Why you should care
Because this woman was a pioneer in a genre traditionally thought to be for men only.
A police officer held back the crowd as it swelled eagerly against the velvet rope. People pushed and peered over one another to get a better look. The year was 1897, and the venue was Britain’s Royal Academy. The subject of interest? Elizabeth Thompson Butler’s The Roll Call, the groundbreaking painting of soldiers during the Crimean War that was not only magnificent in craftsmanship but also pivotal in paving the way for future female painters.
The academy’s selection committee applauded loudly when the painting was first unveiled. It was so magnificent that it was taken to the sickbed of Florence Nightingale — who had managed nurses during the Crimean War — and even Queen Victoria requested a private viewing.
It wasn’t easy or socially acceptable for her to paint such scenes.
Both Lady Butler’s painting and its reception were exceptional for a woman at the time. The Roll Call depicted Grenadier Guards during a roll call after the 1854 Battle of Inkerman. War painting was considered very much a man’s domain, and since Lady Butler was prohibited from the battlefield due to her gender, her paintings relied on intense study and detailed re-creations. Patrizia Di Bello, a lecturer on the history and theory of photography at Birkbeck, University of London, says that Butler was at a disadvantage “because war was a masculine sphere — [involving] the painting of male bodies, in action.” This type of artistic training, she adds, was “usually denied to women in this country.”
Also unusual was The Roll Call’s placement after being selected for exhibition by the Royal Academy: It was hung in the second room at eye level, a highly prestigious location for works by male artists, let alone female ones. Given that Butler was virtually unknown when her painting was chosen, the response was a testament to her talent. At that time, the Royal Academy had a lousy record when it came to accepting women: In 1860, nearly 100 years after it was established, a female student was admitted to the academy by mistake. The institute responded by closing admissions until it was able to build separate facilities for women.
The Roll Call was one of the most celebrated British paintings of the 19th century. “It touched the nation’s heart as few pictures have ever done,” wrote artist William Holman Hunt in Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In the years following, Butler found moderate success with her war paintings Quatre Bras (1875), Balaclava (1876) and Return From Inkerman (1877). Quatre Bras made it into the Royal Academy, but was hung in an inconspicuous corner of a gallery known as “the Black Hole.” In The Making of Women Artists in Victorian England, Jo Devereux suggests that “the academy was in defense mode owing to perceived threats from outsiders,” and needed to put Lady Butler, and women in general, back in their so-called rightful place.
Lady Butler’s career all but ended in 1877, when she married Sir William Francis Butler, a British Army officer. She traveled all over the Empire with her husband, bearing six children who left her little time to paint, although she did occasionally capture a British soldier in pigment. Through their extensive travels, the Butlers came to develop largely anti-imperialist views, which, at the time, were both radical and at odds with the subject matter of the art Lady Butler had been lauded for. Elree Harris and Shirley Scott note in A Gallery of Her Own that her paintings always depicted “the reality of war and the toll on the common soldier.”
Established in 1768, the Royal Academy had two women — Mary Moser and Angelica Kauffman — among its 34 founders. But the first female associate member wasn’t elected until 1922, and the first full female member didn’t come until 1936. It was no mean feat, then, that The Roll Call won accolades, although Lady Butler still has not been accepted as a member to the institution.
Despite having helped revive military painting at the time, Lady Butler doesn’t usually receive the credit she deserves for her pioneering work. “She has not been valued properly by feminist art historians engaged in rediscovering the history of women artists,” Di Bello says, noting how that was partly because “she did not focus on feminine experiences,” and partly because she was not keen on avant-garde techniques or subjects. But, as Harris and Scott note, The Roll Call and Lady Butler’s contribution to art were still “helpful to other female artists to achieve recognition.”
The Butler family moved to Sir Butler’s native Ireland when he retired, and Lady Butler was able to show her paintings at the Royal Hibernian Academy from 1892. In 1910, she was widowed, and she lived with her children until her death, at age 87, in 1933. The Roll Call was purchased by Queen Victoria and remains in the Royal Collection to this day, a reminder of one woman’s legacy in a man’s world.