Elizabeth Thompson - British Empire 1815-1914

British Empire
Go to content
'Evicted' by Elizabeth Thompson
Elizabeth Thompson was born in Lausanne, Switzerland on 3 November 1846 – the daughter of Thomas James Thompson and his second wife Christiana Weller She grew up in Italy where she first received training in art. Returning to England she attended the Royal Female School of Art in Kensington in 1866. In 1869 whilst in Florence she became a Roman Catholic and received further training under the auspices of Giuseppe Bellucci and attended the Accademia di Bella Arti. Initially as an artist she painted religious subjects but after 1870 she focused on painting scenes from British military campaigns and battles with  her work showing an empathy for the individual soldier, which perhaps reflected the particular concern for the individual that her husband, Lieutenant General William Butler showed.
Her first military painting was ‘Missing’ showing a scene from the Franco-Prussian War. The first painting to be nationally recognised was The Roll Call which depicted a scene from the Crimean War in which the infantry are worn out. The Roll Call, exhibited in 1874, established her reputation and over the next eight years she produced paintings which together recorded the lives of ordinary soldiers fighting to establish and maintain the British Empire in different parts of the world. She did not attempt to glorify what soldiers did but to elicit pity and sympathy for their plight. It was said that by focusing on the individual, she did in painting what Kipling did in words. People noticed her work because she was was one of the few women painting that kind of subject and doing it at a time when there was a resurgence in interest in the British Empire, as Britain had new economic and military rivals and the Empire was seen as a way of promoting out selves around the world.
Marriage to General William Butler
She married Sir William Francis Butler in 1877. He was a young ambitious officer and part of the so-called Wolseley Ring of officers. Elizabeth’s paintings reflected the new romanticism for the British Empire and her paintings depicted famous scenes in the military history of the time, often scenes of confusion either depicting battle action or just after it. Her paintings almost gave a view the enemy would have had facing the British massed ranks of infantry. Elizabeth travelled with her husband around the world to the furthest reaches of the Empire and in doing so came to believe, like her husband, that colonial expansion was not in the best interests of native peoples.

General Butler died in 1910 and Elizabeth remained in Ireland where the couple had made their home, until she died at the age of 86. Many of her own paintings were destroyed by German bombing in WW2

Evicted
Evicted was painted in 1890 and shows an Irish tenant farming family being stripped of their land and livelihood. Such scenes that showed the ugly side of colonialism were not popular and Lord Salisbury, Prime Minister, said of it There is such an air of breezy cheerfulness and beauty about the landscape which is painted, that it makes me long to take part in an eviction myself. The 1890s was a period of massive agricultural dislocation, the result of increasing competition from North and South America, Australia and New Zealand brought about by the coming of refrigerated ships and large scale farming.
Back to content