Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Elizabeth Thompson and Not Making It into the Royal Academy

Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler (3 November 1846 -2 October 1933)


My son recently sent me a link to the first episode of Malcolm Gladwell's podcast, Revisionist History. Titled "The Lady Vanishes," this inaugural episode begins with Gladwell's visit to St. James's Palace in London, where he has arranged to see The Roll Call, a painting by the artist Elizabeth Thompson. Thompson's painting caused a sensation at the 1874 Royal Academy of London exhibition.

Thompson's 1869 self-portrait
After briefly introducing Thompson and her painting, Gladwell links the artist to what he identifies as "the strange phenomenon of 'the token'"--which he defines as "the outsider whose success serves not to alleviate discrimination but perpetuate it." 

Now I'm not at all sure of why Gladwell calls tokenism a "strange phenomenon"--tokenism certainly doesn't seem like a strange new concept to me. Rather, it seems all too unstrange and too familiar. 

And, indeed, Gladwell has found Thompson through a 1990 piece in the Women's Art Journal that, more than twenty-five years ago, identified Thompson as "a case of tokenism" (Paul Underwood's essay is titled "Elizabeth Thompson Butler: A Case of Tokenism"--in the podcast, Gladwell catches up with Underwood and the episode includes some of his comments.) So, tokenism is not such a "strange" new idea when it comes to Thompson.

But, before you can decide whether or not you agree with Gladwell about the "strangeness" of tokenism, he has moved from his examination of Thompson to the subject of "moral licensing." To define the concept, he cities Daniel Effron: moral self-licensing is when "past good deeds can liberate individuals to engage in behaviors that are immoral, unethical, or otherwise problematic, behaviors that they would otherwise avoid for fear of feeling or appearing immoral."

It seems that Gladwell himself uses Thompson as a token--her painting, exhibited by the Royal Academy, is used as an example of a "good deed" that allows members of the Academy to continue to their behavior of denying most women artists a place in their exhibitions, Thompson's example thus allowing Gladwell the opportunity to focus on, illustrate, and explore the concept of moral licensing. 

I do recommend listening to the podcast if you're interested in tokenism and the way that accepting a "token"--like a woman painter, for example, or a female political leader--ultimately "give[s us] permission to do something bad."

But, while the title of this podcast, "The Lady Vanishes," seems to suggest that Gladwell will make Thompson the painter reappear, I thought that the podcast more or less succeeded not in restoring Thompson but in disappearing Thompson once again. She gets lost along the way to Gladwell's real interest, moral licensing. So here's a bit more about her and her career. 

Elizabeth's father, Thomas James Thompson, was born in Jamaica, the son of an Englishman and his Creole mistress; Thomas James inherited a huge fortune from his grandfather, Thomas Pepper Thompson, who owned three sugar plantations and, evidently the slaves needed to make them profitable (see the entry in the University College London's Legacies of British Slave-Ownership database). After spending a year at Cambridge, Thomas James "dabbled" in politics and in art before marrying, as his second wife, the pianist Christiana Weller. (For more on Elizabeth's parents, click here.)

Born in Switzerland while her parents were on a "grand tour" following Thomas James's failed bid for a parliamentary seat, Elizabeth was the first of two accomplished daughters. Their second daughter, born the year after Elizabeth, was named Alice. Married to the journalist Alfred Meynell, Alice Meynell became a noted poet, essayist, and suffragist.

After the birth of their daughters, the couple and their children continued their continental travels. Elizabeth developed an interest in drawing and painting, first receiving professional instruction in Italy (by 1862), then enrolling in 1866 the Female School of Art, then located in South Kensington. The London school had been established in 1842 for "young women of the middle class" so that they could "obtain an honourable and profitable employment." 

In her autobiography, Thompson would later write that she despised the kinds of "scrolls" and "patterns" she was given to copy as part of her instruction there--they represented the kinds of decorative arts that formed an "appropriate" curriculum for young women. Instead she filled the margins of her drawing paper with "angry scribblings of horses and soldiers in every variety of fury."

She took advantage of other opportunities while she was in London, for example attending a painting class in Conduit Street and exhibiting an oil painting, Horses in Sunshine, at the Women Artists' Exhibition (1867) and a water color, Bavarian Artillery Going into Action, at the Dudley Art Gallery. She also met the British art critic John Ruskin in 1868.

By 1869 she rejoined her family in their Italian travels, studying in Florence with Giuseppe Bellucci and then attending the Florentine Accademia di Belle Arti. By 1869 she had moved on to Rome, where she set up her own studio. There she completed The Magnificat, a large religious piece accepted for an international exhibition in Rome.

Returning to England with her family in 1870, Thompson traveled through Germany and France; in Paris, she saw battle paintings of Edouard Detaille and Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier. Ultimately these images helped to shape and develop her own interest in painting battle scenes.

Thompson's 1874 The Roll Call
After visiting army maneuvers with her father once the family had returned to England, Thompson began drawing the soldiers and activities she had seen.

