During the second half of the nineteenth century Elizabeth Thompson, later known as Lady Butler, was one of Britain’s most renowned artists. Excelling in the traditionally masculine genre of military depictions, the public was fascinated with this talented and accomplished young woman. Thompson was a nineteenth century cultural celebrity.
Thompson had a well-travelled and privileged upbringing living between Europe and England receiving both private and formal art tuition. Initially her mature work focussed on religious themes. However, a long-held interest in history and military events saw an unexpected shift of subject.
In 1874 at the young age of twenty-six, a dramatic breakthrough came when her canvas Calling the Role after an Engagement, Crimea was accepted by the Royal Academy and granted the high distinction of being ‘hung on the line’. This sombre composition portrayed a roll call of survivors following the 1854 Battle of Inkerman and celebrated the heroisms of common soldiers. The image galvanized the national pride strongly held by the visitors of the summer exhibition, and the swarm of admiring crowds required the Royal Academy to even station a policemen by the picture for it’s safety.
Queen Victoria soon requested a private viewing at Buckingham Palace and was taken by the composition’s emotive power, pursuing its ownership from the wealthy industrialist Charles Galloway who had commissioned the work for the relatively low price of £100. Galloway dutifully ceded the painting to the Royal Collection but on the condition that he had the first option to the next picture produced by Thompson. The following year he was rewarded with an equally ambitious project, The 28th Regiment at Quatre Bras 1875, which a decade later was purchased from Galloway by the NGV.
The elongated composition of The 28th Regiment at Quatre Bras reveals in all its mania the horrific events of 16th June 1815 when the 28th (North Gloucestershire) Regiment of Foot, supported by other allied forces, achieved a tactical victory at the Battle of Quatre Bras. The tightly packed, battered regiment is seen withstanding attacks from the French cavalry in a formation known as the infantry square, a successful military formation used since Roman campaigns.
Through the artist’s skilful command of perspective, we experience an attacker’s approach to the corner of the defending square. Both sides of it’s red-scarlet walls attempt to hold strong in close-range combat with the highly mobile cavalry. On the right side of the composition, a horse and rider fall on the field of rye, while the smoke from thousands of muskets obscures the sky and suffocates the scene. This picture, like it’s predecessor, was noticeable for reducing military glorification in favour of rendering an exploration of the physical and mental trauma caused by conflict.
The strict genre of history painting and Thompson’s academic training insisted on accuracy through meticulous preparation and detail. Abiding by these principles, and the drive to honour the participants of the battle sixty years after it occurred, required a program of dedicated research and scholarship.
Thompson’s methods are documented by surviving sketchbooks, journals and a biography. She undertook direct studies of horses at Sanger’s Circus in London to capture vivid movement. Access to the Hyde Park Barracks allowed her to see horses skilfully thrown on sawdust and the physical threat experienced when being directly charged was staged for her benefit. With the support of the British army, she learnt the specifics of musket loading and their firing to aid the stud of motion and discharge of the weapons. Approximately three-hundred men from the Royal Engineers formed an infantry square and fired their guns repeatedly to recreate a battlefield engulfed in musket haze.
Once the research was complete, the development of the composition commenced by models posing for studies drawn in sketchbooks. Aided by official resources, Thompson had members of the Royal Engineers and civic police force placed on secondment to pose in her studio dressed in replica uniforms created by the government clothing factory at Pimlico.
For her canvas, Thompson chose a long elongated format (97.2 × 216.2 cm). It was commercially prepared and finished with a pristine white preparation or ground layer. On to its clean surface she began to sketch in lead pencil and charcoal. Although these lines are later covered over by the artist’s paint, an investigative method known as infrared reflectography has been successful in imaging much of the lead based drawing media through the paint.
Thompson stipulated large guidelines that define the top, centre and bottom edges of the soldier’s square formation. These lines begin at the square’s corner and extend to each edge of the canvas. If taken to their ultimate diverging point they would reach two distant ‘vanishing points’. In all likelihood the artist physically did this with string to help draw her lines. This method is common in academic painting, it is a complex geometric construction utilised to control the viewers height within the scene.
Infrared examination also revealed the delicate drawing that placed and layered the figures on the blank canvas. The assigned officers would attend the studio and wear the specifically made replica uniforms. A remarkable hand drawn inventory was discovered on the reverse of the canvas stretcher recording the names and days of their attendance. Potentially this is a form of accounting that the artist was required to keep. Despite the premeditated methodology small revisions to the initial drawing were made, curiously the soldiers were first drawn wearing civilian caps before the taller shako hats replaced them.
The NGV Conservation department regularly uses X-radiography as an investigative method to reveal information, and the x-ray of Quatre Bras is a fine example. From the x-ray image we can deduce the sequence of the painting that followed the completed underdrawing.
As the x-ray radiation goes all the way through an object its image reveals everything that had absorbed or scattered the radiation. In this example we see the six-member timber stretcher and the nails attached to the canvas as the more absorbent and therefore lighter areas. In some regions, we see dark voids where pigments of lighter elements are present; a notable example being the horses. We can therefore conclude that the horse and human figures were painted first and the smoke and vegetation placed around them afterwards. On closer inspection it is possible to see that the two foreground horses were painted a second time with more dramatic movement.
Prior to completing the painting, the artist extended the composition at the bottom edge by attaching a section of timber that is held by extra-long nails as seen in the x-ray. This adjustment is small and possibly relates to fitting the highly decorative frame presumably designed by the artist.
The remaining brushwork is confident and applied with a delicate yet vibrant touch. Layers of purposeful strokes model form to create a high level of realism with specific emphasis given to the texture and warmth of cloth and the character of facial expressions of the frontline soldiers. The restrained, cool palette recalls her field observations and the subduing influence of smoke. This delicate layering is contrasted against a more vigorous application of paint that draws attention to the rye grass, used to partially conceal soldiers during the actual Battle of Quatre Bras in 1815.
Dedicated to the genre of historic painting and exceptionally detailed, Thompson’s painting is of fascination for visitors to the nineteenth century galleries at the NGV. This painting is a remarkable and epic project by an artist and scholar of great talent.