Know them, Daughters of Men – Guest post by Adrien

By skepticlawyer

[SL: This is the third of Adrien’s occasional posts on matters artistic; his first — on Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi — is available here, with some background, while the second, on Franco-Swiss neo-classical painter Angelica Kauffmann is here. I should also point out that Adrien has been moving bloggy house again (please stop it!), and that his new home is here.

Oh yes: why should you read his stuff? Because Adrien has forgotten more about art than the rest of us will ever know. Which is a useful skill, to be fair. Enjoy. And don’t say we bore you to tears with more law and more politics and more policy wonkery…]

Like to him now are they,
The million living fathers of the War –
Mourning the crippled world, the bitter day –
Whose striplings are no more.

The crippled world! Come then,
Fathers of women with your honour in trust;
Approve, accept, know them daughters of men,
Now that your sons are dust.

A Father Of Women
Alice Meynell, 1917

Adrien’s piece (on controversial 19th century military painter Elizabeth Thompson) is over the fold.

——————————–

Omnia mutantur nihil interit. Everything changes but nothing is lost. There’s a cliche about things at once changing and staying the same. I won’t repeat it but it comes to mind when considering the Culture Wars of the 19th century.

In the (late) 60s and 70s of that century the times were, as with the analogous period of the 20th, changing. It was an era marked by the election of Britain’s first Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone and the rise of a generation brimming with new ideas. New ideas were the theme of the 19th century, we still wage their wars today. The soundtrack was not of course the Stones, the Beatles and Dylan but Bizet’s Carmen (then scandalous); Wagner, Tchaikovsky.

The generation that came of age in the 1860s had been born during or just after the savage slump of the 1830s and early 40s. From thence stems our Dickensian images of poorhouse cruelty. The Crimean War’s tragic folly followed. In England, from 1861 or so, there was quiet rebellion. One of its manifestations became apparent at an exhibit of the British Royal Academy in the year 1874.

The Academy was a little over a century old and fine art had become, thanks in part to its open-to-the-public exhibitions, a popular entertainment. So much so that artists aspired to a sort of blockbuster status. They wanted their paintings to be so popular as to require a railing to protect them from enthusiastic crowds. By the RA’s one-hundredth birthday only two paintings had achieved this distinction. In 1874 a third would warrant not only a railing but a police guard to boot.

This was Calling The Roll After Engagement: Crimea, a somber composition depicting the melancholy counting of those still living after a battle in a war that, by the 1870s, most agreed, had been directed by incompetents. Stylistically the work was orthodox, complying with Academy doctrine. But its subject matter dismissed the institution’s requirement that war paintings should focus on a single heroic individual of high rank. That, moreover, historical fact should give way to artistic license in evocation of patriotic noble ideals. In other words the Academy required propaganda for the British Empire and the aristocracy that dominated it.

This was not the simplistic, transparent propaganda of the early 20th century, nor the slick, neuroscience manipulation so far apparent in the 21st. It was grounded in centuries of tradition and belief, rooted in the 19th century’s acute awareness of history untroubled by the doubts that crept through the ‘collective unconscious’ of Europeans until the First World War came along and shattered it.

“The Roll Call” transcended propaganda. It wasn’t critical of Empire but it didn’t evoke some sublime sacrificial ideal either. It was an accounting of the cost, literally and symbolically. The painter was a 27 year-old woman, her name: Elizabeth Thompson. When exhibited, the work caused an ongoing miniature riot before it and did indeed have a police guard. Sometimes it moved people to tears. In 1874, the tragedy of the Crimean War was fresh in many a mind. “The Roll Call” contemplated the grim actual costs of war by those who paid the bill: the rank and file.

The time was right for such work. There was general agreement amongst British progressives that the aristocrats who ran the British army in Crimea were, as we Australians say, a pack of ratbags. People in general agreed, mostly. And amongst Gladstone’s reforms was the abolition of the purchased commissions that allowed such as the Earl of Cardigan to gain command on the basis of nothing but a surfeit of coin, connections and hot air, then proceed to plow the Empire’s finest finest cavalry unit into the ground by sending it straight into the maw of enemy artillery.

