Tech­ni­cally bril­liant, within the genre of an­i­mal paint­ing he has never been sur­passed


The Field - - Contents -

Sir Ed­win Land­seer’s tri­umph of Vic­to­rian ro­man­ti­cism, The Monarch of the Glen (right), has re­cently been bought from the Di­a­geo drinks con­glom­er­ate for £4 mil­lion by the Na­tional Gal­leries of Scot­land.

From Oc­to­ber, the mag­nif­i­cent 12-pointer will be ex­hib­ited in in­ver­ness, Perth, Pais­ley and Kirkcud­bright. it is ap­pro­pri­ate that the paint­ing be­gins its tour of Scot­land in the High­lands, at the peak of the red stag stalk­ing sea­son, be­cause it seems that it is in­deed up there to be shot at. Sir John Leighton, di­rec­tor gen­eral of the Na­tional Gal­leries of Scot­land, ex­plained why he felt he had to move quickly to buy the paint­ing. “We wanted to work with Di­a­geo be­cause we couldn’t have com­peted had the paint­ing come up for auc­tion. To the peo­ple who are reg­u­larly in the High­lands for their sport, this is very much a ‘tro­phy paint­ing’.”

Leighton won fund­ing from the Her­itage Lot­tery Fund, the Art Fund, the Scot­tish gov­ern­ment and pri­vate trusts and in­di­vid­u­als to save the work for a mod­er­ately grate­ful na­tion, mov­ing The Guardian to ques­tion: “is an elit­ist cel­e­bra­tion of hunt­ing in the High­lands, ig­nor­ing the dis­place­ment of work­ing fam­i­lies in the 19th cen­tury, po­lit­i­cally un­palat­able?” The Scot­tish artist and critic Lach­lan Goudie was slightly more bal­anced in his re­sponse, de­scrib­ing the paint­ing as a “po­tent, vis­ual evo­ca­tion of Scot­land’s im­pact upon the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion – it’s right up there with bag­pipes, tar­tan and a mouth­ful of short­bread”.

Yet the Scot­land Goudie de­scribes – the bis­cuit-tin world of High­land glens, swirling mists and equally swirling kilts – was in­vented by Land­seer him­self, in part­ner­ship with Sir Wal­ter Scott and, most im­por­tantly, Queen Vic­to­ria and Prince Al­bert. When the royal cou­ple created their High­land love nest at Bal­moral, it fell to Scott and Land­seer to chron­i­cle their vi­sion. Scott nar­rated it in his Waver­ley nov­els, while Land­seer not only il­lus­trated the Waver­ley se­ries but painted the royal fam­ily living their High­land idyll.

Land­seer’s brother, Thomas, was an en­graver and his en­grav­ings of Land­seer’s paint­ings be­came best­sellers. Most mid­dle­classvic­to­ri­an­homeswould­haveone­andthe waves of mi­grants toamer­ica took Land­seers with them to re­mind them of an ide­alised ver­sion of home. Art his­to­ri­ans like to dis­miss Land­seer’s work with a sin­gle word of scorn: “genre”. Cer­tainly his moral and of­ten sen­ti­men­tal paint­ings of an­i­mals do seek to tell a story – as genre work is prone to do. Yet, as Goudie points out, this doesn’t make him a lesser artist. “Land­seer’s paint­ing is also tech­ni­cally bril­liant. Within the genre of an­i­mal paint­ing he has never been sur­passed. His abil­ity to spirit up the phys­i­cal­ity, the pres­ence and even the char­ac­ter of any given an­i­mal marks him out as a vir­tu­oso.”

More than 150 years later, we are all Land­seer fans with­out even know­ing it, so strongly has his im­agery shaped our imag­i­na­tion. Think of a dog be­ing noble and a heroic New­found­land will come to mind, poised upon a crag, its thick black and white fur blown by the gale. New­found­lands didn’t com­monly have black and white fur un­til Land­seer’s paint­ings – now there is a pop­u­lar strain called the Land­seer New­found­land.

While Land­seer was the dar­ling of Vic­to­rian pop cul­ture, he was as con­tro­ver­sial in his day as he is now. When he com­pleted The Monarch of the Glen in 1851 to hang in the House of Lords re­fresh­ment rooms, Par­lia­ment re­fused to pay for the com­mis­sion. in 1861, his paint­ing The Shrew Tamed was crit­i­cised. While the pub­lic saw a charming paint­ing of a beau­ti­ful lady ly­ing down along­side a fierce but gen­tled steed, The Times ranted: “For horses read hus­bands, and the pic­ture is a provo­ca­tion to re­bel­lion ad­dressed to the whole sex!”

recog­nis­ing that Land­seer’s work can be in­ter­preted on many lev­els, Leighton is pleased at the in­ter­est the tour is gen­er­at­ing. “it had al­most be­come an im­age you could no longer re­ally see be­cause it is so widely ex­ploited. Don’t blame the paint­ing for be­ing such a pow­er­ful and pop­u­lar work.”

Land­seer’s sport­ing art is in­deed gor­geous and sat­is­fy­ing to look at but what i love is that his stag, for all its tra­di­tional ap­pear­ance, is to­day even more out there than Damien Hirst’s cows in Mother and Child (Di­vided).

The Monarch of the Glen is at In­ver­ness Mu­seum & Art Gallery, 6 Oc­to­ber to 19 Novem­ber, be­fore mov­ing to Perth, Pais­ley and Kirkcud­bright. For in­for­ma­tion, go to­tion­al­gal­

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