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Behind the art: How a painting by Elizabeth Thompson honoured the heroes of Rorke’s Drift and became a timeless symbol of courage | Art-and-culture News

In the wake of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, a surge of patriotic fervour swept across the United Kingdom. Surviving participants, particularly the officers, returned home in October 1879 to a hero’s welcome and their first stop was Windsor Castle, where they had the honour of meeting Queen Victoria herself. But their journey didn’t end there. The officers continued to Portsmouth, the home of their regiment, where they met with the talented artist Elizabeth Thompson also known as Ladu Butler. They shared their firsthand accounts of the battle with her, allowing her to immerse herself in the vivid memories of that fateful night. With the precision of an artist and the heart of a storyteller, Thompson set out to recreate the event on her canvas.

The masterpiece ‘The Defence of Rorke’s Drift’ became a symbol of valour and camaraderie in 1880 and the painting gave much-deserved fame to the men who waged the war. They were even immortalised in the 1964 film “Zulu”. But before they became cinematic heroes, they were celebrated as real-life champions in the United Kingdom thanks to Thompson’s artwork. How did the artist manage to capture the public interest so much and why is the painting so relevant today?

The Battle of Rorke’s Drift and its Significance

The Battle of Rorke’s Drift, often referred to as the Defence of Rorke’s Drift, has a very important stance in the Anglo-Zulu War. It took place in South Africa in 1879 and it is interesting to note that the Rorke’s Drift was originally a mission station, once owned by James Rorke, an Irish trader. During the battle, 141 British soldiers defended the station, which included a converted field hospital, against an attack by approximately 4,000 Zulu warriors commanded by Prince Dabulamanzi, the half-brother of Prince Cetshwayo. Lieutenant John Chard of the Royal Engineers led the defence. Their remarkable heroism earned 11 Victoria Crosses in recognition. According to several historians, The Battle of Rorke’s Drift stands as a testament to the invincible spirit of those who defended the outpost against overwhelming odds, etching their names in history as true heroes.

How the battle and painting captured the public imagination

Elizabeth Thompson specialised in military subjects and drew inspiration from French military painters, particularly Detaille. In 1874, her painting “The Roll Call,” depicting a battalion of wounded and exhausted Grenadier Guards during the Crimean War, gained immense popularity when exhibited at the Royal Academy, catapulting her to national celebrity status. Queen Victoria, impressed by the artwork, acquired it and subsequently commissioned Lady Butler to create the painting related to the Battle of Rorke’s Drift.

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For this particular artwork, Thompson had a unique advantage—an intimate portrayal by the very men who had lived through the turmoil. The officers even donned the uniforms they had worn on that dreadful night and staged a reenactment of the battle, breathing life into the scene for Thompson. The result was a painting that seemed to pulsate with the spirit of bravery and unity. In her work, Lady Butler managed to capture not just the battle itself but the faces of all the Victoria Cross recipients and other notable figures who played pivotal roles in the drama. The artist aimed to reproduce the event as faithfully as possible, capturing all the Victoria Cross recipients and other prominent figures in the drama. In her painting, Zulu soldiers attack the northwest corner of the station, with the hospital roof ablaze in the background.

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In the centre of the composition stands Lieutenant Chard, gesturing with his left arm, while Lieutenant Bromhead, sword in hand, is beside him. Queen Victoria, upon viewing the painting, remarked that “All, officers & men, are portraits, & everything is painted from descriptions, & just as it was, down to the very smallest detail.” The artwork was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1881.

Completed in 1880, this remarkable piece of art now resides in the hallowed halls of the Royal Collection, a testament to the indestructible human spirit and the power of history to live on through the strokes of a painter’s brush. However, it is important to acknowledge that this work is intertwined with the themes of colonialism and imperialism and could have historical inaccuracies. Despite doubts about accuracy, it is still considered an important piece of British history.

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