This very fine painting ‘Listed for the Connaught Rangers, recruiting in Ireland 1878’, was painted by Elizabeth S Thompson, but following her marriage to Lieutenant General Sir William Butler of Bansha Castle, Co Tipperary, is best known as Lady Butler. It is not only extremely unusual for a woman artist to have so successfully worked in the highly masculine field of military art, but Lady Butler was an exception in many ways. She was an innovator, particularly in her sensitive and humane depiction of the ordinary soldier. Detail was all important. She was a regular visitor to Chelsea Hospital, and other retirement homes for soldiers, to question survivors, sometimes getting them to re-enact a particular scene.
She was immensely popular. She found fame at a time when the army and the empire were an integral part of Victorian culture. Her paintings of the Waterloo campaign, the Crimea and the Boer wars, and World War I, were all snapped up for high prices. Most notably The Roll Call (bought by Queen Victoria ), the ‘Remnants of an Army’, showing the only British survivor of the 1842 retreat from Kabul, and the inaccurate but magnificent charge of the Royal Scots Greys at Waterloo ‘Scotland forever!’ (all, and more, can be seen on Google ).
Although born in Switzerland in 1846, Lady Butler spent much of her childhood in Italy, and trained as an artist in London. At first she concentrated on religious subjects, but was soon drawn to military matters. She quickly distanced herself from male artists who, until the 20th century, generally saw war as a romantic engagement. Lady Butler’s topics were realistic, and rich in detail, with aspects such as confusion, mud and exhaustion accurately portrayed.
Following her marriage to Sir William she travelled with him to the far reaches of the empire, and raised six children.
‘A joy to realise this subject’
But their honeymoon, in the summer of 1877, was spent in Ireland. Lady Butler delighted in all that she saw particularly in Kerry, where she places this interesting recruiting picture.
It shows two Irish peasants, walking out of a Kerry glen, to join the Connaught Rangers. They have obviously been recruited by the accompanying sergeant, and his party of one other private soldier, and two drummer boys. One of the recruits has his hands in his pockets, a cocky and
confident air about him; while the other is more hesitant, looking back on the ruined cottage as he walks away. Life in the army will be better than what he is leaving behind.
Lady Butler kept a sketchbook/diary. She shows the different arrangements she had for the figures in the painting. The models, she wrote, ‘were two cousins by the name of Foley, one of whom had a finer physique’. She was inspired by the landscape, which represented a departure from the battle scenes which had made her reputation.
She wrote: “ The deep richness of those typical Irish days of cloud and sunshine had so enchanted me that I was determined to try and represent the effect in this picture, which was a departure from my former ones, the landscape occupying an equal share with the figures, and the civilian peasant dress forming the centre of interest. Its black, white and brown colouring, the four red coats, and the bright brass of the drum, gave me an enjoyable combination with the blue and red-purple of the mountains in the background, and the sunlight on the middle distance of the stony Kerry bog-land...It was a joy to realise this subject.”
On her husband’s retirement from the army, Lady Butler moved with him to Ireland, where they lived in Bansha Castle, Co Tipperary. She was widowed in 1910, but continued to live at Bansha until 1922 when she went to live with the youngest of her six children, Eileen, Viscountess Gormanston, at Gormanston Castle, Co Meath. She died there shortly before her 87th birthday. She is buried nearby at Stamullen graveyard.
I hope readers enjoy her painting. I am not sure how good the reproduction will be on this page. It is one of my favourite Irish pictures. The original hangs at the Bury Art Gallery and Museum, UK. There is an impressive copy at Renmore Barracks, the original home, of course, of the Connaught Rangers.