Elizabeth first met William Butler at a luncheon, both knew something of the other. Butler was a soldier, and traveller, the author of a popular book called “The Great Lone Land”. While she of course was probably the second or third most famous woman in Britain. After the Queen would come only two names, Florence Nightingale and Elizabeth Thompson.
William’s feelings for her were probably echoed my many young men at the time. He had returned from active service during the Ashanti campaign, ill with remnants of a fever, his sister had visited him in hospital and read him the papers. Unsurprisingly Elizabeth’s name had cropped up repeatedly prompting Butler to one day muse aloud “I wonder if Ms. Thompson would marry me?” At the time it had perhaps been no more than a fancy, yet on, nearly two years later by Elizabeth’s count, April 22 1876, they met for the first time, and Butler may well have decided not to ignore the call of fate. Yet marriage was not yet on Ms. Thompson’s mind.
On August 25 1876 Elizabeth was working in her Portsmouth studio, painting on a 34 by 41 inch square of tinted paper. Scattered around her easel were numberless draught sketches of soldiers that she had been creating since the beginning of the month. At length she stepped back. Before her, roughed in with sepia tones, was the final composition of “The return from Inkerman.” It had been a challenging task to pose. After finding the landscape in Worthing and Aldershot, Britain’s premier battle painter had began a series of interviews with veterans, all of whom disagreed with one another, forcing her to alter sketches repeatedly. She read Russel’s account of the war and then finally decided to run with her original conception and now she was done. She closed up the studio and left, anticipating the joys of spending the rest of the summer in Italy.
Elizabeth and her sister spend a luxuriant time in the Tuscan sun, spending much of the time outdoors, and seeing only wet and overcast day which she took the opportunity to sketch an oak bush for inclusion into Inkerman. They left Italy on 14 October, with the thermometer registering 90 degrees in the shade. When they arrived back to the icy, smokey twilight of London they were wrapped in sealskins and ulsters. Yet the sun of Italy had stayed within them and they regaled the coachman of the Hanson with some Stornelli in a halting minor key as they drove through the empty, foggy streets. What except Inkerman could have pulled her from the warm embrace of Tuscany, William Butler perhaps? A cold brought on by the gloomy London winter delayed her progress so much that she missed the academy exhibition of that year. However disappointment soon turned to joy as she accepted Major Butler’s offer of marriage on 3 March 1877.
Wedding plans had to progress alongside the canvass, which at long last was completed that spring making her joy unconfined. When the packers came and carted Inkerman off to Bond Street, Elizabeth and her Mother, Christina danced gleefully around the studio, kicking up clouds of dust without a care, for the painting was gone. It was almost as if she was glad to see the back of it.
As usual, Elizabeth had produced a painting that portrayed neither glory nor idealism. Executed with a wet, muddy palate of browns and greys. A motley array of soldiers in a mixture of greatcoats and coatees march towards the viewer from a cold November sky. Mounted on his horse is ADC Rupert Carrington, who posed for her and whose mother presented Elizabeth with a Russian medal he had taken from the field. There can be no doubt that these are the survivors, wounded are being carried and bandages are aplenty. They are tired, sore, and in shock, but still proud. Inkerman had been a soldiers battle, one that had seen precious little direction from senior officers and won on the backs of men ranked no higher than field officers. It is a painting in the mould of the Roll Call and Balaclava, it is the aftermath. Sombre and melodramatic it was bought, copyright and all by the Fine Art Society and displayed in their premises in Bond Street.
Elizabeth visited the exhibition on the 20th of April and was pleased with the painting. “The crowd was dense and I left the good people wriggling in a cloud of dust.” She wrote.
Major, later General Sir William Butler was an Irishman and an anti Imperialist, who also happened to be a soldier of great experience. His Victorian romanticism had no small effect on his feelings about foreign policy. Always eager to feel pity for a native enemy and espouse the cause of the Indian or African. He would probably have gotten further in the army if he wasn’t so condemning of almost every war he fought in. To be fair, some hardly deserve defending, but it is certain that William probably would have preferred being born in 1765 than 1838. And was unfortunate that his military service was so out of touch with his own inclination, demanding a great deal of devotion to his duty over his moral and ethical principles. He was thus a very sensitive observant and considerate man, and at the same time with a fine temper and irritable at his own impotence to change the corrupt system he had sold his soul to. He also never forgot his native land or the memories of eviction and starvation he saw there as a child. He wrote somewhat naively:
“It is a misfortune of the first magnitude in the lives of soldiers today… That the majority of our recent conflicts have their origins in purely financial interests or sordid stock exchange ambitions.”
Elizabeth and William were Married at the church of the servite fathers on 11 June 1877 by Cardinal Manning. Notable guests were fellow officers who had served with Butler, Redvers Buller and General Wolesley. Elizabeth’s friends from the South Kensington school of art surprised her and sprinkled flowers in their path as they left the church
The marriage caused something of a stir, her friend Wilfred Maynell wrote “By her marriage the painter of heroes became the wide of a soldier of experience in every quarter of the earth” and in writing to her husband, Elizabeth’s newly devoted admirer John Ruskin exultantly said “What may you not do for England, the two of you!”
For their honeymoon William gave her a choice between Europe or Ireland, though doubtless tempted by the Crimea she chose Ireland. She kept a sketchbook of watercolours as they travelled through the “Wild west” of the country and, William found her two models for her first academy painting since their marriage, Listed for the Connaught Rangers (1879), which was received well. For the end their honeymoon William and Elizabeth travelled to Germany and took a boat trip down the Rhine, but Butler was not as accepting of the places she loved as she was, and took what excuses he could to stay indoors. Elizabeth noted ironically “I suppose the natives on board drove him in rather than his resentment at the come down from the glowing descriptions in the travel books.” After her many travels she was well suited to a soldiers life. Following the drum probably appealed to her.
However her notoriety had won her a place in society that she did not feel at ease with. William Butler was a very forceful figure who had very firm ideas about how a house should be run and how children should be raised. Elizabeth would eventually have numerous children and was noted to give them a great deal of personal attention, indeed more so than is thought to have been usual. A friend wrote that “Professional painter and the social personality did not combine in unruffled serenity… There where moments when Lady Butler, having behaved with exemplary politeness, would suddenly and violently brake down, as when faced with one final introduction, she cried “I can’t – I can’t” and fled from the house”
Curiously some articles online assert that Elizabeth’s career ended after her marriage. This could not be further from the truth. For a start she was painting “Listed” but alongside that was another poignant piece full of silent drama call “The Remnants of an Army”.
“I think it is well painted, and I hope poetical.” She wrote of the sombre scene of Dr. Brydon on his dying horse dragging himself into Jellalabad. And she was hardly to be devoid of subject matter in the year 1879.
“Will sailed under orders for the Cape last Friday, February 28th. Our terrible defeat at Isandula has caused the greatest commotion here, and regiments are being poured out of England to Zululand”
Her diary entry for 16 March 1879 reflects her determination to continue working.
“What magnificent subjects for pictures the ‘Defence of Rorke’s Drift’ will furnish. When we get full details I shall be much tempted to paint some episode of that courageous achievement which has shed balm on the aching wound of Isandula. But the temptation will have to be very strong to make me break my rule of not painting contemporary subjects.”
Various articles by By Krzysztof Z. Cieszkowski
The Victorians. Paxman.
An Autobiography. Butler.