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Landseer, Sir Edwin Henrylocked

(1802–1873)
  • Judith Bronkhurst
  •  and Richard Ormond

Sir Edwin Henry Landseer (1802–1873)

by Sir Francis Grant, c. 1852

Landseer, Sir Edwin Henry (1802–1873), animal painter, was born in London on 7 March 1802 at 88 Queen Anne Street East, Marylebone, the youngest of the three sons, and the fourth of the seven surviving children of John George Landseer (1762/3–1852), engraver and author, and his wife, Jane, née Potts (1773/4–1840). His elder brothers Thomas Landseer (1793/4–1880), a printmaker, and Charles Landseer (1799/1800–1879), a genre and history painter, are noticed separately. The following year the family moved to 71 Queen Anne Street East (this became 33 Foley Street in 1810).

The young prodigy

Edwin Landseer appears to have been educated at home, where from a very early age his artistic gifts were recognized. Under the guidance of his father (who was extremely ambitious for his children), by the age of four or five he was drawing with extraordinary precocity and was making etchings at the age of seven. His subjects were animals, not only domestic and farmyard creatures, notably cows in the fields near Child's Hill, Hampstead, London, but also lions and tigers, which he studied at Mr Cross's menagerie at Exeter 'Change in the Strand (often in the company of his boyhood friend and neighbour, the painter John Frederick Lewis) or at the Tower of London. In 1813 Landseer was awarded the silver palette from the Society of Arts for his drawing of a spaniel (RSA). Two years later he made his Royal Academy début, as an honorary exhibitor (on account of his age), with Portrait of a Mule and Head of a Pointer Bitch and Puppy. These were the property of W. W. Simpson of Maldon, Essex, his first patron. In that year the three Landseer brothers became pupils of Benjamin Robert Haydon, who encouraged Edwin's study of anatomy and of the Elgin marbles, and introduced him to some of the great literary figures of the age. Haydon took the credit for Sir George Beaumont's buying Landseer's Fighting Dogs Getting Wind (Louvre, Paris), exhibited in 1818 at the Society of Painters in Oil and Water Colours. This was his first fully realized sporting picture, and its 'wonder producing vitality' was acclaimed by the critic of The Examiner, who dubbed the artist 'our English SCHNEIDERS' (26 April 1818, 269). The composition was influenced by the animal painter James Ward as well as the seventeenth-century Flemish artist Frans Snyders; Haydon was indeed schooling his pupil to be 'the Snyders of England' (Paintings and Drawings by Sir Edwin Landseer, v). Fighting Dogs Getting Wind is typical of Landseer's early attraction to themes of violence in the animal kingdom. This may, perhaps, represent a displacement of aggression in an adolescent whose formative years were subject to the strict discipline of artistic observation rather than to the free range of boyhood fancy.

On 9 August 1816, at fourteen, Landseer entered the Royal Academy Schools. Earlier in that year he had sat to his friend Charles Robert Leslie as the model for Rutland in Leslie's The Murder of Rutland by Lord Clifford (exh. RA, 1816; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia). Leslie remembers him at this period as 'a pretty little curly-headed boy' (Leslie, 1.39). He was known affectionately by the keeper of the schools, Henry Fuseli, as 'my little dog boy', suggesting that his reputation as an animal painter was already established. Indeed, Landseer's earliest drawing of a dog (V&A) was executed at the age of five. From a very early age he was using animals as metaphors for human situations and emotions in a way that differentiated much of his work from the tradition of British sporting art. For example, the 1814 oil paintings French Hog (exh. RA, 1874) and British Boar (exh. RA, 1874; priv. coll.), etched in 1818 by Landseer's eldest brother Thomas (BM), comment on the Napoleonic wars in contrasting the gaunt, half-starved French beast with the well-fed, contented British one. This type of humorous juxtaposition became one of Landseer's trademarks, immortalized, for example, in Dignity and Impudence (exh. British Institution, 1839; Tate collection). In stark contrast is The Cat's Paw (exh. British Institution, 1824; priv. coll.), one of Landseer's best-known but most shocking images, which shows a monkey forcing a cat to pick up chestnuts from the top of a burning stove. Its sadism is disturbing, but this aspect did not worry Landseer's contemporaries, who on its first exhibition hailed him as 'a pictorial Shakespeare of animal expression' (The Examiner, 29 Jan 1824, 130). The artist, who had recently come of age, was assured of financial and critical success.

The highlands, 1824–1835

In autumn 1824 Landseer travelled north to Scotland for the first time, and the impact of the country on his life and art was profound. The highlands became both a second home to him, visited in the summer and autumn months year after year, and the inspiration for many of his greatest works. On his first trip he stayed for ten days with Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford. Scott wrote to a friend on 6 October: 'Mr. Landseer who has drawn every dog in the House but myself is now at work upon me under all the disadvantages which my employment puts him to' (Letters, 8.392). Landseer made several spirited oil sketches of Scott, one of which is in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

From Scott's home in the borders Landseer travelled on to the highlands to stay with the elderly John Murray, fourth duke of Atholl, at his ancestral castle, Blair Atholl. The duke commissioned Landseer to paint Death of the Stag in Glen Tilt (priv. coll.), a hunting group of himself, his grandson and heir, and his keepers. This monumental work, finally completed and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1830 under the title Portraits of his Grace the Duke of Atholl and George Murray attended by his Head Forester John Crerar and Keepers, is an eloquent tribute to a great highland chieftain and a famous sportsman. Another dynastic sporting group, exhibited at the Royal Academy two years earlier (priv. coll.), shows Alexander, fourth duke of Gordon, with his daughter Georgiana, duchess of Bedford, and his young grandson Lord Alexander Russell; the duke has been shooting, she and her son fishing.

