Elizabeth Southerden Thompson, Lady Butler (1846-1933) was one of the most remarkable painters of the Victoria era. In an age that prized painterly technique and academic rigour, she more than matched her male counterparts. She appealed to the Victorian taste for visual narrative in art – the ‘Every picture tells a story’ approach – and, perhaps most remarkably, she did so in a distinctly male genre – military history. When she burst on to the scene in 1874, the Victorian public were fascinated by this young woman who could paint with such bravura and intensity – even John Ruskin was impressed.
“I never approached a picture with more iniquitous prejudice against it than I did Miss Thompson's; partly because I have always said that no woman could paint; and, secondly, because I thought that what the public made such a fuss about must be good for nothing. But it is amazon's work this; no doubt of it, and the first fine Pre-Raphaelite picture of battle we have had; - profoundly interesting, and showing all manner of illustrative and realistic faculty”.
She should, by rights, have had her status recognised by becoming at least an associate member of the Royal Academy – the first woman since Angelika Kaufmann and Mary Moser in the original academy of 1769/70. She came close in 1879 when she was nominated, but Hubert von Herkomer was elected instead – the Academicians closing ranks against a possible influx of ‘The Monstrous Regiment of Women’ perhaps. Not until 1922 was the first woman, Anne Swynnerton, elected an associate member, followed by the first full member, Laura Knight, in 1936. Her memoirs suggest Lady Butler was actually relieved to have been rejected – who can blame her.
Arguably her greatest painting is Scotland Forever! featuring the charge of the Royal Scots Greys at the Battle of Waterloo. In our age of hi-tech visual media, it’s easy to underestimate what an incredible feat of visualisation this is; the charging cavalry, about to engulf the viewer, are captured with astonishing power and realism. As an illustrator, I’ve thought about how she could have referenced or experienced this scene sufficient to convey it so convincingly. Photography had helped artists understand and portray more accurately how horses moved, but it’s not like you can stand in front of a load of charging horses and photograph them with a tripod-mounted camera and long exposure time, much less draw them. She may well have experienced something of a pounding mass of horses by standing on the curve of a race-track, but it remains a tour de force of equine drawing.
On top of this though, I would also suggest Scotland Forever! is an early expressionist painting. I base this on her own account of how the work came into being, following a visit to an exhibition of aesthetitist paintings, presumable the art for art sake approach of painters like James McNeil Whistler that anticipate modernist ideas of form and content in art. She wrote in her memoires:
“I owe the subject [Scotland Forever!] to an impulse I received that season from the Private View at the Grosvenor Gallery, now extinct. The Grosvenor was the home of the ‘Aesthetes’ of the period, whose sometimes unwholesome productions preceded those of our modern ‘Impressionists’. I felt myself getting more and more annoyed while perambulating those rooms, and to such a point of exasperation was I impelled that I fairly fled and breathing the honest air of Bond Street, took a hansom to my studio. There I pinned a 7-foot sheet of brown paper on an old canvas, and with a piece of charcoal and a piece of white chalk, flung the charge of ‘ the Greys’ upon it.”
Lady Butler was nothing if not a classically trained, academic, and in many ways, conservative painter, but her description here describes an artist channelling emotion, and working from inner impulses to create a work of art in a way we might associate more with van Gogh or even Jackson Pollock. It’s perhaps not automatism, but on the way. So, Lady Butler, Mother of British Modern Art!
Scotland Forever! can be seen at Leeds Art Gallery