Monday 19 August 2019

Mary Kenny: A portrait of the artist as a woman

Completing the centenary year of 1916, a fine painter's record of Irish history

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Women artists have often been overlooked - or under-rated - by history, so it is good to see the inspiring paintings of Lady Elizabeth Butler in the exhibition currently at Dublin's National Gallery, 'Creating History'.

To complete the centenary year of 1916, the exhibition illuminates a narrative of Irish history, in battle, politics, personalities, people's movements, insurrection - and sometimes in tragedy. Elizabeth Butler, an Englishwoman born in 1846, was an outstanding military painter, a celebrity in her own lifetime for her battle scenes depicting Waterloo, the Crimea, and elsewhere. When she was 72 years of age she painted a moving First World war scene simply called Mons.

Elizabeth had a strong connection with Ireland - her husband, Sir William Butler was Irish and she lived in this country for many years. Her battle pictures were, in their time, much admired: Queen Victoria especially coveted the celebrated The Roll Call. But these pictures were not just about military glory. Elizabeth Butler always brought something human and poignant to her depictions of soldiers at war.

The story-line was as often about defeat as about victory. The Remnants of an Army shows a single, exhausted survivor returning from a battle at Kabul in 1842.

Her two Irish pictures currently on show at the National Gallery - the exhibition lasts until the end of January - focus on aspects of Irish life which she herself witnessed in the 1870s. One is the mournful An Eviction in Ireland, in which a lone woman is pictured in an Irish landscape after the destruction of her home, the bailiffs and police retreating in the background, having completed their awful task.

Lady Butler wrote in her autobiography, Battle Artist, published in 1922, about the impact that Ireland had on her when she came to this country as a new bride. She was beguiled by the wild beauty of the western countryside, the "deep richness" of the "Irish days of cloud and sunshine". But subsequently, she felt shame that "our Government [did] some dreadful things in the way of evictions in Ireland." She was distressed to witness an eviction near Glendalough in Co Wicklow, and painted what she saw. She recounts with contempt how Lord Salisbury, the Tory Prime Minister, mocked her for her compassion.

At a time when Imperial Britain was so proud of its world power, An Eviction in Ireland implied a radical political critique.

Her first Irish painting, in 1879, had been Listed for the Connaught Rangers - Recruiting in Ireland. The landscape which she found so rich is the background to the depiction of young Irishmen driven to join the British army by poverty - and yet, even pressed men may display a certain stoical cheerfulness.

Elizabeth Butler is not only a significant painter: her own story is an account of how women in the Victorian period could, with luck, pursue an independent career successfully - and marry and have children too.

Elizabeth and her sister, the poet Alice Meynell, were born to enlightened parents who believed in educating and encouraging their daughters. Their father, Thomas Thompson, a man of private means, took them both on the Grand Tour of Italy, France, Belgium and Germany. Elizabeth then attended art school in South Kensington, where she encountered helpfully exacting tutors. Elizabeth and Alice were religious, and both became Catholics: this fed into art and poetry, and Elizabeth's first paintings had religious themes, inspired by Florence and Rome.

There certainly was discrimination against women as artists - the Royal Academy did not then admit women as fellows. When Elizabeth herself stood for election, she missed it by two votes, almost certainly because she was a woman. Yet she was not chippy - she refers just once to someone expecting 'women's [artistic] work' to be inferior. And there were many men who encouraged her, including Ruskin.

When she became an artistic celebrity with her Crimean painting The Roll Call - exhibited at London's Royal Academy in 1874, when she was only 27 - she was lionised on all sides and both men and women admired her work. One man wrote to her: "Go on, go on, thou glorious girl!"

Lady Butler had never witnessed a battle scene, and yet her military pictures were technically accurate. She simply researched diligently, and worked hard on preparation. The fascination with battle seems to have started with a teenage visit to Waterloo, where she could imagine the entire scene. She also placed much artistic emphasis on horses in battle.

After the 1914-18 war the artistic scene changed, and when her youngest daughter married Lord Gormanston, she retired to Gormanston Castle in Co Meath, where she died in 1933, aged 87 (leaving the not very large sum, even then, of £325.2s.2d.) Five of her six children survived - a baby girl died in infancy: she found it hard to dwell on that. One of her sons became a Benedictine monk.

Elizabeth Butler succeeded where many women, in her time, did not have the opportunity: she had supportive parents, a husband who esteemed her work, and during her lifetime, money never seems to have been a problem. She also had talent, ambition and a deep feeling for her subject matter. Her Irish pictures represent a fine achievement and a sensitive glimpse of our history.


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