Mildred Ann Butler, a prolific watercolour artist, was born in 1858 and spent most of her life in her family home Kilmurry House, Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny. Its beautiful gardens, wildlife and surrounding countryside of meadows and lakes were the subjects of her paintings. She lived a life of privilege and leisure. As a child she was taught art by her father Major Henry Butler who was a keen amateur artist. She left Ireland during the 1880s, whilst in her 20s, to study abroad alongside Sir John Lavery and Walter Osbourne and she is associated with the Newlyn School of Art.
Her work is ground-breaking in many ways. She painted scenes of the countryside and animals outside, in their natural environment (en plein air). This was made possible by the introduction and availability of ready-made paints in tubes which could be easily transported. Therefore, releasing the artist from the indoor studio and poor lighting.
Mildred was a professional artist, she was paid for her work and achieved distinction in her lifetime. She exhibited in Ireland and abroad, had royal patrons and became a member of the Royal Academy in 1893. Her depiction of domestic scenes provides an interesting historical record for researchers in both science and social science.
Mildred painted from “unusual viewpoints, from rooftops, down slopes … [with] broad washes, strong colour and understanding of sunlight and shadows” (Crookshank, p. 26). Her renderings lead the viewer toward a space that remains in shadow, unexplored. Her study of pigeons flocking to a spilled bag of meal titled ‘A Preliminary Investigation’ where the birds are concerned with the internal extremities of the bag that is hidden and dark, rather than an interest in the meal itself. Another picture titled ‘The Lilac Phlox’ is a most tranquil painting of the garden in Kilmurry. The viewer’s eye is led past the lilac phlox border, up the path towards an open iron gate where we see a well-lit path and border beyond, deep into the garden, where we cannot go. This idea of drawing the viewer into the picture by making them curious about what can’t be seen but want too and begin to imagine and speculate.
In a picture called ‘Ancient Rubbish’ we see a rare interior scene in her beloved Kilmurry. It depicts a comfortable inviting informal room with late 19th century furnishings, brightly coloured with detailed objects. To the left, a table cluttered with items, a large tureen, a bowl of anemones, a candlestick. On the floor in front of the table, a waste paper basket neatly filled with papers, not crumpled, not legible, discarded, surely not rubbish. Centrally placed in the picture is a doorway framed by heavy curtains, pulled back to reveal another large room and beyond that, a third room with a mirror too far away for us to look at the reflection. The eye yet again is led through the passageway towards the third room and what secrets it may behold. The viewer becomes fixated (like the pigeons) with what else there might be. We are unable to read what lies beyond, we want to jump in like Alice in Wonderland going down the rabbit hole, the Darling children flying through their bedroom window and the Pevensies finding Narnia through the back of the wardrobe. Is Butler testing our curiosity and imagination to decode its secrets?
Mildred Ann Butlers work appears entirely apolitical. One wonders if she could be unaware of the Land War, the Plan of Campaign, four years of crop failures from 1878 to 1881, the drought of 1887, the 1916 Rising, the Anglo-Irish War, The Civil War? Where are the burning hayricks and the maimed cattle, the atrocities and the reprisals in her work?
But perhaps it is there. She draws us into her paintings and directs us to what she has not painted. In ‘Ancient Rubbish’ she takes us from the beauty towards that which we don’t see, the unhappy, the pretence, the struggle and the lack of privilege. Could it be that ‘the rubbish’ refers to a decaying estate and a way of life that is disappearing under the tragedy of Colonisation of a land, a people and a culture. If so, Butler has been clever in her artistic expression and tantalising title. “The very lack of real rubbish … goads the viewer to look behind the walls of this house, to discover what debris of life is hidden by its gracious and comforting forms” (Morrison, p34). A scene whether painting, performance or photography is not just a selection of images but a social relation between people using images.
Mildred Ann Butler died aged 83 in 1941 and is buried in the family plot in St. Marys Graveyard, Market Street, Thomastown.
- Bence-Jones, Mark. Burke’s Guide to Country Houses, Volume1: Ireland. London: Burkes Peerage Ltd 1975.
- Crookshank, Anne. Mildred Ann Butler. Dublin: The National Gallery of Ireland. 1992
- Morrison, Kristen. In ‘Visualising Ireland. National Identity and the Pictorial Tradition’ edited by Adele M. Faber and Faber: Winchester MA. 1975