Friday, 22 January 2016

The Battle of Rorke's Drift, 22nd January 1979, depicted in wonderful paintings by Alphonse de Neuville and Lady Butler

Above is a detail from Alphonse de Neuville's The Defence of Rorke's Drift, 1882. Here's the whole, splendid thing:

The next painting (same title) was commissioned by Queen Victoria and painted by Lady Elizabeth Butler in 1880, the year following the battle.

Rorke's Drift, a mission station, was successfully defended by 141 British soldiers against some 4,000 Zulus. According to the Royal Collection website:
In recognition of the heroism displayed by the defenders 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded. When the soldiers returned to England they first visited Windsor and then were sent on to Lady Butler. She went to Portsmouth, where the regiment was quartered, and they put on a representation of the battle for her ‘dressed in the uniforms they wore on that dreadful night …the result was that I reproduced the event as nearly to the life as possible’. The artist stated that she had ‘managed to show, in that scuffle, all the V.C.’s and other conspicuous actors in the drama’. Lieutenant Chard is in the centre, pointing with his left arm, next to Lieutenant Bromhead who is holding his sword. When Queen Victoria saw the painting she noted: ‘All, officers & men, are portraits, & everything is painted from descriptions, & just as it was, down to the very smallest detail’. The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1881.
I was going to stop there, but I was diverted by the intriguing story of Lady Elizabeth Southerden Butler, probably Britain's most eminent war artist of the late Victorian era (according to the French military painter, Édouard Detaille, "... L'Angleterre n’a guère qu’un peintre militaire; c’est une femme…”) - despite never having witnessed any battles, or even the aftermath of one. The excellent BBC Your Paintings website tells us the following:
She initially had no military connections (although she married an army officer in 1877) and took up such subjects because she thought they were comparatively neglected in Britain, offering an ambitious artist scope to ‘distinguish herself from the ruck’. This idea was vindicated and during her heyday in the 1870s she was one of the most acclaimed artists in Britain. Her work appealed to popular patriotic sentiment, but she was also admired by critics such as Ruskin, who said she had forced him to admit he had been wrong in believing that ‘no woman could paint’. Lady Butler said, ‘I never painted for the glory of war, but to portray its pathos and heroism’, and although her pictures often have a glossy, Hollywood quality, they are sincerely felt, and she has been praised for trying to show the experience of the common soldier rather than concentrating—as was then usual—on the heroic deeds of officers.
Well, as long as she wasn't on the side of those horrid, snobby toffs, that's okay!

You can read the rest of the article - and see an excellent slideshow of Lady Butler's work - here. (Your Paintings is a terrific website, by the way - well worth a few hours of anyone's time.) I'll leave you with three of Lady Butler's other best-known paintings, starting with Remnants of an Army (1879), which depicts an exhausted William Brydon, assistant surgeon in the Bengal Army, arriving at the gates of Jalalabad in January 1842, bringing the terrible news that he is the last survivor of the 16,000 soldiers and camp followers who retreated from Kabul in the First Anglo-Afghan War:

The next painting, The Return from Inkerman (1877), depicts the aftermath of the 1854 Crimean War battle in which soldiers of the British, French, Sardinian and Ottoman armies fought the Russians during the Siege of Sebastopol. The Daily Telegraph had this to say:

“…Miss E. Thompson [her maiden name], 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."

There's an excellent article about the artist and this particular painting on the my daily art display blog.

Here's Lady Butler's most famous work, Scotland Forever! (1881), depicting the charge of the Royal Scots Greys at the Battle of Waterloo.

Rousing or what! If it weren't for all that horrid, brutal, masculine war stuff, I suspect Lady Butler would be a major feminist hero, featuring on Woman's Hour at least once a week. What a gal!


  1. Wonderful paintings.As for those horrible officers,there is a superb period piece by Tissot in The National Portrait Gallery of a Royal Horse Guards office name of 'Fred' Burnaby in all his glorious,languid,insouciance.

  2. That should be officer of course.Anyway Frederick Burnaby was a truly astonishing individual.

  3. Burnaby must have the best trousers in art. Have you read his 'A ride to Khiva' ?

  4. My paperback edition of "A Ride to Khiva" has the wonderful portrait of the great man on the cover - it's the reason I bought the book, to be honest. And to think he undertook those extraordinary adventures despite spending much of the time crippled with stomach pain. Apparently the line "The Gatling's jammed and the Colonel's dead" in Newbolt's "Vitaï Lampada" was a reference to Colonel Frederick Gustavus Burnaby battling the Dervishes at Abu Klea.