On his expeditions to Scotland Landseer stayed with a variety of aristocratic hosts, including the marquess of Breadalbane and the duke of Atholl, but he was most often a guest of the sixth duke of Bedford and his wife at The Doune, a hunting-lodge near Aviemore in the Cairngorms. The duchess had constructed a series of bothies in the remote valley of Glenfeshie where she lived a simple highland life with a small circle of intimate friends. Landseer recorded the valley in a sequence of wonderfully fresh and vibrant small plein air studies that reveal his gifts as a landscapist. The sketches he painted in Scotland between 1825 and 1835 deserve to be better known, for they are of exceptional quality in their swift recording of highland topography and weather. (Most are in private collections, but there are examples in Manchester City Galleries, the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, the Tate collection, and the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut.) The duchess and her guests were the butt of Landseer's numerous witty pen-and-ink caricatures, which capture the spirit of camaraderie and fun typical of these parties; a large number of them are still owned by descendants of the duchess's daughter, Louisa, marchioness of Abercorn (priv. coll.).

Scenes of deer-hunting became a regular feature in Landseer's repertory. In Highlanders Returning from Deerstalking (1827; priv. coll.) we see a stag being brought down on an old shooting pony by two keepers, its antlers poignantly silhouetted against a stormy sky. In Deer and Deer Hounds in a Mountain Torrent (exh. RA, 1833; Tate collection), a terrified stag is swept away downstream along with the attacking hounds. The line dividing Landseer's bloodlust from his compassion is narrow, and out of the tension between them was born his best sporting work. Stags are wild and noble beasts but also trophies of the hunting field, as Landseer made clear in a letter of 9 September 1837 to Lord Ellesmere:

There is something in the toil and trouble, the wild weather and savage scenery that makes butchers of us all. Who does not glory in the death of a fine stag? on the spot—when in truth he ought to be ashamed of the assassination.

Significantly perhaps, Landseer was a notoriously bad shot. 'Still', the artist continued:

with all my respect for the animal's inoffensive character—my love of him as a subject for the pencil gets the better of such tenderness—a creature always picturesque and never ungraceful is too great a property to sacrifice to common feelings of humanity.

Paintings and Drawings by Sir Edwin Landseer, 29–30

Landseer's enthusiasm for the highlands extended to the highlanders themselves, whose simple lives and rugged characters he admired. Apart from Sir David Wilkie and J. F. Lewis, there were few other artists painting such pictures in the 1820s. Landseer's superbly detailed scenes capture the very essence and texture of highland life. Among many outstanding and deservedly popular paintings are An Illicit Whisky Still in the Highlands (exh. RA, 1829; Apsley House, London), The Stone Breaker (exh. British Institution, 1830; V&A), The Poacher's Bothy (exh. RA, 1831; Hamburg Kunsthalle), Interior of a Highlander's House (exh. RA, 1831; priv. coll.), and A Highland Breakfast (exh. RA, 1834; V&A), a tender scene juxtaposing a mother feeding her baby with a bitch suckling two puppies. These works culminated in the large and crowded canvas A Scene in the Grampians: the Drover's Departure (exh. RA, 1835; V&A), an elegy for a traditional way of life that was fast disappearing.

Social and artistic success, 1826–1840

In 1826, aged twenty-four, Landseer was elected an associate of the Royal Academy (at the time no one under that age was eligible). A year earlier he had taken the lease of a 2 acre property to the west of Regent's Park, at 1 (later 18) St John's Wood Road. Improved and enlarged over the years, this remained his home for the rest of his life. His maternal aunt Barbara Potts kept house for him, to be succeeded by his sister Jessica. By the time that Landseer was elected a full Royal Academician in 1831 he had established an enviable reputation as the foremost animal painter of the day, and he had also broken into high society. He numbered several dukes among his patrons, including those of Atholl, Beaufort, Bedford, Devonshire, Gordon, Northumberland, and Wellington. They not only bought his sporting pictures and highland subjects, but welcomed him into their houses as a friend. Lively and attractive, small and puckish, funny and witty, Landseer was a good addition to any drawing-room. He helped to design the theatricals at Woburn Abbey (seat of the duke of Bedford), kept parties amused by his trick of drawing different subjects with his left and right hands simultaneously, and produced endless and highly accomplished caricatures of his friends.

