Butler (Thompson), Elizabeth (1846–1933), Lady Butler , military painter, was born 3 November 1846 at the Villa Claremont, near Lausanne, Switzerland, the elder daughter of Thomas James Thompson and Christiana Thompson (née Weller). The Thompsons were cosmopolitan in outlook, and divided their time between England and continental Europe, most particularly Italy. Her father moved in artistic circles and was friendly with Ruskin and Dickens, while her mother was a talented amateur painter and musician. Elizabeth and her sister Alice (later Alice Meynell, the poet), were educated by their father, who noticed his daughter's artistic talents early on, and gave her full encouragement. She attended the South Kensington School of Art (1866–9), where she was a successful student, then went on to complete her studies under Giuseppe Bellucci in Florence. She subsequently painted in Rome.
Her early sketches show an enthusiasm for historical and military matters which intensified after 1872, when she watched British army manoeuvres. In 1873 she began her career as an exhibitor at the RA with a well-received painting entitled ‘Missing’; yet it was not until the following year that she established her name with ‘Calling the roll after an engagement in the Crimea’. Known as ‘The roll call’, it was phenomenally successful; crowds came to see the painting, which had to be protected by a policeman. It was eventually purchased by Queen Victoria from its original buyer and added to the royal collection; it remained one of the most popular RA exhibits of the nineteenth century. Among her later paintings are ‘Quatre bras’ (1875), described by Ruskin as the work of ‘an Amazon’, ‘The remnants of an army’ (1879), ‘Scotland for ever’ (1881), and ‘Tent pegging’ (1902). Her accuracy and knowledge of battle formations and uniforms were regularly commented on. In 1879, then at the height of her fame, she missed election to the RA by two votes.
A convert to catholicism in 1873, in June 1877 she married a catholic Irishman, Major William Francis Butler (qv), with whom she had six children, the eldest of whom died in infancy. Her enthusiasm for Ireland stemmed from her honeymoon, which was spent in the west of Ireland, notably Glencar, Co. Kerry. Her interest in Irish affairs is reflected in ‘Listed for the Connaught Rangers’ (RA, 1879), a sympathetic, vaguely political work, made from studies of the peasantry at Glencar, and the more overtly political ‘Evicted’ (RA, 1890; RHA, 1892). ‘Evicted’ was painted after she had witnessed an eviction in Co. Wicklow, where the Butlers spent many summers; the work probably reflects the influence of her husband, who was an enthusiastic Parnellite and champion of the peasantry. It remained unsold after its RA debut, and provoked from the prime minister, Lord Salisbury, the comment at the academy banquet: ‘there is such a breezy cheerfulness and beauty about the landscape . . . that it makes me long to take part in an eviction myself whether in an active or a passive sense’.
An exhibitor with the RHA (1892–1930), Elizabeth Butler was a committee member of the Watercolour Society of Ireland. In 1907 she became a trustee of the National Gallery of Ireland. She accompanied her husband on several of his campaigns in Africa, the Middle East, and Canada, which provided material for her Letters from the Holy Land (1903) and From sketchbook and diary (1909). She illustrated his The campaign of the cataracts (1887), and published her autobiography in 1922. After her husband's death in 1910, she stayed on in the family home in Bansha, Co. Tipperary, until it was requisitioned by republicans during the civil war. The last eleven years of her life were spent with her youngest daughter, Lady Gormanston, at Gormanston Castle, Co. Meath, where she died 2 October 1933. She was buried at Stamullen, Co. Meath.