Sir Edwin Landseer

As we've been talking about artists recently, I thought I'd mention that another favorite painter of the Queen's, and of Charles Dickens, was Edwin Landseer, who will always be associated with his Scottish paintings featuring wild landscapes and majestic deer, such as the Monarch of the Glen, pictured above, which he painted following a visit to the Highlands of Scotland in 1824. Landseer continued to visit  Scotland every autumn for many years thereafter. 

Sir Edwin Henry Landseer (1802-1873),  was an English painter, born the third son of John Landseer, A.R.A., a well-known engraver and writer on art. He was born at 71 Queen Anne Street East (afterwards 33 Foley Street), London, on March 7th 1802. His mother was Miss Potts, who sat to Sir Joshua Reynolds as the reaper with a sheaf of corn on her head, in "Macklin's Family Picture," or "The Gleaners." So you might say that Edwin was 'born to it.'

In 1815 Landseer began studying with the history painter, Benjamin Robert Haydon, and in the following year he entered the Royal Academy Schools at the age of fourteen. Landseer had a gift for painting animals, either as animals, or as animals in human attitudes, as in his Laying down the Law, shown above. Landseer was inspired to paint it after seeing Count D'Orsay's French poodle, Montaigne, resting on the table. At the time, Lord Lyndhurst — who had held the Seals before, and would hold them again — remarked, "What a capital Lord Chancellor!" prompting Landseer to dash off the painting. At the request of the Duke of Devonshire, whose property it became, the artist, after the work had been completed, introduced his Grace's Blenheim spaniel just above the highly-bred greyhound. A sketch of Montaigne that Landseer had done for the painting was part of the contents of the Blessington/D'Orsay auction held in Spring of 1849 at Gore House when the couple fled to France to avoid their creditors, a la Brummell.

Another of Landseer's famous canine portraits is that of Eos, Prince Albert's favourite greyhound, which he painted at the request of Queen Victoria, who gifted her husband with the painting. The Queen wished the Prince's hat and gloves to be introduced into the composition, and sent them to Landseer's studio for this purpose.

However, my personal favorite has always been the evocative 1837 painting titled, "The Old Sheperd's Chief Mourner," seen below. I found a color print in a magazine, cut it out, framed it and have had it on my wall ever since. It's so poignant, so heart tugging that you can really only look at it when you're in a good mood. Gaze upon it when you're even quasi in the dumps and you're a goner.

The sense of pathos in this work is almost painful to behold. Beyond the pitiable dog, there is little to see in the scene – a room with a hard packed dirt floor, plaster, or daub, falling from the dingy walls, a discarded walking stick and hat and a bible. Though there are a simple wooden chair and a three-legged stool, the main piece of furniture in the scene, of course, is the coffin. With these few props – and the dog’s pose - Landseer managed to eloquently convey the life of the Old Sheperd and the sort of man the Old Sheperd must have been. Everyone who looks upon the scene will, quite naturally, form their own opinions on this. In my mind, I see the Old Sheperd as a loner, perhaps uncomfortable in the company of others. Making monthly trips to town to sell his livestock and to bring back supplies, he spent his days in the company of his sheep and his faithful companion, his nights looking out at the distant mountains and stars or in reading his bible. Perhaps he indulged in the occasional wee dram of whisky and a pipe. However, the Old Sheperd must have possessed at least one good relative, neighbor or friend, for to me the soft woolen blanket that has been draped over the coffin and on which the dog rests his head seems too fine, and too clean, to have belonged to the Old Sheperd himself. How long had the Old Sheperd lain ill in his cottage before he had been discovered and someone had brought him food, water, a kind word and the blanket? Now that the Old Sheperd is gone and it has become apparent that the dog will not leave his side, this same someone has draped the blanket on the coffin for the sorrowing dog to rest his chin upon. In my personal imaginings, this same kind someone will take the dog home with them once the Old Sheperd has been buried and the dog will be grateful, but will ever after miss the company of the one who had loved him so singularly and so well.

In Famous Paintings as Seen and Described by Famous Writers By Esther Singleton, John Ruskin describes the painting and its subject matter thusly, "Here the exquisite execution of the glossy and crisp hair of the dog, the bright sharp touching of the green bough beside it, the clear painting of the wood of the coffin and the folds of the blanket, are language—language clear and expressive in the highest degree. But the close pressure of the dog's breast against the wood, the convulsive clinging of the paws, which has dragged the blanket off the trestle, the total powerlessness of the head laid, close and motionless, upon its folds, the fixed and tearful fall of the eye in its utter hopelessness, the rigidity of repose which marks that there has been no motion nor change in the trance of agony since the last blow was struck on the coffin-lid, the quietness and gloom of the chamber, the spectacles marking the place where the Bible was last closed, indicating how lonely has been the life—how unwatched the departure of him who is now laid solitary in his sleep;—these are all thoughts—thoughts by which the picture is separated at once from hundreds of equal merit, as far as mere painting goes, by which it ranks as a work of high art, and stamps its author, not as the neat imitator of the texture of a skin, or the fold of a drapery, but as the Man of Mind.'

Landseer enjoyed popularity throughout the Victorian era and, although he had no previous experience as a sculptor, in 1858 Landseer was commissioned to make the four huge bronze lions for the base of Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square, London. However, rumours and scandal dogged him, especially the rumour that he had had an affair with the Duchess of Bedford, wife of one of his greatest patrons. In 1823 appeared his portrait of " Georgiana, Duchess of Bedford," whom he afterwwards taught to etch. However, he'd also taught Prince Albert, Queen Victoria and the younger Royals, amongst many others, to etch, so who knows how much of the tittle tattle regarding the Duchess was true. One thing that cannot be disputed is that the end of Landseer's life was out of context with the favour and artistic success he'd previously enjoyed. Landseer died in 1873, after having been certified as a lunatic. By that time Landseer's health had broken down, which was the reason he declined the presidency of the Royal Academy in 1865, and in his last years he suffered from bouts of madness, aggravated by alcohol.

Jocko with a Hedgehog, 1828

Victoria adds a postscript... This is a favorite Landseer painting of mine, a fox terrier belonging to Owen Williams, M.P., who commissioned the painting.  I love the thought that the eager pup is about to get an unexpected snoutfull of quills if he isn't careful. This painting hangs in the Milwaukee Art Museum where it is a favorite of many school children.

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