Art is a window into a society’s psyche, revealing an on-going dialogue about how a nation views itself. Strategists can understand a social and political dynamic by examining a cross-section of military art at a specific moment in a nation’s history. Additionally, the display of—and spectator reaction to—an artwork indicates as much about current events and politics as the piece itself. In the British colonial era, Lady Elizabeth Southerden Thompson Butler’s battle art engages a rising national dialogue about the aristocracy, the dangers of military adventurism, and the honorable lives of the regular soldiers of Great Britain. Her art, influenced by her passion as an amateur military historian, joined a greater effort to change the actions and future of the British Empire. Dissecting a single artwork, or an artist’s greater body of work, provides a rare glimpse of a nation’s policies through artistic imagery. Art provides a unique possibility for defense professionals to examine what inspires a society to change regarding their military endeavors at home and abroad.
Despite having no military experience in her family, Elizabeth Thompson was a pleasant anomaly to the British Victorian era’s more familiar martial artists. She was two things not typically found in a painter of warfare: a civilian and a woman. At a young age, she demonstrated a keen skill at military figure painting and was strongly influenced by French military painters such as the famed battle artists Eugene Delacroix and Ernest Meissonier. She was deeply passionate about the exploits of British forces and leadership during the campaigns against Napoleon Bonaparte, especially the British victory at Waterloo. Throughout her art education in Italy and her emergence on the British art scene, her interest in military history and famous campaigns influenced her choice of subjects and sketches. The soldiers’ personal wartime experiences were compelling to Thompson, both in reading and conversation with veterans hired as studio models for her composition sketches. In her autobiography, she admitted her “own [understanding] of war—that mysterious inevitable recurrence throughout the sorrowful history of our world—is that it calls forth the noblest and basest impulses of human nature.”
This passionate impulse to reflect the rank-and-file’s experiences resulted in some of the most powerful images on the military’s conditions throughout the Empire’s colonial holdings. At the Age of twenty-two, Thompson began the compositional studies for a work that would catapult her into the British public consciousness and lead the London Royal Academy of Art’s 1874 Exhibition at Burlington House. Commissioned by a wealthy industrialist from Manchester, Thompson’s Calling the Roll After an Engagement, Crimea was the culmination of exquisite study and deep admiration for the lives of ordinary soldiers in the aftermath of gruesome combat. While an independent party had commissioned the piece, the choice of subject was hers. After reading A.W. Kinglake’s expansive history of British forces in the Crimean War, she began sketching something never seen in British martial art: a painstakingly detailed and grimly honest portrayal of ordinary soldiers in warfare.
In comparison with previous paintings of British battles and military valor, The Roll Call—as an adoring public and press colloquially titled it—deviated from the norm. Eschewing the usual depiction of a noble general officer from the landed gentry leading a mounted charge or mortally wounded in the arms of a mournful soldier, Thompson presented the British people with the remnants of a battalion of Grenadier Guards in the faint light of a winter dawn. Rather than portraying the glories of British officership at the center of the image like many of her artistic predecessors, she relegated her model to the side of the arrangement, observing a non-commissioned officer reading from a roster. Between stark sky and snow, the focus of the painting is the wounded and exhausted formation holding itself up and together for a post-battle accountability formation. A single man has collapsed in the front rank, prostrate and face down in the snow. From the uniforms and equipment to the depiction of drill and ceremony, every detail was carefully researched for accuracy. As she painted, Thompson sought out wartime anecdotes and advice on the manual of arms from her models, some of whom were Crimean War veterans. Even the bright red British uniforms typically of other martial paintings are muted or hidden under dark winter overcoats, a technique that draws the spectator’s attention to the weary faces in the formation. Crows flock overhead, implying the recent carnage still fresh on the battlefield.
Thompson managed to capture a side of combat that spoke to both the London Royal Academy of Art’s selecting panel and the British people who descended in droves to see the piece on prominent display in the main gallery at the 1874 Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition. Glowing reviews in newspapers, standing ovations from audiences and fellow artists, and even honorable mentions from the Duke of Cambridge and the Prince of Wales at the exhibition’s opening dinner launched the painting, and its young female painter, into instant stardom. At the height of the display, the Academy posted a police guard at the artwork to manage the volume of people crowding for a look. Even Florence Nightingale, nurse and Crimean War veteran herself, requested a private viewing.