Landseer was pre-eminent in his own day as a painter of dogs, even though the range of his art was much wider than that designation implies. He was the heir of George Stubbs in his profound understanding of canine anatomy and character; his early écorché (flayed) studies reveal the depth of his study and knowledge. What he added to his naturalistic depiction of dogs was a narrative content and an anthropomorphic interpretation that transformed them into works of the imagination. He told one patron that he simply could not paint an animal without a story; straightforward dog portraiture held no interest for him. So he invented situations for his dog subjects, giving them feelings and attitudes akin to those of human beings. In a pair of early works, High Life and Low Life (1829; Tate collection), he contrasts the common mastiff of a butcher with the elegant deer-hound of an antiquarian aristocrat. The difference in style, period, social class, and values is conveyed through the character of the two animals, who perfectly represent their absent masters, as well as in the settings of a butcher's shop and a medieval-style castle. The two works are painted with a feeling for texture and light and detail learned from a study of the seventeenth-century Flemish master David Teniers.

A Jack in Office (exh. RA, 1833; V&A) takes this allegorizing vein a stage further. A sleek and confident terrier sits atop the barrow of a cat-and-dog-meat salesman, guarding his master's property from a group of mangy and beggarly dogs. The picture may have been inspired by La Fontaine's fable of the dog who carried his master's dinner, but it also symbolizes the hard-heartedness of those who have much towards those who have nothing.

Among Landseer's dog subjects none struck such a chord with the public as those which demonstrated love and fidelity. The earliest of these, painted in 1820, is Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveller (priv. coll.), set in the St Bernard Pass. Attachment (1829; priv. coll.) records a real-life story of a terrier who stayed by the body of his dead master on Helvellyn for three months—the subject also of a poem of 1805 by Sir Walter Scott. In Suspense (exh. British Institution, 1834; V&A), a desperately anxious bloodhound waits at the door of a room into which his wounded master has been carried. Most moving of all is The Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner (exh. RA, 1837; V&A), a collie crouching against the coffin of his master in an agony of grief. This picture, revealing the character of the old shepherd through the simple accessories and lonely atmosphere of his bothy, inspired a famous passage in the first volume of John Ruskin's Modern Painters (1843). The great critic (not usually an admirer of Landseer's work) called it:

one of the most perfect poems or pictures … which modern times have seen … a work of high art, [which] stamps its author, not as the near imitator of the texture of a skin, or the fold of a drapery, but as the Man of Mind.

Ruskin, 3.88–9

What Ruskin approved of was the pathos and imaginative force with which Landseer invested the scene, raising it above mere realism to a higher plane of feeling.

Landseer's industry during the 1830s was prodigious and it was matched by a fertile imagination and painterly finesse. As well as dog subjects and highland scenes, he painted a handful of history pictures, of which the most important is Scene in the Olden Time at Bolton Abbey (exh. RA, 1834; priv. coll.). This was commissioned by William Cavendish, sixth duke of Devonshire, who owned the romantic ruined abbey on the banks of the Wharfe in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Ignoring his brief to portray the abbey itself, Landseer chose instead to evoke the spirit of monastic life in the Middle Ages. A forester, his son, and his daughter lay the trophies of the hunt, painted with the artist's usual virtuosity, at the feet of a rotund abbot standing in the doorway of the abbey. What lies at the root of Landseer's picture is nostalgia for an earlier age when society was at peace with itself, when people accepted and enjoyed their lot, when the paternalism of the monastery meant something, and when the rivers and forests teemed with game.

Though he never found human likenesses easy, Landseer was frequently employed as a portraitist during the 1830s. As with his dog subjects, he liked to introduce narrative motifs into his pictures. The heir to the earl of Tankerville is seen beside a white bull of the Chillingham breed he has just shot, together with the deer-hound who saved his life, in Scene in Chillingham Park: Portrait of Lord Ossulton (The Death of the Wild Bull) (exh. RA, 1836; priv. coll.). The enormously wealthy earl of Ellesmere and his family are dressed in seventeenth-century style for the outdoor group entitled Return from Hawking (exh. RA, 1837; priv. coll.). In Portraits of the Marquess of Stafford and the Lady Evelyn Gower: Dunrobin Castle in the Distance (exh. RA, 1838; priv. coll.) Landseer depicts the two eldest children of George Levenson-Gower, second duke of Sutherland: Lady Evelyn is seen decorating her pet fawn with a chaplet of columbine, watched by her brother and their favourite dogs.

Three of Landseer's greatest patrons in the 1830s were, however, representative of a new breed of capitalist collector. The artist enjoyed close relations with the cloth manufacturer John Sheepshanks, the army contractor Robert Vernon, and the shipbuilder William Wells of Redleaf, near Tunbridge Wells, Kent. It is fortunate for Landseer's reputation that the Sheepshanks collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Tate's Vernon collection contain so many of his finest works from this early period. Landseer's patrons carefully monitored progress on their commissions, and kept the artist up to the mark—none more so than Wells, whose superb collection is sadly dispersed. From accounts by those who stayed at Redleaf, Landseer—represented by more than twenty works—was its presiding genius. There are many anecdotes about him at Redleaf: the one most often repeated concerned a spaniel, Trim, which Landseer had promised to paint. In August 1831, when finally pressed on this much postponed commission, he waited until everyone had gone to church and painted the dog in a session of two and a half hours, to the astonishment of his host; an engraving by J. Webb, 1832, is in the British Museum, London. A later collector of a similar stamp was the chemist Jacob Bell, who became an intimate friend of the artist, and acted as his trusted adviser. He bequeathed his collection to the National Gallery in 1859, including an important group of Landseer paintings (now Tate collection).