She submitted her oil canvas, The Missing, to the Royal Academy in 1873, where it was accepted for display but "skied" (hung up high in a spot inconvenient for viewing). This painting depicted an imaginary scene following a battle during the Franco-Prussian war.

The next year a second painting, The Roll Call, a scene from the Crimean War, was also accepted for the Royal Academy exhibition, this painting becoming a sensation--ultimately acquired by Queen Victoria. Thompson and her work were widely--and wildly--celebrated

As art historian Paul Usherwood notes, one reason for Thompson's success was "her choice of the role of honorary male"--she was ambitious, and her choice of subject matter, unusual for a woman, "was governed by a desire to win the respect of those whose opinion counted at the Academy." (It was also a depiction of men that, Usherwood adds, was "flattering to the male egos that ruled the Academy.")

Calculated or not, Thompson devoted herself to painting battle scenes. The Twenty-eighth Regiment at Quatre Bras, completed the next year, also received critical praise and popular celebration if not the prominent display position that The Roll Call had received.

Still, this particular painting, depicting an encounter between British and French soldiers two days before the battle of Waterloo, received Ruskin's praise. In his 1875 Academy Notes he wrote that he had "always said no woman could paint." "But," he added,
it is amazon's work this; no doubt of it, and the first fine Pre-Raphaelite picture of battle we have had; -- profoundly interesting, and showing all manner of illustrative and realistic faculty. Of course, all that need be said of it, on this side, must have been said twenty times over in the journals; and it remains only for me to make my tardy genuflexion, on the trampled corn, before this Pallas of Pall Mall.
Further achievements followed quickly: a figure from her Tenth Bengal Lancers at Tent-Pegging was reproduced as a special supplement to the London Graphic, a weekly illustrated magazine, in 1876; in the same year, she painted The Return from Balaklava, and in 1877, The Return from Inkerman, for which was paid fifteen thousand dollars by the Fine Art Society, a London gallery that had the publication rights for The Roll Call. Her work was regularly exhibited at the Royal Academy.

But, while Thompson's accomplishments were manifest, and while her paintings continued to be the popular among those displayed in Academy exhibitions, she was not elected to membership in the British Royal Academy although she was nominated three times between 1879 and 1881--she would have been the first woman to become a fellow of the Academy. She came within two votes of election, and in order to avoid such a calamity, the institution deemed that since its rules said only "men of fair moral character" were eligible for membership, she was disqualified by her sex.*

In the mean time, in 1877 Thompson had married Major William Butler. She combined her career with marriage, motherhood, and travel with her husband--he was posted in various places throughout England as well as in Egypt, the Sudan, and South Africa. In addition to continuing to paint and exhibit, she published three books: Letters from the Holy Land (1903), From Sketchbook and Diary (1909), and her autobiography (1923). 

A 1924 submission to the Royal Academy was rejected--but not so much because of her sex as because of changing tastes and artistic styles. After the Great War, her battle depictions had also become anachronistic. There is no doubt that her marriage removed her from the London art scene and affected the focus and attention she could pay to her own work, but marriage and family had not ended her artistic career. 

There is a great deal of available information about Elizabeth Thompson and her work--unlike so many of the women artists I have written about on this blog, she did not, despite Malcolm Gladwell's title, "vanish." If she is less visible than we might expect, given both her critical and popular reputation, it may well be, as Germain Greer suggests, "due to the downfall of her subject matter" and not because of Thompson's sex.

When Greer wrote about Thompson in her 1979 The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Women Painters and Their Work, she claimed that no public galleries in England had her work exhibited and accessible for viewing. Now it appears that at least some of Thompson's work is accessible--if not The Roll Call, which Gladwell arranges to see at St. James's in a private viewing, then at a number of museums and galleries, including the Tate (London), the City of Manchester Art Gallery, the Leeds Art Gallery, the Ferens Art Gallery (one of nine public museum venues in Hull), and the gallery at the Defence Academy of the UK (which has several of Thompson's paintings)..The Art UK website--"Welcome to the Nation's Art--includes 17 paintings and their locations. (Paintings are also exhibited publicly in Scotland, Ireland, and Australia.

There is an excellent account of Thompson's life, training, and work in Jo Devereaux's The Making of Women Artists in Victorian England: The Education and Careers of Six Professionals. Online, I recommend Krzysztof Z. Cieszkowski's biographical essay of Thompson at The British Empire.

Given my constant bitching about the lack of women included in the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica, it should not surprise you that the current online edition does not include an entry on Elizabeth Thompson Butler, though older print editions of a supplemental dictionary of "arts, sciences, and general literature" contain at least a note (see the seven-line entry here, for example, from an 1893 edition).

*The Royal Academy, established in 1768, included two women artists among its "founders," Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807) and Mary Moser (1744-1819, though neither was a full member, eligible for holding an office or lectureship and for attending life classes. their deaths, women were discouraged from attending their school. In 1922, Annie Louisa Swynnerton was accepted as an associate member. The first woman to become a member of the Royal Academy was Laura Knight, elected in 1936.