Painting, travel and war
This is the first biography of Victorian Britain’s famous war artist, Elizabeth Thompson Butler. She was born in Lausanne in 1846, where her family had gone to join their friend, Charles Dickens. As Elizabeth Thompson, she became a celebrity after exhibiting her Crimean War painting, The roll call, in 1874. She transformed war art by depicting conflict trauma, decades before its designation as a medical condition. Yet, by 1914, her reputation was in decline. Married to William Butler, an Irish Catholic officer in the British army, her life in art was a life spent in travel with her husband’s military postings from Egypt to South Africa. Settling in Ireland from 1905, she witnessed the turbulence of the War of Independence and Civil War. She was an astute observer of the British imperial project and her work is prescient in its concern about the implications of foreign military intervention. Her art champions the ordinary soldier and the dispossessed. This biography is a ‘recovery’ project drawing on unpublished letters and diaries. It is a story of travel and history, of war and conflict, of Italy of the Risorgimento, of the London art world where she achieved celebrity and negotiated the difficulties of being a female artist in a male-dominated domain, and of imperial travel. Her biography reveals a figure whose perspective on war is modern, whose confidence in achieving success in the masculine field of battle art taps into contemporary debates, and whose work provokes a rethinking of the post-imperial world.
Catherine Wynne is senior lecturer in nineteenth-century literature and culture at the University of Hull. She is a specialist on Lady Butler and has also published widely on Bram Stoker and Arthur Conan Doyle.