Landseer was especially attractive to women. He had many intimate female friends, including the duchess of Bedford and the famous beauty Mrs Caroline Norton, and he was forever falling in and out of love, but he never married. His name was scandalously linked at the time to the duchess of Bedford. He was said to have been her lover, and father of one of her children, but this is uncorroborated. There was a raffish side to Landseer's character. He enjoyed the bohemian atmosphere of Lady Blessington's circle, and was a close friend of her lover Count D'Orsay, with whom he exchanged racy gossip. He was certainly familiar with the demi-monde and may have enjoyed its hedonistic pleasures as a relief from the constraints of formal society.

1840 and its aftermath

In May 1840, at the height of his powers and reputation, Landseer suffered a severe nervous breakdown that cast a long shadow over his subsequent career. This was attributed to various causes at the time, including the death that January of his mother. His friend Lady Holland blamed the fatigue and anxiety of being a member of the hanging committee at the Royal Academy,

where there are so many jealousies and bickerings, & then the shock of the murder [on 6 May] of poor Ld William [Russell, grandson of the fourth duke of Bedford], with whom he was very intimate & had seen frequently just at the time … He is full of terror and horror, expecting an assassin to destroy him. It is really very shocking.

Elizabeth, Lady Holland, 184–5

It was also said that his illness had been precipitated by the refusal of the duchess of Bedford (who had been widowed the previous autumn) to marry him (Diary, ed. Pope, 5.452). Underneath the brilliant façade that Landseer presented to the world there were evident signs of stress. He was unreliable about finishing pictures, he broke engagements on the flimsiest of pretexts, and even before his breakdown he provoked numerous quarrels with old friends. For example, about 1838 he misconstrued a request from Caroline Norton, who wrote to him: 'It would take more to offend me than a huffy note, from you, as I have seen too much gentlemanlike and generous feeling in you, not to forgive you for being touchy, even when I did think it unjust' (Ormond, Sir Edwin Landseer, 9).

Landseer's state of mind following the breakdown is vividly conveyed in a letter he wrote to Count D'Orsay on 13 July 1840:

The only thing against me is self-torture. My unfinished works haunt me—visions of noble Dukes in armour give me nightly scowls and pokings … My imagination is full of children in the shape of good pictorial subjects. Until I am safely delivered, fits of agitation will continue their attacks.

Ormond, Sir Edwin Landseer, 10

After a recuperative tour of the continent, in the care of his friend Jacob Bell, Landseer returned to London to pick up the threads of his life. His friends rallied round. Bell took charge of his business affairs and acted as general factotum (Landseer's lengthy correspondence with Bell in the Royal Institution, London, is a primary biographical source). Landseer continued to be offered lucrative commissions, from Queen Victoria downwards; he went north to Scotland each summer as before to stay in aristocratic hunting-lodges; his popularity was undiminished. But something had changed. He would never recapture that self-confidence and blitheness of spirit which had characterized him as a young man. His later letters chart bouts of depression, nervous prostration, dyspepsia, and a host of psychosomatic ailments. By 1850, the year of his knighthood, Landseer was drinking heavily, a problem compounded by drug abuse; in the following decade there were times when he lost his mind. Though he continued to lead a busy social life, and to paint through all but the worst crises, he never recovered from the effects of his first breakdown or from the burden of mental suffering.

Later paintings

The year 1840 marks not only a turning point in Landseer's personal life but also a distinct change of direction in his art. The transparency and tight detail of his early style—inspired by Rubens, Teniers, and the Flemish school—gave way to a broader style of painting. His themes became more weighty, his compositions more complex, his imagination in many ways stranger and less predictable. He was responding not only to impulses in himself but to wider trends in the field of art generally. The series of competitions for fresco decorations in the new Palace of Westminster, instituted in 1843, were symptomatic of a return to the principles of high art and moral seriousness that typified the high Victorian period. With his acute sensitivity to changes in taste, Landseer raised his game to meet this new challenge, and in doing so ensured that animal painting remained a mainstream art form. But something was also lost in the process. The surface brilliance and detail of his early works was never recaptured.

In his later dog subjects Landseer pushed anthropomorphic art to new limits, drawing on the conventions of history painting, while at the same time poking fun at them. Laying Down the Law (Trial by Jury) (exh. RA, 1840; priv. coll.) shows a large white poodle as judge and a mixed group of other canine breeds as jury in a type of composition associated with figure painting. Landseer's target is the maladministration and pomposity of the law, and he uses the dumb but expressive faces of the dogs to drive it home. The picture of King Charles Spaniels (exh. British Institution, 1845; Tate collection) is a skit on the vogue for popular scenes of cavaliers and roundheads; two mischievous-looking spaniels lie curled up beside a plumed hat and gilt spur. The classical subject of Alexander meeting the philosopher Diogenes is transformed by Landseer into a confrontation between a large white bull terrier, with a train of attendants, and a smaller, wily terrier in the role of the philosopher sitting in a barrel (exh. RA, 1848; Tate collection). Landseer was turning the ideals of academic art on their head, but this did not concern a contemporary audience, who read the picture as a parody of human manners and behaviour and a tour de force of animal characterization.