The Roll Call entered the British collective consciousness at a tumultuous period in the Empire’s history, both at home and abroad. By the 1870s, the British Empire’s holdings and deployed forces extended around the world. Edward Cardwell, the Gladstone administration’s war minister, proposed reforms that would unravel centuries of British military custom. These profound and controversial changes met their most ardent opposition in the House of Lords. Their vociferously adverse reactions were recorded by The Times of London in June of 1871.
In an effort to professionalize the service and benefit all ranks, the gentry and aristocracy would no longer be able simply to purchase their military commissions. This long held tradition had provided an avenue of social advancement for some with means or connections to gain entry to the upper classes. The system had also resulted in the promotion of some catastrophically inferior tacticians and the generation of some very ill-structured strategies, like the military endeavors like Crimea and the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade under the Earl of Cardigan at the Battle of Balaclava. The abolition of the Purchase System for commissioning, improvements to barracks and hospitals, limits on the terms of enlistment, and wage reforms were all undertaken as part of the Gladstone government’s effort to off-set the rigors of British colonial service. Demands for overseas service were high, often including military families. In fact, by 1877, Thompson found herself in the ranks of the camp followers as the newly married Lady Elizabeth Butler, even traveling abroad to support her husband’s service throughout British colonial holdings in Africa and in Ireland.
Thompson’s work continued to push boundaries in martial art by making the realistic depiction of ordinary soldiers facing extraordinary circumstances in combat her hallmark. Nearly every piece she produced in the years that followed her debut, whether historical or contemporary in subject, remained authentic and fixated on the average soldier and the heavy price England’s families paid for fighting in “our far-flung Empire.” After The Roll Call, other paintings like Thompson’s Defence of Rorke’s Drift, completed in 1880, and After the Battle: Arrival of Lord Wolseley and Staff at the Bridge of Tel-el-Kebir, completed in 1885, reflected her husband’s experiences in the campaigns against Zulu fighters in South Africa, the battle against Egyptian rebels at Tel-el-Kebir to protect British interests around the Suez, and the 1884-5 Sudanese expedition to reinforce Major General Charles Gordon’s forces in Khartoum. During a brief period of leave from Egypt in June of 1885, her husband confessed to being “deeply hurt at the failure of what might have been one of the greatest campaigns in modern history.”
Yet even in their shared concern for the failure of senior leadership during the campaign itself, Thompson’s belief in the inherent nobility of British soldiers remained firm. In The Art Annual 1898, author Wilfred Meynell lauded her work, saying, “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.” With the turnover of the 19th to the 20th century, and her mounting frustration with the Boer War’s legitimacy, her subjects remained brave, fragile, noble, and brutally honest. Her depictions of the British exploits in Afghanistan, the battle of Talavera in the Peninsular Campaign against Napoleon, and numerous images of the celebrated British victory at Waterloo all reflected the unvarnished emotions of real soldiers facing real danger for their nation. “Can praise be too great for the British rank and file who gave their best in this unparalleled effort?” Her art never wavered in her attempt to answer her own question.
Lady Elizabeth Thompson Butler, battle artist and military spouse, never served a single day in the ranks, but she portrayed the lives of soldiers so poignantly that several of her most famous artworks are now in British royal holdings, including The Roll Call. Thompson painted in an era when Victorian society wrestled with what it meant to be an Empire that used its military might to exert control over its colonial holdings. It was also a period of vast social change at home, when a rising middle class questioned ineffectual military leaders buying their way into battles they were ill equipped to fight, expending Britain's blood and treasure to achieve victories under questionable circumstances. Thompson was a member of the British gentry, as was her titled officer husband. Her education and exposure were a direct benefit of a social position that gave her a voice through oil paint and canvas, and her position in society gave her a safe platform to make bolder artistic statements on the situation of the rank-and-file in the British military. She did not begin her painting career with the singular intention to shape social dialogue about inequities in service and throughout the British commonwealth; she reached that end after years of artistic reflection as a well-situated member of society. Nevertheless, her curiosity about military history widened her perspective on the experiences of ordinary soldiers and veterans throughout her art career. Thompson’s canvases were shaped by the world around her and she, in turn, subtly shaped the British narrative about the treatment of its military forces.
