Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Lady Elizabeth Butler, Military Painter

Elizabeth Sotherden Thompson, Lady Butler ( 1846-1933 ) is often considered one of the greatest battle painters in British history. She had never witnessed a battle in person and yet she was able to capture on canvas what many of her male counterparts had failed to - the common soldier. The spirit and the glory of the life of a soldier she portrayed with such colorful fervor, as well as the savagery of battle and the pathos of war that he had to endure.

One of her most widely reproduced works The Remnants of an Army is singularly bleak and inglorious. It depicts the lone survivor of the 1842 massacre of British troops near Kabul, Afghanistan. A weary horse bearing its exhausted rider upon its back stumbles half dead returning to the dusty outpost from whence they came.

Alice Maynell, a poet and essayist ( and Lady Butler's sister ) claimed that "she has done for the soldier in art what Rudyard Kipling has done for him in literature - she has taken the individual, seperated him, seen him close and let the world see him ".

And the world did indeed she him, for Lady Butler created a large body of work which exists in museums and private collections around the world. So many beautiful paintings in fact, that one could chronicle the history of the 19th and 20th century British warfare through them.

Lady Elizabeth Butler was the daughter of an eccentric of independant means. Her mother was a gifted woman of the arts, with a talent for painting and singing.  Born in Lausanne, Switzerland, she studied art as a child and at the age of 20 went to England to pursue her love of painting at the Female School of Art. It was while touring a gallery in Paris, and seeing numerous scenes of military battles painted in oil, that she decided that portraying War and its heroic soliders, in all its aspects, was what she wanted to do.

Floreat Etona! Two Eton boys at the Battle of Laing's Nek

Victorian romanticisim of the British Empire was at its height and with her first major painting - The Roll Call - she became a celebrity known throughout Europe not only for her skill with the brush but for her good looks as well. It was Major William Francis Butler who managed to capture the lady's heart. They were married in 1877, and she travelled with him throughout the Empire while he served in the British Army, raising their six children in various locations.

Her husband had increasingly disparaging views of the effects of Imperialism upon the natives and decided to retire early and settle with his family in Tipperary Ireland where he became a strong sympathizer with the Catholic emancipation and Irish independance movements. Although Lady Butler shared her husbands views on the role Imperialism played, she continued to paint scenes of the heroism and valor of the British soldier.

" I never painted for the glory of war, but to portray its pathos and heroism " Lady Butler
The GLORY of the soldier is what makes her paintings so remarkable...to this day they stir the soul to excitement. One of her best known paintings Scotland Forever has become a legendary symbol of the Battle of Waterloo. Whether it was accurate or not makes little difference for it captured the thrill of a defending army surging into the very midst of the hell of a battlefield, and it justly deserves its fame as one of the most heroic military paintings ever produced.

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