Landseer's ability to catch the mood of the moment is exemplified in his picture Shoeing (exh. RA, 1884; Tate collection), an image of rural peace and harmony skilfully expressed in the gleaming hide of the bay mare, her close companionship with a donkey and a hound, and the homely figure and accessories of the blacksmith. This was one of the most popular of all Landseer's paintings, with a European reputation; it was one of the works that helped to secure him a gold medal at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1855. While Landseer's art was thought to be quintessentially English by foreign critics, there is no doubt that it had an influence abroad, especially through the print market. The deer paintings of Gustave Courbet and Rosa Bonheur, for example, show evidence of their debt.

When the threat of war with France loomed in the later 1840s, and tensions rose on both sides of the channel, Landseer painted the companion pictures Time of Peace (a scene of rural tranquillity on the cliffs at Dover) and Time of War (a dead lancer with mangled cavalry horses; both exh. RA, 1846) to remind his fellow countrymen of the consequences of belligerent action. Both pictures were destroyed in the Tate flood of 1928. Landseer had visited the field of Waterloo when touring the continent in 1840, and this inspired one of his most extraordinary pictures, The Shepherd's Prayer (exh. RA, 1845; priv. coll.). With outstretched arms, a shepherd kneels at a wayside crucifix on the field of battle as if interceding for the blood that has been spilt, while his vast flock, like a miniature army, stretches away into the far distance. Landseer later painted the aged duke of Wellington revisiting the site of Waterloo with his daughter-in-law, Lady Douro, in a work entitled A Dialogue at Waterloo: ‘But 'twas a famous victory’ (exh. RA, 1850; Tate collection). The duke was a friend and admirer of the artist, commissioning a bizarre painting of the popular lion tamer Isaac van Ambrugh (exh. RA, 1847; Yale U. CBA) looking like a latter-day Daniel in the lions' den; an earlier picture of van Ambrugh by Landseer (exh. RA, 1839) is in the Royal Collection.

Landseer's powers as an image maker and mythologist were put to good account in his service to the crown. In his pictures of Victoria and Albert he captured that spirit of idealism and role-playing which characterized the new monarchy. His full-length equestrian portrait (never finished) of the queen riding out alone in a romantic landscape (1838–72; priv. coll.) was inspired by Van Dyck's famous picture Charles I on Horseback with Monsieur de St Antoine in the Royal Collection. In Windsor Castle in Modern Times (1840–43; Royal Collection), the returning huntsman Albert is greeted by his loving wife and daughter. The royal couple present an image of domestic bliss that reflects the well-being of the state. In a painting of 1842–6 in the Royal Collection, the queen and prince consort, dressed as Edward III and Queen Philippa for a famous costume ball held at Buckingham Palace, embody the virtues of chivalry and nobility drawn from an earlier age. And it was Landseer who lent substance to their vision of themselves as romantic highlanders. Royal Sports on Hill and Loch, a large work begun in 1850 and still incomplete at the artist's death (it was later destroyed), is best described by Queen Victoria herself:

The picture is intended to represent me as meeting Albert, who has been stalking, whilst I have been fishing, & the whole is quite consonant with the truth. The solitude, the sport, the Highlanders in the water, & c will be, as Landseer says, a beautiful historical exemplification of peaceful times, & of the independent life we lead in the dear Highlands. It is quite a new conception, & I think the manner in which he has composed it, will be singularly dignified, poetical & totally novel.journal, 19 Sept 1850, Royal Archives, Windsor Castle; Ormond, Sir Edwin Landseer, 162

By the mid-century Landseer was the best-known artist in Britain, as judged by the public's familiarity with his work. Over 350 of his pictures had been engraved, some of them two or three times, and the sale of prints ran into many thousands, earning Landseer large sums of money. From his surviving bank accounts it is possible to chart his rising income, from roughly £3000 per annum in the 1830s to double that figure in the following decade, and in his most lucrative year (1865) to a dizzy £17,352. The artist himself was acutely aware of the role which engraving played in popularizing his work, and went to great lengths to ensure the accuracy of the large steel plates employed in the process. Marked proofs in the British Museum reveal extensive reworkings in Landseer's own hand. He reduced engravers and publishers to despair by rejecting proofs and requesting expensive alterations; there were constant quarrels and disputes, several of them documented in the correspondence with Bell. Though his behaviour was often unreasonable, Landseer was passionate about preserving the integrity of his work from commercial pressures.

The Monarch of the Glen

Landseer continued to paint scenes of ordinary Scottish life, for example The Highland Shepherd's Home (exh. RA, 1842; priv. coll.), The Free Church (exh. RA, 1849; Royal Collection), and The Forester's Family (exh. RA, 1849; priv. coll.), but it was in his later deer paintings that he forged his most enduring imagery of the highlands. His work became almost transcendental as he pictured stags in life-and-death struggles on a heroic stage. In The Sanctuary (exh. RA, 1842; Royal Collection) an exhausted stag reaches a secluded lake at sunset. The tranquil beauty of the scene underlines the violent end from which the stag has recently escaped. By contrast Stag at Bay (exh. RA, 1846; priv. coll.) is all blood and thunder; we experience the event through the rolling eyes of a defiant and terrified stag, the snapping jaws of the hounds, the broken crests of the lake in which they are immersed, and the stormy sky. Coming Events Cast their Shadow before them (The Challenge) (exh. RA, 1844; priv. coll.) represents the cruelty inherent in the natural world, rather than man's inhumanity to animals. On the shore of a lake a stag awaits his rival, who is swimming towards him in an eerie moonlit landscape that prefigures the epic battle to the death that will follow. In Landseer's largest highland painting of all, The Drive—Shooting Deer on the Pass; Scene in the Black Mount, Glen Urchy Forest (exh. RA, 1857; Royal Collection), two ghillies huddle under a plaid in the foreground, hoping to remain undetected as the herd of deer heads towards unseen guns.

