Landseer’s most famous work makes its return to Trafalgar Square in more than 160 years
albumen carte-de-visite, 1860s
Standing imperiously against a dramatic Highlands backdrop, Sir Edwin Landseer’s most beloved work – The Monarch of the Glen – is a triumphant and bold composition, an unfortunate dichotomy to the painter himself; an artist once beloved by Queen Victoria, he was declared insane one year prior to his death and was suffering from a nervous breakdown during the production of his most famous work. The painting now makes its return to the National Gallery for the first time in over 160 years (until Feb 3rd 2019), with Landseer once more coming to prominence in Trafalgar Square, home to his famous lions that lay resplendent at the base of Nelson’s Column.
Landseer’s greatest enjoyment was to wander in the lonely glens, or climb to the steep mountain-top, in search of that nature, animate or inanimate, with which his heart was in accord and there it was that he derived the inspiration which prompted the greater part of his noblest production.
(Landseer’s Obituary, The Report of the Council of the Royal Scottish Academy, 1873)
by John Ballantyne
Oil on canvas, circa 1865
Today Sir Edwin Landseer is not a household name, yet his noble depiction of this red stag has remained stalwart in the visual language attributed to numerous themed marketing activities, such as on Walkers’ Scottish Shortbread tins. During the height of his artistic prowess, however, Landseer was a well-known man about town, partly due to his close association with Queen Victoria whom he taught – along with Prince Albert – sketching and painting. Indeed, hanging by the stag in the National Gallery is a sketch she created in the manner of Landseer, a tribute of her enduring respect for his talents.
Somewhat of a child prodigy whose works were first exhibited in the Royal Academy when he was just 13, Landseer’s work is predominantly animal-focussed; he would often perform dissections of animal carcasses to better understand their musculature and skeletal structure. A common theme amongst his work is that of man and dog, loyal hounds often depicted mourning the loss or absence of his master. It is almost as if it was this sense of devotion was lacking in his own life, one blighted by a deterioration of his own mental health during his later years, spurred on by the 30 year affair he conducted with the Duchess of Bedford, wife of his patron the 6th Duke of Bedford, John Russell.
Deerstalking in the Highlands (Duchess of Bedford, Duke Gordon and Lord Alexander Russell), circa 1825
by Edwin Landseer
Oil on canvas, circa 1825
An enigmatic raconteur, during his youth Landseer was considered enchanting with one contemporary account noting his dramatic power of narration and incomparable mimic[ry] of both human beings and animals. Handsome and charming, it was little wonder that he seduced with ease the Duchess, who was almost twice his age when they first met following his commission to produce her portrait. He fell not only in love with Georgina, but also with the Scottish countryside, using various Highland boltholes to conduct this illicit affair; it has been supposed that the Duke was not oblivious, himself being 15 years older than the Duchess and not able to satisfy her apparent voracious appetite for matters of a carnal nature. When her daughter was born in 1826, it was not unlikely that the child – Georgina’s 10th – was fathered by Landseer. Her paternity was kept distant from Landseer’s name, a fact that haunted him for life, even though he doted on Lady Rachel Russell.
It was upon the death of the Duke in 1840 and the almost immediate rejection of his marriage proposal to Georgina that saw Landseer fall victim to the mental breakdown that caused not only the melancholy that plagued him until his own death in 1873, but also a newfound sensitivity to his work. It was during an antidotal stay at the Scottish home of the Lord and Lady Abercorn that he started to sketch the first drafts for The Monarch of the Glen, using a piece of charcoal from the fire.
Stag shot by Albert 29 Sept 1853
by Her Royal Highness, Queen Victoria
Pencil, watercolour wash
These sketches were used to produce the final painting 10 years later as part of a commission to decorate the refurbished Houses of Parliament following the destructive fire of 1834. Due to artistic differences between himself and the newly formed Fine Arts Commission, the painting ended up in private hands until it was sold to the Scottish National Gallery in 2016 for £4 million.
Landseer remained devoted to Georgina until her death in 1853, although their relationship deteriorated due to his increasingly volatile nature, spurred on by a head injury suffered from a horse riding accident in 1844. His health continued to worsen until his death, with Queen Victoria said to have remarked, “Poor Landseer, the last three years of his life were really dreadful.” Yet, with his elegant antlers and stately poise, Landseer should also be remembered with the same grandeur as his mammalian monarch.
See The Monarch of the Glen yourself at the National Gallery in London, until February 3rd 2019