The Return from Inkerman by Elizabeth Thompson

The Return from Inkerman by Elizabeth Thompson (1877)

My Daily Art Display today is a war painting depicting the conclusion of the Battle of Inkerman and the British troops, or what was left of them marching back to camp.  The work of art was painted by Elizabeth Southerden Thompson, the British female painter, who had attained celebrity status with her history paintings, and especially those depicting military conflicts involving British troops.

She was born in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1846 and at the age of thirteen, when she and her family lived in Italy, began to receive art tuition.  In 1862 she travelled to London where she enrolled in the Female School of Art which along with the National School of Art coalesced into the Royal College of Art in 1869.    In 1869, with the family now living in Florence she enrolled in the Accademia di Belle Arti which was the top-rated academy for drawing in the whole of Europe.  Her favoured art genre at the outset of her painting career was that of religious art and it was not until she went to Paris at the age of twenty-eight that this was to change.   In Paris she came across the works of Jean-Louis Meissonier the French Classicist painter who was famed for his works of art depicting Napoleon and his armies and other military scenes.  She also saw works by the military painter Édouard Detaille, who had been a pupil of Meissonier.  She was so enthused with their military paintings that she decided that in future this was to be her choice of art genre.

In 1873 she completed a work entitled Missing which depicted two wounded French officers during the Franco-Prussian War and which was the first of her paintings to be accepted by the Royal Academy.  The following year she exhibited a painting which was to be one of her most popular and made her a nineteenth century celebrity.  It was entitled The Roll Call and it depicted a scene from the Crimean War in which we see a battalion of the Grenadier Guards, many of who were wounded and exhausted, gathered around for the roll call so as to ascertain who had and who had not survived the latest battle.  The painting was shown around the art capitals of Europe and in doing so her fame as an artist spread throughout the continent.

In 1877 she married a Tipperary man, Sir William Francis Butler, who was an officer in the British army and who rose in the ranks to finally become a lieutenant-general.  This army life of her husband afforded Elizabeth, now Lady Butler, the opportunity to travel with him throughout the British Empire.  The couple went on to have six children but the burden of motherhood did not prevent her from painting many more military scenes.

When her husband retired from the army in 1905 the couple retired to Bansha Castle in Tipperary.  Her husband died in 1910 but she remained at Bansha until she was seventy-six years of age at which time she went to live with her youngest daughter.  She died in 1933 just a month short of her eighty-seventh birthday.

The featured painting today is entitled The Return from Inkerman by Elizabeth Thompson which she completed in 1877.  This was the final work of her quartet of paintings she did between 1874 and 1877 depicting scenes from the Crimean War.  The painting depicts a ragged column of exhausted soldiers trudging back to camp, many of who are wounded and are only just able to stand up.  Their commanding officer on horseback rides at the head of the column.  The men try to keep their heads held high as they pass fallen comrades who lie at the side of the road.  Their tattered uniforms remind us of the ferocity of the battle which has just concluded.  The battle took place on the heights of Inkerman where the Russians had mounted a counter-attack on the British forces.   The weather had been terrible during the battle with driving rain interspersed with thick fog making the commanding of the troops difficult for both sides.  This battle was one of many bloody encounters which occurred during the siege on the Russian town of Sebastopol in November 1854 and was part of the Crimean War campaign.  It was a ferocious battle and cost the lives of 2,500 British and 12,000 Russian troops.   In her painting the troops depicted are mainly from the Coldstream Guards and the 20th East Devonshire regiment.

While she never witnessed actual warfare, she was in Egypt for some years in the 1880’s with her husband and many of her pictures were drawn accurately using models in some cases, or observing soldiers on manoeuvres or practicing charges at Aldershot. To help with her paintings, the soldiers even re-enacted the battle in their original uniforms worn throughout the campaign.

There is a great sense of realism to this painting.  In it we see the men and their suffering.  However in some quarters this realism was too much to bear.  As would be the case now, the public did not want to be reminded of such sufferings on the battlefield.  For most of the public and the hierarchy of the Royal Academy they preferred more uplifting depictions of victorious battles and acts of heroism which would lift people’s spirits.  Many artists pandered to such wishes but as the French master of military paintings, Édouard Detaille, commented:

“…L’Angleterre n’a guère qu’un peintre militaire; c’est une femme…”

(England has only one military painter; and it is a woman)

However Elizabeth Thompson would not change her style and defended it in her 1922 autobiography, writing:

“…I never painted for the glory of war, but to portray its pathos and heroism…”

However she still had many supporters of her painting style.  Wilfred Meynell, the Victorian biographer, wrote in his book The Life and Work of Lady Butler:

“…Lady Butler has done for the soldier in Art what Mr. Rudyard Kipling has done for him in Literature – she has taken the individual, separated him, seen him close, and let the world see him…..”

The Daily Telegraph of the day wrote of Elizabeth Thompson’s great ability as a female military artist, writing:

“…Miss E. Thompson, a young lady scarcely heard of hitherto, with a modest, sober, unobtrusive painting, but replete with vigour, with judgement, with skill, with expression, and with pathos – such expression as we marvel at in Hogarth for its variety, such pathos as we recognize under the rough or stiff militarism of Horace Vernet – has shown her sisters which way they should go, and has approved herself the valiant compeer even of most famous and most experienced veterans of the line. To the unselect many, to the general public, Miss Thompson is as new as the Albert Memorial at Kensington; and it is for that reason that we hail her appearance with this honest, manly Crimean picture, as full of genius as it is of industry. We say that this sign is a wholesome one; because in every work of art-excellence executed by a woman, and commanding public acceptance and applause, we see a manacle knocked off a woman’s wrist, and a shackle hacked off her ankle. We see her enlarged from wasting upon fruitless objects the sympathies which should be developed for the advantage of humanity. We see her endowed with a vocation which can be cultivated in her own home, without the risk of submission to any galling tyranny or more galling patronage…”