These pictures proved extremely popular, not only with the sporting community but with the public at large. Like his friend Charles Dickens, Landseer could combine extreme violence with highly charged emotion that made his pictures live in the imagination of his audience. There was bloodshed and horror and drama, but also compassion and a terrible beauty to his work. Landseer caught the spirit of what it was that attracted people to Scotland: the wildness and splendour of the landscape, the solitariness and remoteness from civilization, the wealth of wildlife, and the spectacle of nature red in tooth and claw. His pictures contributed a Romantic vision of highland life and landscape that is still with us today. His painting of The Monarch of the Glen (exh. RA, 1851; priv. coll.) remains a defining image of the highlands: a majestic stag, seen in close-up, surveys the mountain tops and sniffs the morning air. The image has become a cliché through over-reproduction, but the original picture is a tour de force, so powerful is the rendering of the animal, so tactile its fur, so sublime its surroundings, so tragic its potential fate.

As well as his oil paintings of deer, Landseer also executed several large and impressive pastels, and a wide range of chalk drawings recording in detail the sport he loved so much.

Last years, death, and posthumous reputation

Landseer's later years were clouded by episodes of dementia, inebriation, and even threats of physical violence. He was often in the hands of doctors, among them Sir Richard Quain and the eminent neurologist Dr Thomas Tuke, but drugs and rest-cures produced only temporary alleviation. To his unfailing friend and guardian Thomas Hyde Hills, Landseer confided in the later 1860s: 'My health (or rather condition) is a mystery quite beyond human intelligence. I sleep well seven hours, and awake tired and jaded, and do not rally till after luncheon' (Cornhill Magazine, 29, 1874, 99).

Landseer was a sick and lonely man, but he continued to inspire loyalty and affection among his friends, and in the right company he was his amusing self. The Abercorns, the William Russells, the Tankervilles, and others continued to invite him to stay. The two houses where he went most often were South Park near Penshurst, Kent, the seat of Lord Hardinge, and Stoke Park near Slough, the home of his patron E. J. Coleman. When things got too much for him Landseer instinctively turned to Stoke Park, often inviting himself for days at a time. Some of his most touching friendships were with artists younger than himself. Both William Powell Frith and John Everett Millais, whom he had championed in their early days, remained devoted to him, Millais completing four of his pictures after his death, including Nell Gwynne (Tate collection). Landseer's protégé, the German painter Frederick Keyl, has left detailed accounts of his evening conversations with the artist from 1866 to 1869 (Royal Archives, Windsor Castle). One can almost hear Landseer speaking, so full and graphic are Keyl's notes; the talk ranged over natural history, breeds of dog, sporting reminiscence, literature, politics, friendship, and scandal.

Landseer could also make a great impact on young social acquaintances, one of whom recalled him as:

a short, undistinguished-looking little man, with shy manners and a rough voice, and his grey beard and moustache gave him an unkempt appearance; but it was all redeemed by the fine forehead and high brow, under which his bright sparkling eyes looked out with an expression of wistful interest and keen appreciation of whatever appealed to him or whatever he might be painting. In some ways his face often reminded me of a shaggy Scotch terrier.

Lady St Helier, Memories of Fifty Years, 1909, 26

Given Landseer's unstable mental state, it is astonishing that he was able to continue painting until the end of his life, producing some of his most ambitious compositions in his last years. His application and his imagination rarely faltered, and he found solace in the discipline of the studio. In 1860 he completed Flood in the Highlands (Aberdeen Art Gallery), a work begun many years earlier, which conveys the psychology of fear in an acute form as animals and humans cling to the roof of a highland bothy beset by raging waters. Four years later came Man Proposes, God Disposes (Royal Holloway College, Egham, Surrey), a chilling scene of Arctic disaster: two polar bears dismember the human remains of a failed polar expedition in a pitiless landscape of ice and snow. While the title comes from a fifteenth-century source, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, the subject was inspired by the tragic loss of Sir John Franklin's entire expeditionary force in 1845, and shows how much the artist was in tune with contemporary events. Rent Day in the Wilderness (exh. RA, 1868; NG Scot.) is a large, panoramic history picture recording highland resistance to the redcoats following the 1715 Jacobite rising. The Swannery Invaded by Sea Eagles (exh. RA, 1869; priv. coll.) is one of those shocking scenes of extreme animal violence that had a lifelong attraction for the artist. One of the very last paintings Landseer completed is The Baptismal Font (exh. RA, 1872; Royal Collection), a strange religious work showing sheep (symbolizing the Christian flock) huddled below the font while above three doves flutter in the incandescent light of a fire representing the holy spirit.

