15 March 2014

Art for Lent (11): ‘Balaclava’ (1876)
by Lady Elizabeth Butler

‘Balaclava’ (1876), by Elizabeth Thompson (Lady Butler)

Patrick Comerford

In the middle of Lent, I am constantly reminded of the sufferings of people caught in wars and conflicts. I am thinking this morning of the people caught in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, particularly in Crimea, and the people of Syria, who have been forgotten in the media since the conflict between Ukraine and Russia became a major international crisis.

As the West considered confronting Russia over the crisis in Crimea and Ukraine, I was reminded of the Western confrontation with Russia in this region 160 years ago, leading to the disaster that became the Crimean War in 1854.

And so, for my work of Art for Lent this morning [15 March 2014], I have chosen the painting Balaclava (1876), by Elizabeth Thompson, generally known as Lady Butler.

This painting depicts the aftermath of the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade, which took place during the Crimean War at the Battle of Balaclava (1854). The poet Alfred Lord Tennyson also wrote a poem about the same Charge of the Light Brigade.

Lady Butler’s war paintings portray in a blunt way the horrors and sufferings of war, and the plight of the common soldier on the frontline.

On 27 February 1854, Britain issued an ultimatum to Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, whose troops had crossed the Danube River into Turkey. Britain feared that if the Tsar’s Black Sea fleet gained access to the Mediterranean it would threaten Britain’s dominance as a sea power and its use of the Suez Canal, and so threaten its imperial interests in Africa and India.

When the Tsar was silent in the face of this ultimatum, Britain joined France and Turkey in declaring war on Russia on 28 March 1854, and so began the Crimean War. The British began bombarding the Russian naval base at Sevastopol, the home of its Black Sea Fleet. The Russians responded by bombarding the British at Balaclava.

The command of the Cavalry Division was given to the ridiculous and silly Irish peer, Lord Lucan, and his brother-in-law, Lord Cardigan, had command of the Light Brigade. Neither had ever led troops in battle before, and they had risen in the ranks and received promotion because they had bought their commissions and because of their nobility.

The Charge of the Light Brigade and the Crimean War were military disasters, and the plight and suffering of the ordinary soldiers is captured in this morning’s painting. Yet the myths surrounding the Crimean War developed quickly. The Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest accolade for bravery, was first awarded by Queen Victoria in 1856 to soldiers who fought in Crimea, and is it is said the first medals were made from artillery guns captured at Sevastopol. The words Cardigan and Balaclava have entered the English language from the knitted woolen clothing and garments sent to the soldiers from home.

Many streets in Belfast are named after characters and events in the Crimean War (1853–1856), including Crimea Street, Raglan Street (Lord Raglan), Alma Street (Battle of Alma), Balaklava Street (Battle of Balaklava), Inkerman Street (Battle of Inkerman), and Sevastopol Street (Siege of Sevastopol).

I first became aware of the work of Lady Butler while I was at school in Gormanston in the 1960s – she died in Gormanston Castle in 1933. She is one of the few female painters to achieve fame for history paintings, especially military battle scenes, at the end of that tradition. Some of her most famous military scenes depict the Napoleonic Wars, but she covered most major 19th-century wars and painted several works showing World War I.

Lest anyone think she was glorifying war in her paintings, in her autobiography in 1922 she wrote about her military paintings: “I never painted for the glory of war, but to portray its pathos and heroism.”

She was born Elizabeth Southerden Thompson on 3 November 1846 at Villa Claremont in Lausanne, Switzerland, the daughter of Thomas James Thompson (1812-1881) and his second wife Christiana Weller (1825-1910). Her sister was the noted essayist and poet Alice Meynell.

She studied at the South Kensington School of Art for two years and attended classes in Florence and Rome during her holidays. She became a Roman Catholic along with the rest of the family after they moved to Florence in 1869.

Initially she concentrated on religious subjects like The Magnificat (1872), but after moving to Paris in 1870 she was exposed to battle scenes by Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier and Édouard Detaille, and switched her focus to war paintings.

She first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1873 with her painting Missing. With this depiction of a battle scene from the Franco-Prussian War and the suffering and heroism of common soldiers, she earned her first submission to the Royal Academy.

She became a celebrity overnight the following year after The Roll Call was shown at the Royal Academy in 1874. The painting was commissioned by a Manchester businessman who wanted her to paint a large picture of a Crimean War roll-call.

She painted Balaclava (1876, oil on canvas), depicting one of the major battles of the Crimean War. That painting represents the aftermath of the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854, when a misinterpreted order led to heavy British losses: 661 cavalrymen were reduced to 195 in 20 minutes.

The subject became a favourite for painters after Tennyson’s poem The Charge of the Light Brigade. This poem was quoted by Lady Butler in the catalogue accompanying her work’s debut at the Society of Arts. Her portrayal of the soldiers was controversial as it focused on the psychological effects of war. But the painting was seen by thousands at several venues and was further popularised by large editions of prints.

Her Return from Inkerman shows a column of exhausted and wounded men of the Coldstream Guards and the 20th East Devonshire regiment returning from the heights of Inkerman on 5 November 1854.

Her career and fame peaked with her marriage on 11 June 1877 to Sir William Francis Butler (1838-1910), a distinguished general from Golden, Co Tipperary, who later questioned whether British and European colonial imperialism was in the best interest of indigenous peoples.

When he retired, they returned to Ireland and lived at Bansha Castle, Co Tipperary. She exhibited at the Royal Hibernian Academy from 1892. He died in 1910, and in 1922 she moved to live with her youngest daughter, Eileen, Viscountess Gormanston, at Gormanston Castle, Co Meath. She died there shortly before her 87th birthday on 2 October 1933 and was buried nearby in Stamullen.

Gormanston Castle ... Lady Butler lived here with her daughter from 1922 until her death in 1933 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

The Charge of the Light Brigade, by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
“Charge for the guns!” he said:
Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!
“Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Someone had blunder’d:
Their’s not to make reply,
Their’s not to reason why,
Their’s but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

Flash’d all their sabres bare,
Flash’d as they turn’d in air,
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder’d:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro’ the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel’d from the sabre stroke
Shatter’d and sunder’d.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro’ the jaws of Death
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honor the charge they made,
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred.

Tomorrow:Christ Instructing Nicodemus,’ attributed to Crijn Hendricksz Volmarijn.

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