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A spotlight on outstanding women artists and their works in the Royal Collection

Elizabeth Southerden Butler, Lady Butler (1846-1933)

The Roll Call Signed and dated 1874

RCIN 405915

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Elizabeth Butler (née Thompson) first took lessons in painting as a teenager and subsequently enrolled at the Female School of Art in South Kensington. She admired the French military painters Jean-Louis Meissonier and Edouard Détaille, and after seeing an army manoeuvre at Southampton, turned to military subjects (which was unusual at the time, for a female artist). Despite the enormous success of The Roll Call when it was shown at the Royal Academy in 1874, and exhibiting there regularly, Butler was not elected to the Academy.

The subject of The Roll Call – which depicts a war-torn battalion who are cold, exhausted and wounded, gathering to answer a roll call held by their sergeant – was a different type of war art. Rather than a celebration of military heroes it was a depiction of the humanity, suffering and camaraderie of the ordinary soldier and this is perhaps what captured the public’s imagination when it was shown at the Royal Academy in the nineteenth century; it was so popular that it required a policeman to control attending crowds, and subsequently toured the country in triumph. Commissioned by the Manchester industrialist Charles Galloway, it was later ceded to Queen Victoria, who was keen to acquire it.