The 28th Regiment at Quatre Bras by Elizabeth Thompson (Lady Butler), 1846-1933. 1875. Oil on canvas. 97.2 x 216.2 cm. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. [detail]
According to Angus Trumble, the painter "achieved huge public success at the Royal Academy in May 1875 with her great military action painting, The 28th Regiment at Quatre Bras," which she based upon Captain William Siborne's History of the War in France and Belgium in 1815. Two days before Waterloo "the 28th (North Gloucestershire) Regiment, popularly known as the Glorious Glosters. . . successfully resisted wave upon wave of French cavalry at a position they defended on the Charleroi road, at a place called Quatre Bras. Thompson chose the moment at about 5 o'clock in the afternoon when the gallant 28th braced itself for one massive, final charge of terrifying Polish Lancers and cuirassier veterans led by Marshal Ney."
Thompson's preparations for the picture were extraordinarily thorough. The 28th Regiment was known to have formed their square in a field of rye that was especially tall for June. so in July 1874 she went with her mother to Henley-on-Thames, bought part of a field of rye, gathered together some local children (whom she described as "Pre- Raphaelite brethren") and had them trample it down so she could make accurate drawings of the aftermath, eventually using them in the foreground of the painting. She visited Sanger's Circus and arranged with the grooms to have some horses rear so she could study and draw them properly. She recruited policemen to sit for her because unlike most Victorian men they were clean-shaven. She had a Waterloo- era uniform run up at the army clothing factory in Pimlico. The design was probably taken from Colonel Charles Hamilton Smith's authoritative Costume of the Army of the British Empire According to the Last Regulation (1812-15)" (p. 190).
I never approached a picture with more iniquitous prejudice against it, than I did Miss Thompson's; partly because I have always said that no woman could paint; and secondly because 1 thought what the public made such a fuss about, must be good for nothing. But 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 genuflection, on the trampled corn, before this Pallas of Pall Mall. [Works, 14.306, 308]
Trumble, Angus. Love and Death in the Age of Queen Victoria. Adelaide: Art Gallery of South Australia. 2002.
Last modified 26 October 2004