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Elizabeth Southerden (née Thompson), Lady Butler

Elizabeth Southerden (née Thompson), Lady Butler, by Elizabeth Southerden (née Thompson), Lady Butler, 1869 -NPG 5314 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Elizabeth Southerden (née Thompson), Lady Butler

by Elizabeth Southerden (née Thompson), Lady Butler
Oil with traces of pencil on card, 1869
8 5/8 in. x 7 1/8 in. (219 mm x 181 mm)
NPG 5314

Inscriptionback to top

Signed and dated in red paint bottom right: ‘MIMI ThompSON / 1869’.
Back of frame, two exhibition labels:
(a) Lady Butler, Battle Artist 1846–1933, NAM, London, 1987 (11);
(b) Mirror Mirror: Self-portraits by Women Artists, NPG, 2001 (42).
Papers removed from back of frame in 1981 (now in NPG RP 5314):
(a) piece of card pasted with the ‘Calendario Fiorentino’ for 1868, superinscr. in ink: ‘Mimi Thomson. / painted by herself / (afterwards Lady Butler* [asterisk] / & presented by her to our Aunt / Miss Sabilla Novello / Valeria Gigliucci / / * Famosa pittrice Inglese – autrice di quadri / a soggretto militare.’
(b) reused scrap of printed paper (Italian, dated 1959) inscr. in ink on reverse: ‘Butler (Elizabeth) Lady. Painter d. of late / T.J. Thompson & sister of Mrs Meynell. Born / at Lausanne m. L.G. Sir William Frances [sic] / Butler. Spent some years in Italy & studied art / in Florence. Exhibited R.A. “Missing” 1873 “Roll / Call 1874 28th Reg. at Quatre Bras 1875 etc etc / Meynell Alice poet & essayist d. of T.J.T. / m to Wilfred Meynell.’

This portraitback to top

Much of Butler’s childhood was spent in Italy. Her father, Thomas James Thompson (1812–81), after unsuccessfully trying for Parliament, took his family abroad and ‘devoted his leisure’ to the education of his daughters Elizabeth and Alice (later Alice Meynell). [1] There were numerous English ‘colonies’ dotted along the Mediterranean, and the Thompsons settled near Genoa for periods during their extended travels, c.1847–61. In October 1868 the family set out for a further long visit to Italy. The winter was spent back at their former palazzo near Genoa: ‘That was a very greatly enjoyed autumn, winter and spring’, wrote Butler, ‘and the gaieties of the English Colony, the private theatricals, the concerts at Villa Novello – all those things did me good.’ [2] April to October 1869 were spent in Florence where Butler attended the studio of the academic painter Giuseppe Bellucci (1827–82). The Thompsons then moved to Rome for seven months before returning to London in the summer of 1870.

NPG 5314 is a small, serious image, carefully painted and conveying self-possession. It was certainly painted in Italy where Butler set up ‘little studios’ as the Thompson family moved from Genoa to Florence and Rome; it may have been painted in Genoa – where she apparently ‘went in for life-size heads’ – and it seems to have been framed in Florence. [3] It is signed with Butler’s pet name, Mimi, and dated 1869. The original framing incorporated a fragment of a ‘Calendario Fiorentino’ for 1868 (a calendar of saints’ days), superinscribed with details of the portrait: ‘Mimi Thomson. / painted by herself / (afterwards Lady Butler* / & presented by her to our Aunt / Miss Sabilla Novello / Valeria Gigliucci / / * Famosa pittrice Inglese – autrice di quadri / a soggretto militare.’ [4] (Mary) Sabilla Novello (1821–1904), the sixth daughter of Vincent Novello, was a singer and singing teacher in London. [5] At some date after 1856 she and her brother, the music publisher (Joseph) Alfred Novello, left London to settle in Genoa; [6] Butler’s reference to the concerts at the Villa Novello presumably refers to that establishment.

Sabilla Novello, who did not marry, left Butler’s self-portrait to her Gigliucci niece in Florence, via whose daughter – who was also the granddaughter of Alice Meynell – it came to the NPG in 1980.

Carol Blackett-Ord

Footnotesback to top

1) ‘My father, cultured, good, patient, after he left Cambridge and after his unsuccessful attempt to enter Parliament devoted his leisure to my and my younger sister’s education [...] nor did his tuition really cease till, entering on matrimony we left the paternal roof.’ Butler 1923, p.1.
2) Butler 1923, p.54.
3) Butler 1923, p.54. There was also a Novello connexion in Florence. In 1843 the music publisher Vincent Novello’s daughter Clara Novello (1818–1908), a celebrated singer, had married the Florentine Count Gigliucci.
4) Misreading of the inscription has given rise to an NPG cataloguing error (perpetuated in Usherwood & Spencer-Smith 1987, cat.11, where two names are read as one: ‘Miss Dalilla [sic] Novello / Valeria Gigliucci’). In fact the inscription refers to Sabilla Novello (Groves 1954, vol.6, p.136) and, separately, to Sabilla’s niece, Valeria Gigliucci, the daughter of Clara Novello (see note 3 above).
5) See The Novello Family by E.P. Novello; {NPG 5686}.
6) Groves 1954, vol.6, p.136. Clara Novello’s Reminiscences (Gigliucci 1910) make no reference to the Thompsons.

Physical descriptionback to top

Head and shoulders in oval, full-face, eyes slightly lowered to left, wearing gold band in hair and pendant on ribbon around neck, dark red background.

Provenanceback to top

Miss Sabilla Novello; Countess Valeria Gigliucci (niece; daughter of Clara Novello); Bona Gigliucci, Florence; purchased from Mrs Barbara Wall (Alice Meynell’s granddaughter), 1980.

Exhibitionsback to top

Recent Acquisitions, NPG, London, 1982.

Lady Butler, Battle Artist, 1846–1933, National Army Museum, London; Light Infantry Museum & Arts Centre, Durham; Leeds City Art Gallery, 1987–88 (11).

Mirror Mirror: Self-portraits by Women Artists, NPG, London; Royal Museum and Art Gallery, Canterbury, 2001–2002 (42).

Reproductionsback to top

Usherwood & Spencer-Smith 1987, no.11.

Rideal 2001, no.42.

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