The painter had interviewed veterans of the war, studied the battles, uniforms, ranks and protocols then extant in the British service. “The Roll Call” was painstaking Social Realism, a genre then coming to dominate the London Art Scene. And it expressed a generation’s opposition to the notion that war was glorious, that its costs always warranted or causes inevitably justified.

Perhaps like Vietnam for Americans, the war in the Crimea laid bare the follies of a war of plunder that went against the high principle on which the British Empire rested (the freedom to trade). “The Roll Call” implied by its sole peripheral and mounted officer the inexperience and pompous arrogance of that class as a whole, pumped up with the hubris of victories past, assuming the status of Wellington’s men without the attendant accomplishments. The work caused a right rumpus, a critical and commercial success. It made its creator a star, literally. Elizabeth Thompson was one of the world’s first examples of modern, popular, photographic fame. A year later she outdid herself: another depiction of military history, another rumpus at the Royal Academy. Another blockbuster. Her subject was the Napoleonic Wars.

I’m afraid no reproduction does it justice; you can study it better on Wikipedia.

The 28th regiment At Quatre Bras depicts with rigorous accuracy an infantry regiment repelling the cavalries of France and Napoleon on the long Friday afternoon at Quatre Bras near Waterloo. The battle was vital. It allowed Prussian and British forces to combine and finally defeat Napoleon two days later at Waterloo. At this time Napoleon was slightly ahead of the game. If the British lost here, Napoleon would win. Finally, at this crossroads, the chess match between Wellington and Bonaparte ceased to matter. It was down to who fought better. In this work the British win because they are better. Better (enlisted) men then the (officer class) enemy. In “Quatre Bras”, Miss Thompson persists with her quiet subversion.

If the Crimea was Britain’s Vietnam then the Napoleonic Wars were what World War Two would later become for Americans: the good war. A rare and clear example of the finest use of military might: the defeat of a tyrant who would rule the world killing millions in the process. A good war in which your country, its generals and military played the central heroic role. When ‘we’ defeated Evil. But “Quatre Bras” was both subversive and patriotic at the same time. Unlike “The Roll Call”, here the British officer is rendered with admiration.

From our view the square forms a pyramid; at its apex, the Commanding Officer. He does not act but sits quietly on his horse. Steady. He looks at us with quite confidence. Standing in front of him a young, hatless junior officer, a captain perhaps, gives instruction to the Sergeant Major, pointing with his sword. Directly below them is a well-experienced private soldier with a chin you could break rocks on. Notice his red hair. The CO, the Sergeant-Major; an Irish looking lad who’s doing a (well-disciplined) berserk. Another similar laughing in mockery of the everywhere falling foreign horsemen – there’s a lot of redheads in this picture. It seems Miss Thompson fancied Celtic men. Not so long after “Quatre Bras” proved her second blockbuster she married one.

Major William Butler was one of the new breed who would come to greatly benefit under Gladstone’s reforms. “The champion of lost causes and a seeker of impossible goals” he was called. An Irish Catholic, he held views that today would have him branded perhaps ‘lefty’. Sternly critical of the Empire’s more venal aspects he wrote of the “misfortune of the first magnitude in the lives of soldiers today that the majority of our recent wars have their origins in purely financial interests or sordid Stock Exchange ambitions”. An admirer of Parnell, Butler remembered the Irish famine. And throughout his career, Butler was increasingly critical of the way in which the Empire treated its subject peoples.

Eventually his big mouth got him shelved with the rank of Major General. But before then he’d fought in the Zulu wars, commanded provinces in Egypt and South Africa. He lived in an age where one was entitled to be an individual (if you were a man of certain rank, anyway). I have trouble imagining anyone with analogous opinions making it to high command these days. Despite his unorthodox views he was regarded, always, as a fine and loyal soldier. In 1886 he was awarded the Order of the Bath.

This made Elizabeth Butler nee Thompson, the artist critical of entrenched privilege, into Lady Butler the minor aristocrat. By this time her career had gone into a sharp decline and would remain in shadow for the rest of her life. The high point of her career had come in 1879 when she, after a string of ‘hits’ (all military subjects), narrowly missed being the only woman elected to Royal Academy during the century. After that the ’70s vogue for social realism gave way to chauvinistic patriotism. Elizabeth had forged a vogue for military art which created younger competition. Competition that gave the people what they wanted from a war picture: Rambo for Victorian England.

