting the legendary poet would be hard to guess.
The Laureate did not make much of an effort to put them at their ease. After they arrived and met the invalid Mrs. Tennyson, who was lying down on a sofa, they were called up to what Elizabeth called his “Sanctum”. As they walked in he met them with a hard stare, his clay pipe clamped in his mouth and his long black straggling hair falling to his shoulders. He rose to greet them with a little difficulty and his son attentively offered the ladies a seat, when they had sat he spoke to them in a “Sepulchral bass voice” and asked the sisters which was the painter and which was the poet. Elizabeth either felt he was being condescending or was slightly afraid of him, because he reminded her of a schoolmaster and felt as if they should have replied with a bob “Please sir I’m the painter… Please sir I’m the poet”. Whatever Elizabeth felt her sister Alice, being the poet, could not help but be in some awe, even to the point of putting the great man out a tad when, perhaps after tea, he offered to read to them and she, possibly to prove she was a true admirer, requested that he perform “The Passing of Arthur”, and not something newer. Nevertheless he obliged them and read out the piece in the same stentorian roll as before, all the while through the visit Tennyson seemed to be playing to Alice and sizing up Elizabeth with the same goal in mind as Ruskin had when he sized up her painting. Afterwards when they strolled in the garden, he successfully attempted to get a reaction from her by teasing her about the fashionably tight skirt she had chosen to wear, she was irked. Whether it was the dress, or her attractiveness, Tennyson decided that he had figured her out and with a mixture of wit and subtlety he suggested that her enthusiasm for military subjects stemmed from the fact that she was just as eager for the sight of a handsome officer as any of Jane Austen’s giddy young ladies. He could not have been more wrong, and Elizabeth was not amused.
Britain was though and her reputation increased. Her Crimean pictures had gotten her the nickname “The Florence Nightingale of the Brush” and Punch ran a cartoon entitled “Shall we join the Lady” poking fun at how the aged members of the Royal Academy now treated her.
Elizabeth was kept busy between her little studio in Portsmouth, sketching and interviewing models and soldiers for her next painting, and a round of social engagements, were she met admirers and art enthusiasts. Private viewings were a part of this schedule and while neither Quatre Bras or Balaclava were bought by the Queen this time, a private view of Balaclava certainly paid off in an unexpected way.
On April 22nd 1876 Elizabeth returned from a lunch engagement and wrote in her diary that she had:
“Went to Lunch at Mrs. Mitchell’s who invited meat the private view, next door to lady Raglans, her great friend. Two distinguished officers where there to greet me, and we had a pleasant chat… One of the officer was Major WF. Butler author of the Great Lone Land”
See you next time for another adventure.