What is remarkable in Landseer's late works is his willingness to experiment and push out the boundaries of his art. When asked to design the lions around the base of Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square, London, in 1857, he cheerfully accepted the commission, although his knowledge of sculpture was extremely limited. Working in the studio of his friend Baron Carlo Marochetti, Landseer laboured on the four colossal clay models for a period of ten years, at times elated by the project, at others almost overwhelmed by its size and complexity. One of Landseer's letters to Marochetti tellingly reveals the fragile state of his nerves at this period: 'a Lion has been turned loose on me by the government. I must conquer or fall' (30 Nov 1862, priv. coll.). When in January 1867 the bronze lions were finally unveiled, Landseer was gratified by the praise of his friends and scornful of his critics.

New forces in the world of art, in particular Pre-Raphaelitism and aestheticism, had by now begun to undermine Landseer's reputation and render his style of painting old-fashioned. He had wisely refused to allow his name to be put forward for the presidency of the Royal Academy on the death of Sir Charles Eastlake in 1866, and he increasingly withdrew into himself. By 1872 his conduct had become so erratic that his family had him certified with the concurrence of Gladstone and other prominent men. His death on 1 October 1873, at his home, 18 St John's Wood Road, London, was, in the words of his loyal patron Queen Victoria, a merciful release, 'as for the past three years he had been in a most distressing state, half out of his mind, yet not entirely so' (journal, 1 Oct 1873, Royal Archives, Windsor Castle; Ormond, Sir Edwin Landseer, 22). Landseer's funeral on 11 October in St Paul's Cathedral, where he was buried in the crypt, was a national event, and he was the subject of many tributes and eulogies, for he had been a major force in British art for more than fifty years.

In May 1874 a major sale of Landseer's works was held by his executors at Christies, when 1410 lots raised £69,709 9s. and swelled the value of the artist's estate, which had been assessed for probate the previous November at the then colossal sum of just under £160,000. Financial success was crowned by popular acclaim—the Landseer memorial exhibition of 532 works, held at the Royal Academy in winter 1874, attracted 105,000 visitors and sold 30,000 catalogues.

In 1961 the then president of the Royal Academy, Sir Charles Wheeler, remarked that 'In this century [Landseer's] fame has been entirely eclipsed and probably in the whole of British art there is no other figure who has suffered such extremes of approbation and neglect' (Paintings and Drawings by Sir Edwin Landseer, iii). For the curators of the 1961 exhibition at the Royal Academy, Landseer's anthropomorphic dog subjects were deemed mawkishly sentimental; it was safer by far to concentrate on 'his portrait studies and landscapes among the oils and the brilliant figure drawings and caricatures in pen and ink' (ibid., iv). And as long as celebrations of hunting continue to offend liberal sensibilities, it is hard to envisage Landseer ever regaining widespread popularity.

The extensive circulation of his works in the form of engravings has meant that Landseer's exceptional skill as a painter has been undervalued. This was one of the revelations of his major retrospective exhibition held at the Tate Gallery, London, in 1981. As Derek Hill (a fellow painter) observed twenty years earlier: 'even in his most banal and uninteresting works (and many such exist), Landseer seldom loses the remarkable ability of translating the texture of the natural surface he represents into the equivalent texture of paint' (Paintings and Drawings by Sir Edwin Landseer, x).

In 2001 ‘Inventing New Britain: the Victorian Vision’, the Victoria and Albert Museum's exhibition celebrating the centenary of the death of Queen Victoria, justifiably included some of Landseer's most famous paintings. To his contemporaries their appeal transcended class boundaries. Well over a century after his death images such as The Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner or The Monarch of the Glen remain embedded in the national consciousness, while Landseer's lions in Trafalgar Square are one of the most famous features of the London scene.

Sources

  • R. Ormond, Sir Edwin Landseer (1981) [with contributions by J. Rishel and R. Hamlyn; exhibition catalogue, Philadelphia Museum of Art and Tate Gallery, London]
  • R. Ormond, Early Victorian portraits, 2 vols. (1973), vol. 1, pp. 253–7; vol. 2, pls. 364, 497–501
  • Paintings and drawings by Sir Edwin Landseer R. A., 1802–1873 (1961) [exhibition catalogue, RA]
  • C. Lennie, Landseer: the Victorian paragon (1976)
  • A. Graves, ed., Catalogue of the works of the late Sir Edwin Landseer, R. A. [1875]
  • The remaining works of Sir E. Landseer, R. A. deceased [sale catalogue, Christie, Manson and Woods, 8–15 May 1874]
  • C. R. Leslie, Autobiographical recollections, ed. T. Taylor, 2 vols. (1860), vol. 1, pp. 39 and 83
  • The autobiography and memoirs of Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786–1846), ed. T. Taylor, new edn, 1 (1926), vol. 1, p. 248
  • The diary of Benjamin Robert Haydon, ed. W. B. Pope, 5 vols. (1960–63), vol. 2, p. 466; vol. 3, pp. 398 and 404; vol. 5, p. 452
  • The letters of Sir Walter Scott, ed. H. J. C. Grierson and others, centenary edn, 12 vols. (1932–79), vol. 8, p. 392
  • The Examiner (26 April 1818), 269
  • The Examiner (29 Jan 1824), 130
  • Landseer's bank accounts, 1821–73, ledgers, Barclays Bank, Fleet Street, London branch (formerly Gosling's Bank)
  • E. H. Landseer, letters to J. Bell, Royal Institution of Great Britain, London
  • ‘Sir Edwin Landseer’, Cornhill Magazine, 29 (1874), 99
  • F. Keyl, notes on conversations with Landseer, 1866–9, Royal Arch., Keyl Papers
  • M. A. Stevens, ‘The Royal Academy in the age of Queen Victoria’, Art in the age of Queen Victoria: treasures from the Royal Academy of Arts permanent collection, ed. H. Valentine (1999), 32
  • W. S. Sparrow, A book of sporting painters (1931), 198–200
  • Sir Edwin Landseer, R. A. (1874) [exhibition catalogue, RA]
  • Elizabeth, Lady Holland to her son, 1821–1845, ed. earl of Ilchester [G. S. Holland Fox-Strangways] (1946), 184–5
  • O. Millar, The Victorian pictures in the collection of her majesty the queen, 2 vols. (1992), vol. 1, pp. 135–57
  • private information (2004)
  • d. cert.

