Lady Butler was amongst the foremost battle painters of her time. Her earlier works on the Crimean War had already seen her win praise from the public, art critics and royalty. Butler always did her utmost to accurately render the details of her military subjects. Whenever possible she interviewed veterans and sourced genuine period equipment. This proved problematic when portraying the events of Waterloo, some 66 years earlier.
It is testimony to her diligence that only four small errors of uniform appear in her Waterloo work, as seen below: the addition of braided epaulettes on the lead officer, the inclusion of full-dress shabraques and regimental standard and the omission of the bearskins’ oil-skin covers. However, Butler’s choice to inaccurately portray the horses at the gallop suggest that what could be read as errors were probably deliberate artistic choices to enhance the drama of the piece. Butler’s research also involved observing the Scots Greys on manoeuvres at Aldershot in 1879, twice having the regiment charge towards her to fully understand the effect she sought to capture.
This research, dedication, and attention to detail, created the painting ‘Scotland for Ever!’ – capturing the moment just before the 2nd (Royal North British) Dragoons crashed into the column of the French 3rd Infantry Division. The combined charge of the 2,500 men of the Household and Union Brigades – the entirety of the British heavy cavalry – totally shattered the first French attack of the day. General D’Erlon’s 1st Corps had been pushing back General Picton’s 5th Allied Division, until the British cavalry crested the rise and thundered into the unsuspecting French. Eyewitnesses recorded that some of the 92nd (Gordon) Highlanders called out ‘Scotland for ever’ as the cavalry charged.
Although a great triumph in which two French Eagles were captured (one by Sergeant Ewart of the Greys), 15,000 infantry were dispersed and 3,000 prisoners taken, the charge did not end with the defeat of D’Erlon’s Corps and the supporting Cuirassiers. Most of the British heavy cavalry regiments were inexperienced, with the Greys not having seen active service in 25 years. Flushed by their initial success, the two brigades charged on to the French Grand Battery and overran the enemy artillery. Disorganised, and on tired horses, the British fell prey to counter-attacking French Lancers and Cuirassiers as they belatedly tried to return to the Allied lines. The Greys suffered particularly, unusually having more men killed than wounded, amongst them their four most senior officers. The two British brigades sustained almost 50% casualties, including their commander Major-General William Ponsonby who was killed by a lance thrust. Although on balance a success, the impetuosity of the charge, so well captured by Butler, led to unnecessary causalities and robbed the Allies of an effective heavy cavalry reserve for the rest of the battle.
Below are two images of a Pattern 1796 Heavy Cavalry sword belonging to the 2nd (Royal North British) Dragoons (Scots Greys), which Lady Butler therefore incorporated into her work above. To find out more about the sword and it’s development, please click here.
To see this iconic painting alongside other key artefacts of Waterloo, be sure to visit the Royal Armouries museum’s ‘The Art of Battle’ temporary exhibition in Leeds. To find out more about the museum’s full events programme of commemoration, please visit our website.