A military officer’s wife, she moved about well away from the art world’s centres in Paris and London. As a child she had lived in Italy and converted to the Church of Rome there; her husband was from Tipperary, so, inevitably, their family was a large one. Unsurprisingly her productivity declined and after the high success of the 70s she found it difficult to sell the stuff.

Still she continued to work well into her 70s, our 1920s, by which time the heroic charm of Wellington’s troops and the tragedy of the Crimea, the victories and defeats of the African wars had all been obliterated by the Great War’s calamity. A culture’s faith in itself had been shattered. And the Academy’s doctrines, those who cared agreed, were a lie. Lady Butler understood this. Her memoir written in the middle of that war, a war in which her son was seriously wounded, acknowledges this at the outset. She tells us first that she writes her story because friends insist. But it is unimportant, she feels. Her world had gone…

Let’s cut back to those days of change 1868-1880. Almost contemporary with Gladstone’s election came this polemical tract:

When, however, we ask why one-half the species should be merely ancillary to that of the other – why each woman should be a mere appendage to a man, allowed to have no interests of her own, that there be nothing to compete in her mind with his interests and his pleasure; the only reason that can be given is, that men like it.

JS Mill
The Subjection of Women, 1869

A contemporary of Mill’s, another Englishman of independent means, having earlier failed to enter Parliament chose instead to devote himself to the education of his children. There was a surfeit of faith in progress through education at the time. He had two children, both daughters. One was Elizabeth Thompson. The (younger) other grew up to become the poet Alice Meynell. In her memoir Elizabeth tells us first that she was born at “Villa Claremont, just outside Lausanne and overlooking Lac Leman”.

A rarefied upbringing had these Thompson sisters. Elizabeth recalls only small hours of formal lessons whilst oscillating between the Liguarian Riviera and their estates in Kent and Surrey, trips to Florence. The story of the Thompson girls’ education reads strange; a little bit Tory, a little bit hippie. Play and learning were indistinguishable. They spend their afternoons roaming wild in the cultivated forests of Kent, ever present parents feeding their minds. Privileged children indeed. Material resources were only the half of it. What mattered more perhaps was the openness of mind. A mother, a father who did not impose the restrictions on the aspirations of girl-children standard in the 19th century.

As a teenager Elizabeth kept a diary (of course). The style of these adolescent musings reads a little like a certain cliche’d ‘well-bred young English lady’, which figures. “Oh joy!” she writes in her diary when her Kensington masters admit her to the life drawing class. The rest is too soppy to quote. Still she writes elsewhere of a failure, determined that it doesn’t matter because she will make her ‘mark on the world yet’. Her ego, as Dr Greer would say, had not been damaged.

Somewhere else she writes of an evening spent performing music in the salon of a European spa, she recalls:

A big Saxon cavalry officer who was doing the cure for a kick from a horse and, being in mufti, had put off his “jack-boot” manners, was full of enthusiasm about our voices. He expressed himself in graceful pantomime and after each of my songs by pointing to his ear and running his finger down to his heart, for he spoke neither English nor French…

Reminds me of some Lermontovian scenario but without the implicit danger. We, who, with our ubiquitous information that makes innocence impossible, may entertain an illusion momentarily contemplating the gentle sexuality of the scene. One girl’s dream in the 19th century- a soldier who could behave like a poet when called upon.

Considering this, considering the anti-colonialist stance of the Butlers later on, one would think Elizabeth would have been an ardent supporter of the movement to gain women the franchise that swelled as the century closed. But no! In this, she was conservative. And, as Alice Meynell was prominent in the movement, there was sisterly disagreement. Lady Butler’s correspondence pleads with her sister that ‘if she must’ to at least not associate herself with more radical part of the movement.

Why? In 1953 the memoirs of Eileen Preston, Lady Gormanston – the Butlers’ youngest daughter – recalls her father, surprised that ‘one, who in public life, invariably championed the underdog should, have been in his own home a complete autocrat’. Butler seemed to truly believe that all men were created equal. But women? The memoirs of Elizabeth Thompson are increasingly stuffed with concerns for William, his career, his disposition. His never mention her at all.