Archives

  • Bodl. Oxf., letters
  • FM Cam., letters
  • Harvard U., Houghton L., letters and drawings, MS Eng. 157 f176
  • Hunt. L., letters
  • V&A NAL, corresp. and MSS
  • BL, letters to C. G. Lewis and F. C. Lewis, Add. MS 38608
  • Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, letters to sixth duke of Devonshire
  • estate of the duke of Sutherland, Mertoun, Melrose, Roxburghshire, letters to earl of Ellesmere
  • FM Cam., letters to Robert Peel
  • Harvard U., Houghton L., letters to Count D'Orsay
  • National Gallery, London, corresp. with William Boxall
  • NL Scot., letters to Lady Ashburton
  • Northumbd RO, Newcastle upon Tyne, letters to M. Culley
  • NRA, priv. coll., letters to marquis of Breadalbane
  • NRA, priv. coll., letters to Lord Wemyss
  • Royal Institution of Great Britain, London, letters to J. Bell
  • Russell-Cotes Art Gallery, Bournemouth, corresp. with L. V. Flatow, 1864
  • Sheff. Arch., letters to first earl of Wharncliffe
  • V&A NAL, letters to John Forster
  • V&A NAL, letters to Sir F. Grant
  • V&A NAL, letters to W. Wells

Likenesses

  • J. Hayter, graphite and brown wash, 1814, priv. coll.; repro. in Ormond, Sir Edwin Landseer, 4
  • E. H. Landseer, self-portrait, graphite drawing, 1818, NPG
  • E. H. Landseer, self-portrait, oils, 1820, priv. coll.
  • J. Hayter, oil caricature, 1823, Shipley Art Gallery, Gateshead
  • G. Hayter, pen-and-ink drawing, 1825, BM
  • J. F. Lewis, watercolour, 1830, priv. coll.; repro. in Ormond, Sir Edwin Landseer, 6
  • C. C. Vogel, chalk drawing, 1834, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, Kupferstichkabinett
  • lithograph, pubd 1843 (after Count D'Orsay, 1843), NPG; related lithograph, NPG
  • E. H. Landseer, self-portrait, pen-and-ink caricature, 1845; Christies, 11 July 1972
  • F. Grant, oil sketch, 1852, NPG [see illus.]
  • F. Grant, oils, 1852, NPG
  • F. Grant, pen-and-ink drawing, 1852, NPG
  • J. Watkins, carte-de-visite, 1860–69, NPG, Royal Collection
  • carte-de-visite, 1860–69, NPG
  • J. Ballantyne, oils, 1865, NPG
  • E. H. Landseer, self-portrait, oils, exh. RA 1865 (The connoisseurs), Royal Collection
  • C. Marochetti, marble bust, exh. RA 1867, RA
  • C. B. Birch, double portrait, pencil drawing, 1870, NPG
  • T. Woolner, marble medallion, 1882, St Paul's Cathedral, London
  • Count D'Orsay, pencil drawing, Gov. Art Coll.
  • F. Grant, oils, RA
  • F. Grant, pen sketch, Athenaeum, London
  • H. H., caricature, woodcut, NPG; repro. in The Mask's Album
  • G. Hayter, pencil drawing, BM
  • E. H. Landseer, self-portrait, chalk drawing, BM
  • E. H. Landseer, self-portrait, pen, ink, and wash drawing, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire
  • J. F. Lewis, pencil drawing, RA
  • D. Maclise, drawing, V&A
  • G. S. Newton, drawing, NG Scot.
  • Sem [G. Goursat], watercolour and pencil caricature, V&A
  • W. M. Thackeray, drawing, V&A
  • prints (after photographs), BM, NPG
  • stipple (after drawing by J. Hayter, 1813), BM; repro. in Works
  • wood-engraving, NPG; repro. in ILN (19 Sept 1874)

Wealth at Death

under £200,000: resworn probate, Aug 1876, CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1873)

Royal Archives, Windsor Castle, Berkshire [with gracious permission of her majesty the queen]