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Elizabeth Southerden (née Thompson), Lady Butler

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Elizabeth Southerden (née Thompson), Lady Butler

by Elizabeth Southerden (née Thompson), Lady Butler
oil and pencil on card, 1869
8 5/8 in. x 7 1/8 in. (219 mm x 181 mm)
Purchased, 1980
Primary Collection
NPG 5314

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

This portraitback to top

Born in Switzerland of British parents, Elizabeth Thompson and her sister Alice (later Meynell) were brought up in Italy. In 1866-70, during which period she made this self-portrait, Elizabeth attended the Female School of Art, South Kensington, and made the aquaintance of both Millais and Ruskin. In 1872 she sketched the army during autumn manoeuvres in the New Forest and in 1874, aged 28, she became instantly famous when she exhibited The Roll Call at the Royal Academy. According to Holman Hunt, the work 'touched the nation's heart as few pictures have ever done' and it was so popular that a policeman was detailed to stand by it in order to control the enthusiastic crowds. In 1877 Thompson, who painted military works all her life, married Major William Butler. Despite being one of the most famous artists of the day, she was never elected as a Royal Academician; shortlisted with Herkomer in 1879, she lost by two votes.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • 100 Pioneering Women, p. 70 Read entry

    Elizabeth Southerden (1846-1933) was an acclaimed military artist and history painter. Her first major work, Calling the Roll After an Engagement, Crimea (1874), attracted huge crowds at London’s Royal Academy of the Arts’ Summer Exhibition. Such was the work’s appeal that Queen Victoria, who purchased it, agreed to prints being taken. The Pre-Raphaelite William Holman Hunt commented on how it ‘touched the nation’s hearts as few pictures have ever done’. This was partly due to the artist’s departure from the conventional depiction of vast battle panoramas, which glorified war, portraying, instead, the struggles and suffering of the soldiers, and thereby heralding a realism that chimed with the public. But the artist herself – gifted, young and female – also caused a stir. The male-dominated art establishment was not ready for her, when, in 1879, she was proposed but not elected to the Royal Academy. Nonetheless, she paved the way for later women Royal Academicians, notably Dame Laura Knight, who would be elected in 1936.

  • Rideal, Liz, Mirror Mirror: Self-portraits by Women Artists, 2001 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 12 September 2001 to 20 January 2002), p. 43 Read entry

    Born in Switzerland of British parents, Elizabeth (née Thompson), who was known as Mimi, and her sister Alice (1847-1922), later the poet Alice Meynell, had a relaxed and rather bohemian education in Italy.

    From 1866 to 1870 Mimi attended the Female School of Art, South Kensington, where Kate Greenaway also studied. During this time she met both Sir John Everett Millais (1829-96) and John Ruskin (1819-1900), and in the summer of 1869 she studied figure drawing in Florence. In 1872 she sketched the army during autumn manoeuvres in the New Forest and in 1874, aged twenty-eight, she became instantly famous when she exhibited The Roll Call at the Royal Academy. Originally commissioned and paid for by the Manchester industrialist Charles Galloway, the painting so impressed Queen Victoria that she bought it from him. He retained the copyright, which he subsequently sold for £1,200. The work was so popular that a policeman was detailed to stand by it in order to control the enthusiastic crowds. William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) wrote: 'It touched the nation's heart as few pictures have ever done.' That year she visited Paris and met the painter Jean-Leon Gérôme (1824-1904). Her connection with the army deepened when in 1877 she married Major William Butler, with whom she had six children. Lady Butler was never invited to become a Royal Academician, although in 1879 she was short-listed with Sir Hubert von Herkomer (1849-1914), losing to him by two votes. She painted military works all her life and travelled widely with her husband, including two trips to Egypt in 1885 and 1890 to 1893. They also visited the Holy Land in April 1891. Lady Butler was an enthusiastic traveller:

    What a treat ... it was to rove about in the reality of the true East, to meet beauty of form and colour and light and shade and movement wherever one's eyes turned, without being brought up with a nasty jar by some modern hideosity or other.

    (E. Butler, From Sketch-Book and Diary, 1909, p.37)

    This small, delicate oval painting, thought to have been produced when the artist studied in Florence under Giuseppe Bellucci, is a modest self-assessment, concise and retiring, captivating the viewer with its warm background.

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 93

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Events of 1869back to top

Current affairs

Gladstone introduces the Irish Church Disestablishment Act, which disestablishes the Church of Ireland, disassociating it from the state and repealing the paying of tithes to the Anglican Church of Ireland.
Girton College is founded in Cambridge by Barbara Bodichon and Emily Davies, the first residential college for women in England; women were granted full membership to the University in 1948.

Art and science

Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev invents the periodic table of elements, which arranges elements within a group in order of their atomic mass.
The British scientist Mary Somerville publishes her last book On Molecular and Microscopic Science.
Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir paint together in the open air at La Grenouillère, developing the Impressionist style.


The Suez canal opens, linking the Red Sea and the Gulf of Suez with the Mediterranean Sea, and transforming trade routes between Europe and Asia as merchants no longer had to circumvent Africa. The canal was largely in British and French control until Egyptian nationalisation in 1956, which sparked off the international Suez crisis.
Serialisation of Leo Tolstoy's epic novel of Russian society during the Napoleonic wars, War and Peace finishes.

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