Remembering James Butler, R.A., MBE, 25 July 1931–26 March 2022
By Commissioner Monique Seefried, Ph.D.
United States World War One Centennial Commission
James Butler, who died last month at the age of 90, was a famous British figurative sculptor and the longest serving member of the Royal Academy. His notable works include not only large-scale bronze statues of famous historical figures like Queen Elizabeth or former Kenyan president Jomo Kenyatta, but also several memorials commemorating WWI and WWII in England, France and the United States. James Butler is also recognized for his smaller bronzes depicting dancers and nudes.
The War to End All Wars? Hardly. But It Did Change Them Forever. - The New York Times (nytimes.com) and 2018 Trump’s Nationalism, Rebuked at World War I Ceremony, Is Reshaping Much of Europe - The New York Times (nytimes.com).For many Americans, his name will remain associated with the centennial of WWI thanks partly to articles in the NYT in 2014
I had the great fortune to meet Jim through his wife Angie and introduced him to Nimrod (Rod) Frazer who would inspire Jim to create two WWI memorials: the Rainbow Soldier (2011) and the Return from the Argonne (2019). Rod Frazer, a native Alabamian and Silver Star veteran of the Korean war, wished to honor his father who had been wounded in WWI at the battle of Croix Rouge Farm and awarded a Purple Heart. To do so, the land surrounding the remains of the Croix Rouge Farm was acquired in 2005, a foundation established and the search for an artist started. By 2007, it was clear that Jim Butler was the perfect artist for the project.
During our first of many memorable encounters, Jim took Rod Frazer and me to Valley Farm, the wonderful farmhouse where he had lived and worked since the 1980’s and where he and his wife Angie had raised their girls. On the drive through the English countryside, he explained how the land around us had been marked by many battles. We learned how Jim’s keen interest in military history had been shaped by two years of service in the Royal Signals, which had then led to the 1996 art commission for the WWII memorial to the Green Howards in Crépon (Normandy). Rod and Jim forged an instant kinship over the artist Charles Sergeant Jagger, both greatly admiring Jagger’s memorial to the Royal Artillery. It was immediately clear that these two men were made to understand one another. I will never forget the moment when we entered Jim’s studio and, hanging on the wall, was a drawing of a man carrying a dead body (Fig. 2). Later, when Jim asked Rod what he envisioned for the Croix Rouge Farm project, Rod turned the question around and instead asked Jim about what he had always wished to do. Jim went to the wall and pulled down the drawing we had seen upon entering his studio. The two men stood, holding the drawing between them. I felt that the die was cast. Rod told him: “You are the artist, you are the genius, you will know what you want us to do.”
In a 2017 panel discussion (Fig. 6), Jim described his work on the Rainbow Soldier: “It was the chance to make a large statue of one of the most heroic deeds one can think of, the rescue of a soldier from the battlefield. I am not personally a religious person but this whole project had a very powerful spiritual effect on me. There were periods in the modeling of the figure when the form was being made by a stronger and more powerful creative force than my own. I almost watched my hands model part of the figure of the soldier. It may sound rather fanciful at this moment but at the time, when I was alone in my studio, I did feel that my hands were somehow guided. This remains for me my most powerful and spiritual work.”
Since 2011, the Croix Rouge Farm Memorial Foundation, thanks to the generosity of Nimrod Frazer, was able to install three more WWI memorials from James Butler, this time in Montgomery, Alabama.
The first one, the Daedalus (Fig. 7), was dedicated on April 6, 2017, at Maxwell Air Force Base, in front of the Daedalian Room, where the Order of the Daedalians was founded in 1934 by veteran pilots of WWI. This powerful winged statue honors the US pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille, Flying Corps, and U.S. air service in WWI. It is a second casting of the Memorial to the Fleet Air Arm, which stands in Victoria Embankment Gardens, London (2000).
The second is another casting of the Rainbow Soldier (Fig. 8), dedicated on August 28, 2017, in front of Union Station, where the soldiers of the 167th Alabama had departed for combat in France on that day, 100 years earlier.
The third one, the Return from the Argonne, was dedicated on November 11, 2021, and honors the sacrifice made by Alabamians in the Meuse Argonne campaign of 1918, the biggest U.S. offensive ever, bigger than Normandy in World War II. This powerful image of a dead soldier being returned from the battlefield on a stretcher is one that will keep haunting the visitor who sees it in front of Union Station in Montgomery, as a pendant to the Rainbow Soldier (Fig. 9). The body is covered by a torn shelter half with a small Rainbow patch in a corner. Part of the dead soldier’s face can be seen; an arm and his feet are also uncovered.
James Butler and his wife attended the 2021 inauguration of the Return from the Argonne. It was my privilege and honor to decorate him with the medal of Knight in the French Order of Arts and Letters on behalf of the French Minister of Culture, recognizing his work to commemorate American and British soldiers who fought in France during WWI and WWII (Fig. 10).
To conclude, I feel compelled in saying goodbye to my dear friend James Butler to add that he chose as a final resting place, the Sun Rising Natural Burial Ground and Nature Reserve, near his home in Warwickshire. I cannot help to think about his earthly body resting in the ground, in a simple shirt, and the bodies of so many American soldiers he immortalized with the Return of the Argonne statue ((Fig. 11 & 12) that are still now resting in the forests of the Argonne, among the trees, the fields of poppies and wildflowers, and who were never recovered after the war. Their names are inscribed on the Wall of the Missing at the Meuse Argonne American Battle Monuments cemetery. James Butler has honored them and joined them for eternity. Thank you, Jim, for your friendship, for your art which lifts the soul and for your service of remembrance. You will never be forgotten.
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