My Week

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Joe Gibbs

Joe Gibbs tries to save the Monarch

Next week: Ysenda Max­tone Gra­ham

ONE bone-cold evening last week, my wife and I pas-de-basqued through the wel­com­ing por­tals of the Cale­do­nian Club in SW1. A piper was giv­ing it laldy on the steps, sum­mon­ing home­sick Scots from murky Bel­gravia streets to the con­so­la­tions of a bar jostling with bot­tles of the am­ber nec­tar.

Twenty-five years ago, my wife’s grand­mother had to cease her pa­tron­age of the Cale­do­nian. When­ever she set­tled, with a grate­ful sigh, into a draw­ing-room sofa for a quiet cock­tail, some crasher popped out from be­hind the wings of an arm­chair and lec­tured her on ab­struse ge­nealog­i­cal mat­ters or al­ter­na­tive uses for stag’s gral­loch. It all be­came too much.

How­ever, times have changed, amaz­ingly for a Lon­don club, and the denizens we en­coun­tered seemed charm­ing and lively, with the ex­cep­tion of the antlered ones hang­ing on the walls, which the moths have given rather a hard time. Paint­ing them with paraf­fin used to be the an­swer, but in­sur­ers might have a word to say about that.

We had been bid­den to the Cale­do­nian to rally be­hind the lat­est Scots monarch threat­ened with ex­ile: not a Stu­art, but the re­splen­dent, very un-moth-eaten Monarch of the Glen painted in 1851 by Land­seer. This stag­gie Mr Uni­verse has had a check­ered his­tory since his cre­ation.

Orig­i­nally com­mis­sioned as one of a set of three for the House of Lords re­fresh­ment rooms, their lord­ships found them­selves tem­po­rar­ily ‘bo­racic lint’ and the paint­ing was sold off pri­vately; it went through a suc­ces­sion of own­ers un­til it reached the Pears Soap Com­pany in 1916. After suf­fer­ing the in­dig­ni­ties of ped­dling cough mix­ture, but­ter and in­sur­ance, it was ac­quired by dis­tiller John De­war & Sons, for which it be­came a proud trade­mark, and thence by de­scent to the multi-na­tional drinks com­pany Di­a­geo.

Di­a­geo had loaned the paint­ing for 17 years to the Na­tional Gal­leries of Scot­land, which has mounted the cur­rent cam­paign to keep the Monarch en­throned in Ed­in­burgh.

Mak­ing its fourth ap­pear­ance at Christie’s, the paint­ing was to have been sold in De­cem­ber for a record es­ti­mate for the artist of £8 mil­lion. How­ever, Di­a­geo agreed to give the mu­seum four months to raise a—gen­er­ously re­duced—sum of £4 mil­lion to se­cure the work a per­ma­nent home. To date, £3.25 mil­lion of this has been pledged, but the March dead­line is near­ing.

En­ter, chased by a very large stag, Dou­glas Rae, Scot-in­ex­ile, pro­pri­etor of Ecosse Films. It was Dou­glas who made the highly suc­cess­ful BBC se­ries Monarch of the Glen, loosely de­rived from the Comp­ton Macken­zie novel, whose Sun­day evening feel­good fac­tor we basked in for seven sea­sons. And it was Dou­glas’s ini­tia­tive that pulled us to­gether last week. Speak­ing after din­ner, Ju­lian Fel­lowes, who ap­peared in Monarch as Kil­willie, in a fa­mous dou­ble act with Richard Bri­ers as Hec­tor Mac­don­ald, re­counted the sur­real ex­pe­ri­ence of join­ing the se­ries as an im­pe­cu­nious ac­tor and leav­ing it as the Os­car­win­ning screen­writer of the movie Gos­ford Park.

As most of the cast and crew had fol­lowed closely his four years of ups and downs in mak­ing his name as a screen­writer, he brought the Os­car on set for his friends to see. In a pos­si­ble first for an Academy stat­uette, it found its way into the fol­low­ing se­ries of Monarch, dis­guised as a stand-in for a table­lamp base in Lady Molly’s sit­ting room at Glen­bogle.

Land­seer is said to have painted his great beast in Glen Af­fric, the Cale­do­nian forested glen just to the west of where we live. As many stalk­ers have re­marked, you wouldn’t get a body that large on a hill stag, although the 12-pointer royal head is per­fect (a monarch is tech­ni­cally 16 points).

There has been spec­u­la­tion that Land­seer used a park-fed stag from Wind­sor Great Park as his model—there were, in­deed, red deer at Wind­sor then. Some were de­scen­dants of those brought over from Haller­bruch by the Hanove­rian Kings of Eng­land; oth­ers came from the New For­est.

Even­tu­ally, the Wind­sor reds all but died out, un­til The Duke of Ed­in­burgh rein­tro­duced a small herd from Bal­moral in 1979.

Was the iconic Monarch stag a Scots head on an An­gloGer­man body painted by an English­man who loved Scot­land? Per­haps. And per­haps Robert the Bruce was born in Es­sex and clan tar­tans were in­vented by two Welsh­men. Peo­ple will be­lieve what they wish to be­lieve and, in Scot­land of all places, myth has the cur­rency of fact.

What­ever the facts and what­ever your opin­ions about Vic­to­rian north Bri­tain, Land­seer’s Monarch will be for­ever a defin­ing sym­bol of that era in Scot­land, a coun­try in which it should re­main.

‘The Os­car was dis­guised as a ta­ble-lamp stand at Glen­bogle

Joe Gibbs lives at Bel­ladrum in the High­lands and is the founder of the Tar­tan Heart Fes­ti­val

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