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1874 "Excellence Executed by a Woman"1

Arriving at the Royal Academy on Varnishing Day on 28 April 1874, a relatively unknown young artist, Elizabeth Thompson went in search of her “dark battalion”.2 This was her fourth submission to the Summer Exhibition, the first two having been rejected and the third “skied”. She had reason to be mildly hopeful of a successful outcome for her current submission, Calling the Roll after an Engagement, Crimea as she had received a letter praising her “excellent work” from a member of the Hanging Committee (Fig. 1).3 Nevertheless, this did not prepare her for the painting’s reception, hung “on the line” and surrounded by an excited “knot of artists”.4 Singled out for attention at the Academy Banquet, the painting received almost universal praise from the critics, while the public surged forward such that a policeman was stationed alongside the work for its protection.

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Queen Victoria had the painting removed to Buckingham Palace for a private view before insisting on acquiring it for her own collection, displacing the original purchaser, Charles Galloway, though allowing the sale of the copyright to Dickinson and Co. for £1,200.5 The Queen’s admiration for the painting is evidenced by her subsequent gift to the artist of an emerald and pearl bracelet.6 Special trains were laid on as the painting was paraded around the country, where thousands queued to see it and “Roll Call Thompson” became a celebrity overnight.

What was so special about this painting, which represented the aftermath of a battle from a war twenty years earlier? Was it the youth of the artist, her gender, her choice of subject matter, or perhaps the mismatch of all three? This uncompromising scene shows the grenadier guards lining up for the roll call after a bloody engagement. Several are wounded; one, probably dead, lies face down in the snow; while veterans are comforting their traumatised younger compatriots, others are missing, and carrion crows hover overhead. Together with the wounded sergeant, we are invited to inspect the sorry remains of a once proud regiment as the survivors struggle to the muster. These soldiers are painted predominantly in sombre greys and blacks, with little attempt to promote the glory of battle. The solitary, mounted, officer, head bowed, is marginalised at the extreme left of the canvas. By her focus on the physical and psychological effects of war on the anonymous soldier, Thompson had distanced herself from what The Athenaeum had described as “the usual plunging horses” of British military painting.7 At the same time, she embraced a growing prejudice against the aristocratic officer and a corresponding sympathy for the rank and file.

Contemporary reviews commended Thompson for showing none of “woman’s weakness”, and presenting instead “the plain manly heroic truth”;8 and “earnest honesty” and a “wonderful variety in expression of the maimed and wounded men”, accentuated as they were by their close and equal positioning in the picture plane.9 According to The Times, this was “one of the pictures of the year least likely to be forgotten”, while members of the public admitted to being reduced to tears.10 Many viewers wondered how a young woman with no personal experience of war was able to represent a scene of a military engagement, addressing the human cost of a conflict calculated to preserve the all-important route to India? Was the critic of The Daily Telegraph, George Augustus Sala, correct when he wrote that with The Roll Call a “manacle [had been] knocked off a woman’s wrist and a shackle hacked off her ankle”?11 The influential critic, John Ruskin, had suggested that no woman had ever been a great painter.12 Yet here was a young woman holding centre stage at the Academy, in spite of the limited training generally available to female artists. Did Thompson’s success mean that women’s art henceforth would be given serious consideration, and had she really “shown her sisters which way they should go”?13

But behind this stellar reception, voices of dissent issued warnings. Even on Varnishing Day, Thompson writes, a fellow exhibitor, “O’Neil RA seemed rather to deprecate the applause”, warning her of the “dangers of sudden popularity”.14 In 1875, London Society was more forthright, referring scathingly to “the droves of indiscriminating, gaping admirers, whom it was almost revolting to see struggling and squeezing past the policeman to get a good view and whose raptures were as unmeaning as they were ignorant.”15 Thompson’s success was dismissed as a “lucky fluke” and her reputation as one “never more cheaply made”.16 When in 1879, in the wake of further successful Academy entries, John Everett Millais proposed that Thompson (now Elizabeth Butler) be admitted as an Associate Member of the Academy, this dissent was translated into overt prejudice against women artists. Thompson lost out by two votes, the constitution providing for admission to men (my italics) of fair moral character, Sir John Gilbert objecting that: “he wouldn’t have any damned woman in.”17

