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