Despite her accomplishments, her talent, her confidence, Elizabeth submitted to the command of her husband as the traditional mode of life had long required. In the early days of their marriage it was she who was the household’s bigger earner and brightest star but she sidelined her career for his. Her quiet criticism of the entrenched privilege of aristocrats brought her into their company. Her career had made her a pioneer for a movement she would come to disapprove of. She married a man who was both a critic of, and a warrior for, Empire, outspoken on the rights of all men yet the very model of a strict Victorian patriarch. The conflicts we know as culture wars, and their contradictions, existed then as now. Quite different, certainly. Much more polite for example. But still there is, in these lives perhaps, something we recognize in ourselves.

What use, if any, we’ll make of these experiences I won’t speculate. We who profit on their struggles and accomplishments may find Elizabeth’s life nostalgic, archaic or both. In the 19th century, in the 20th, so far in our own: the Culture Wars are fought along the same jagged and intersecting kaleidoscope of lines, interests and questions. The frontlines have shifted but the armies remain at war.

7 Comments

  1. Posted August 15, 2011 at 6:01 am | Permalink

    What a great story, all beautifully contextualised. Well done, that chap :).

  2. Posted August 15, 2011 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    Thanks kindly.

    I’m not sure I succeeded, there’s a lot left out. Thanks for the plug for the new website.

    It’s intended to be ‘something political’ that starts from the premise of freedom of thought. I intend to have it taken over by others. It’ll all be slow in coming. It’s meant to be.

    Two things about the Culture Wars of the 19th century: #1 They involve the same basic types of people interacting. The worldviews are different relative to the difference in historical vantage but they are the same relative to the conventional views of authority and traditional values as perceived by Victorian England. But no-one appears to presume to know it all (save for arch-conservatives and a scruffy German guy in one of the London libraries) and #2 Everyone is very polite and respectful of each other’s right to a view (as long as you’re upper-middle class or above).

    Strange, considering they had a lot more to fight about.

    Elizabeth Thomson was quite embarrassed by her sister’s suffragette activism. Even hostile, she had an open invitation to several European courts in the decades leading up to WWI. Yet their letters are always cordial.

  3. Posted August 15, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    There were a reasonably large number of educated women opposed to suffrage, but interestingly none of them opposed property rights for women – that opposition did come from men. In the US, the reaction was a bit different: most people thought woman suffrage was inevitable, but a lot of men and some women were very worried that the majority of women would ‘vote their interests’ and, due to lack of political experience, bugger the country. This was code for ‘the suffragettes all support Prohibition’, which at that time, they did.

    So the fear wasn’t entirely groundless.

  4. Davo
    Posted August 15, 2011 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

    Mm, there are times when I wish I were more coherent, and could write a poem ..

    Know them
    the millions of children
    fathers killed
    in war.

  5. Posted August 15, 2011 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    Nice one Adrien. Thirding L and LE @ 1 and 2.

    In the more general theme of the series, recently been having discussions with my daughter on her photography and music (starting to get into the music game in a two pronged way) and finding that while I’m no fan of modern music, and there are different visual tastes, my comments and suggestions are being met with “oh, yeah, was thinking something similar” or “I’ll try that” … I wonder what dynamics in more significant people were going on and what we can learn from those dynamics with anti-sterotype roles and attitudes you describe?

    (btw for non-regular visitors, single dad here raised one girl and now grandson too)

    Any thoughts Adrien about common threads in the family dynamics you know of, not just in these examples, but the others you haven’t yet mentioned?

    Oh yeah [email protected] and gleeful pinata-smashing redhead … priceless photo for those who can see it (on fb) but missed it.

  6. Posted August 16, 2011 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    Any thoughts Adrien about common threads in the family dynamics you know of, not just in these examples, but the others you haven’t yet mentioned?

    I have two. Both from musicians. One negative the other positive:

    The negative had to do with a kid I met playing piano. He’s a fan of modern composers especially French ones like Satie. And he was playing his pieces. We started talking and then I met his parents who were without doubt the most narrow, hostile, inbred freaks I’ve run into since I moved out of Qld. Embarrassing.

    He was interested in pop music and when I mentioned ABBA his eyes glazed over. ABBA had been completely ruined for him by his mother pushing it on him.

    #2 Is a songwriter from Texas. Along with her sisters she had a tattoo done that was the same as their mother. I thought this quite beautiful and very funny considering it happened over their mother’s howling protests.

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