Interpreting any military painting’s deeper meaning takes practice, but the threat of a little extra research should not prevent anyone from appreciating the subtle messages behind the canvas. Some military paintings are the direct result of a commission, and there is an element of truth to the age-old stereotype of the starving artist painting for money. Other artwork stokes a sense of national pride or nostalgia for military service. Some pieces are the direct reflection of an artist’s values. In rare cases, a battle artwork can be a combination of all three: a commission, a result of national pride, and a reflection of the artist’s voice. In finding a piece of art that speaks to a discrete military event in a nation’s history, understanding the story behind the artist’s conception goes a long way to interpreting the artwork’s meaning. This is not to say that all military art has deep nuances about the social and political dynamics of a nation. Some battle art is like burlesque; the artist was young and needed the cash.
Art provides a unique option for military and strategy professionals to examine what tips a society into change. Much like a rigorous campaign analysis enables understanding of a culture moving its military to and from wars, analyzing a body of artwork can provide insight into how a nation views its military forces and actions.
Nikki Dean is an officer in the U.S. Army. Her research focuses on art theft, looting, illicit markets, curation and collections management in war. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.
 Elizabeth Southerden Thompson Butler (Lady Butler), An Autobiography (Whitefriars Press Ltd. London, 1922) 46. Thompson’s parents encouraged her interest in military history and provided her –– as well as her accomplished sister, author Alice Meynell –– opportunities not typically afforded to women in Victorian England. “How strange it seems that I should have been so impregnated… with the warrior spirit in art seeing that we had no soldiers in either my father’s or mother’s family! My father had a deep admiration for the great captains of war, but my mother detested war, though deeply respected the heroism of the soldier.”
 The Annual Register: A Review of Public Events at Home and Abroad for the year 1874, edited by Edmund Burke (London: Rivingtons, Waterloo Place, 1875) 366.
 Thompson Butler, From Sketch-book and Diary (Adam & C Black Ltd. SoHo Square, London, 1909), retrieved from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/40925/40925-h/40925-h.htm.
 Thompson Butler, From Sketch-book and Diary.
 Thompson Butler, From Sketch-book and Diary.
 Thompson Butler, An Autobiography, 47.
 Alexander William Kinglake, The Invasion of the Crimea: An Origin and an Account of its Progress Down to the Death of Lord Raglan, volumes 1 to 8 (William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh, 1863 to 1887).
 Matthew Lalumia, “Realism and Anti Aristocratic Sentiment in Victorian Depictions of the Crimean War,” Victorian Studies 27, No. 1 (Autumn 1983): 48.
 Thompson Butler, An Autobiography, 101, 123-124.
 Matthew Lalumia, “Lady Elizabeth Thompson Butler in the 1870s,” Women's Art Journal 4, No. 1 (Spring – Summer 1983): 10.
 The Annual Register: A Review of Public Events at Home and Abroad for the year 1874, 366.
 Lalumia, “Lady Elizabeth Thompson Butler in the 1870s,” 9.
 Thompson Butler, 101-106.
 The Times, June 19, 1871, under “Reports,” page 9. Texas A&M University Library Microfilm Archive, Section N / 785.
 Gwyn Harries-Jenkins, The Army in Victorian Society (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977), 63-65.
 Phillip Razzell, “Social Origins of Officers in the Indian and British Home Army: 1758-1962,” British Journal of Sociology 14 (1963), 253.
 Lalumia, “Lady Elizabeth Thompson Butler in the 1870s,” 12-13.
 Thompson Butler, An Autobiography, 169, 195-211.
 Thompson Butler, An Autobiography, 211.
 Lady Elizabeth Thompson Butler, Defence of Rorke’s Drift, 1880, oil on canvas, 120.2 x 214.0 cm, Royal Collection Trust and After the Battle: Arrival of Lord Wolseley and Staff at the Bridge of Tel-el-Kebir, 1885,oil on canvas, 60 x 31.5 cm, National Army Museum, London.
 Thompson Butler, An Autobiography, 195.
 Wilfred Meynell, “The Life and Work of Lady Butler (Miss Elizabeth Thompson),” The Art Annual 1898, (London: Art Journal Office, Christmas 1898): 31.
 Thompson Butler, An Autobiography, 195.