Thompson’s frequent choice of military subjects has prompted accusations of imperialism, if not outright jingoism, leading to her relative neglect in subsequent generations. At the time of her only retrospective in 1987, John Russell Taylor felt this failed to acknowledge that many of her best works were “depictions of disastrous aftermaths to heroic but wrong-headed engagements.”18 Thompson’s paintings may well be seen as patriotic, but they were far removed from the triumphalism of contemporary battle artists such as Richard Caton Woodville, Godfrey Douglas Giles, and William Barnes Wollen. Instead, her legacy has suffered from her immense popular appeal,19 and her alleged presentation as an honorary male “revelling in the spectacle of male bodies”, while eschewing a more traditional feminine style.20 Her 1874 entry, however, shows that Thompson’s focus was with the distress of the ordinary soldier at or near the battlefield, a theme rarely, if ever, previously profiled in British military art.

Thompson’s choice of subject matter was timely. During the 1870s, Edward Cardwell, Secretary of State for War, introduced his army reforms, paving the way for advancement on merit. This was also a period when the public was becoming more socially aware and it is no coincidence that 1874 was the year Samuel Luke Fildes exhibited his painting, Applicants for Admission to the Casual Ward, depicting a queue of the homeless and destitute outside a workhouse (Fig. 2). With her sombre representation of current concerns, Thompson’s painting invited empathy, presenting “with such primal simplicity that to everyone it bore a typical meaning of universal application.”21

  1. George Augustus Sala, The Daily Telegraph, 2 May 1874.↩︎

  2. Elizabeth Butler, Autobiography (Sevenoaks: Fisher Press, 1993 [1922]), 84.↩︎

  3. Butler, Autobiography, 84.↩︎

  4. Butler, Autobiography, 84.↩︎

  5. The original price agreed with Galloway was £126. Butler, Autobiography, 89.↩︎

  6. Butler, Autobiography, 100.↩︎

  7. The Athenaeum, 17 November 1855.↩︎

  8. The Times, 2 May 1874.↩︎

  9. The Morning Post, 7 May 1874.↩︎

  10. The Times, 2 May 1874.↩︎

  11. The Daily Telegraph, 2 May 1874.↩︎

  12. Ruskin’s letter to the artist Anna Blunden, cited in Deborah Cherry, Painting Women: Victorian Women Artists (London: Routledge, 1993), 188. In the following year, Ruskin referred to Thompson’s academy entry, The 28th Regiment at Quatre Bras as “Amazon’s work” and began to revise his views on gender difference, see E.T. Cook and A. Wedderburn, Ruskin’s Complete Works, Vol. 14 (London: George Allen, 1904), 138.↩︎

  13. The Daily Telegraph, 2 May 1874.↩︎

  14. Butler, Autobiography, 85. This refers to Henry Nelson O’Neil, ARA.↩︎

  15. London Society, West End Notes, March 1875.↩︎

  16. London Society, West End Notes, March, 1875.↩︎

  17. The Evening Standard, 3 October 1933.↩︎

  18. The Times, 2 June 1987.↩︎

  19. Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin (eds), Women Artists: 1550–1950, exhibition catalogue (Los Angeles: County Museum of Art, 1976), 53, who refer to her “popular notoriety”.↩︎

  20. Patrizia Di Bello, “Elizabeth Thompson and ‘Patsy’ Cornwallis West as Cartes-de-Visites Celebrities”, History of Photography 35, no. 3, (August 2011): 242. William Holman Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Vol. 2 (London: Macmillan and Co., 1905), 310.↩︎

  21. Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Vol. 2, 310.↩︎

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Explore the 1874 catalogue