In Britain, the most remembered military legacy is the events surrounding the slaughter of British cavalry (the Light Brigade) on 25 October 1854. Through the bungled orders of their commanding officers, they rode directly into Russian guns at Balaclava.
This event was commemorated by the then poet laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson and the lesson was that soldiers must follow orders whatever the consequences. Butler, who met the poet early in her art career, was not a fan. Her second major Crimean painting, Balaclava (1876), depicts traumatised soldiers and horses shortly after their return from the Charge. Two of the models who had posed for the painting were survivors of the Charge.
Lady Butler’s other works
Twenty years after the Crimean War, Butler absorbed the lessons of this conflict. The Roll Call (1874), her first painting of the war, and the work which catapulted her to fame, shows the suffering of battle etched on the soldiers’ faces as they line up to be counted.
Inkerman was her third major painting of the conflict. Her painting, she concedes, was “too sad” for some viewers. She describes it as showing “the remnants of the Guards and the 20th Regiment and odds and ends of infantry returning in the grey of a November evening from the ‘Soldiers’ Battle,’ most of the men very weary”.
It became known as the ‘Soldiers’ Battle’ as the men fought with little direction from their commanders. Butler was particular in her choice of subject matter and engaged in extensive research. Her painting is a tribute to the ordinary soldier and the army celebrated her.
It is worth noting that Inkerman also showcases the effects of war, a generation before medicine came to any understanding of the psychological impact of conflict on its participants.
Inkerman represents soldiers in different physical and psychological states as they return from battle. A mounted officer, off centre, stares ahead. Men tend to their wounds, assist their battle-weary comrades, and the ground is littered with the debris of battle, as well as a corpse.
A French ambulance moves off with its wounded soldiers waving at their recent allies in battle and dejected Russian prisoners trudge wearily beside their captors. The men are individuals on whom the experience of recent battle is etched differently. Inkerman was a victory for allied forces against the odds, but Butler presents a sombre scene.
The Battle of Inkerman underlined the inadequacy of the British army and the realisation that they faced a long siege in the Crimea in the winter of 1854-55. There were over 2,500 casualties.
Inkerman influence on World War II internee
Butler was not a radical in her political thinking and drew a careful political line between showcasing the impact of war without condemning its perpetrators. This has often led to her vision being misunderstood. However, her influence extended beyond her life.
The novelist Beryl Bainbridge, in a 1993 tribute to Butler’s work, notes how when she was a child her uncle, an internee in a World War II Japanese POW camp, had sent her a postcard of Inkerman. The painting had clearly struck a chord with him. It caused Bainbridge to turn her attention to Butler’s paintings, which she describes as full of movement with none of the “static quality of a photograph”.
If you are passing the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull’s city centre, consider dropping in to contemplate a painting and the work of an artist who has much to say about the human cost and consequences of war from the vantage point of history.
Dr Catherine Wynne, who is a Reader in Victorian and Early Twentieth-Century Literature and Visual Culture in the Faculty of Arts, Cultures and Education at the University of Hull, is author of the first biography of Lady Butler – Lady Butler: War Artist and Traveller, 1846-1933 (Dublin Four Courts Press, 2019).