A major story at present in the international art press concerns the fate of one of the most famous and influential British works of art ever painted. “The Monarch of the Glen”, pictured below, was painted in 1851 by Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-1873) for the House of Lords, but thanks to a bizarre and tangled history, too convoluted to explore in full here, it is currently the property of the international beverage conglomerate Diageo. While there are various possibilities regarding where this Victorian masterpiece will ultimately end up, fortunately it looks as though it will at last become part of a public collection as it was always intended to be – even if not exactly where it was intended to be.
Landseer was an artist who specialized in the representation of animals, and his reputation as an observer of their anatomy and behavior was such that he asked to design the four massive bronze lions which still today surround the base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. However prior to his foray into the world of sculpture, it was Landseer’s paintings and drawings which led him to become one of the most popular British artists of the 19th century. Even though he depicted everyone and everything from the British Royal Family to prize-winning dogs and cattle, it was “The Monarch of the Glen”, depicting a majestic stag roaming the Scottish Highlands, which forever sealed his reputation.
When the Palace of Westminster burned down in 1834, the ruins were replaced with the enormous Gothic Revival complex that we commonly refer to today as the Houses of Parliament. The project took decades to complete, in part because of the Palace’s massive size, but also because of the significant cost involved in its decoration. If you have ever been to London and had the opportunity to examine the buildings up close, you realize that they are absolutely covered in statuary, architectural detail, and colorful decoration, something which cannot be fully appreciated in photographs taken at a distance. Inside the Palace, the various rooms, staircases, and halls are even more sumptuously decorated, with elaborate tile and stone work, brass and iron ornament, and vast quantities of painting and sculpture.
In 1850, Landseer was commissioned to paint three large works for the Palace, destined to be hung in the Refreshment Rooms of the House of Lords. You can see some of the restoration work that has been going on in these Rooms, including the revival of the sumptuous wallpaper designed by Augustus Pugin, by following this link. Landseer was asked to provide three canvases for this space illustrating scenes related to hunting, and the most famous of the three turned out to be “The Monarch of the Glen”. Unfortunately, when the time came for the paintings to be delivered, the House of Commons refused to pay Landseer’s bill of £150 for the three paintings.
Today, Parliament’s decision seems incredibly short-sighted, given how famous “The Monarch of the Glen” has become since its creation. It has been copied and reinterpreted by other artists, studied and written about by historians and philosophers, and has become something of an internationally recognized symbol of Scotland. For example, not only was there a long-running BBC television series, about a down-at-heel Scottish aristocratic family, which took its title from the painting, but references to the painting continue to appear in popular advertising campaigns and other media related to Scottish whisky, tourism, and the like.
In the 2006 film “The Queen”, there is a beautifully-shot scene in which Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) becomes stranded in the middle of the Scottish Highlands near Balmoral Castle, when her Range Rover breaks down. She and the Royal Family have retreated there, in the wake of the death of Princess Diana, to regroup and figure out how to proceed, as the monarchy stands perilously close to extinction in the wake of popular resentment of the Queen’s perceived coldness toward the death of her former daughter-in-law. The Queen seems not herself, uncertain of what to do, and confronted by conflicting advice, which has led her into a course of public inaction and private frustration.
In what ends up being the major turning point of the film, as the Queen awaits rescue she is confronted by a magnificent stag, very similar to the idealized animal portrayed by Landseer in “The Monarch of the Glen”. The deer has been the subject of rumor on the estate, and hunters are actively seeking to bring it down. Human queen and cervine king stare at each other in silence for some time, until the Queen seems to recover herself and waves the deer off, saving its life. It is a scene which makes all the more sense to the viewer, if you are familiar with both Landseer’s painting and its title. From this point, just as the animal monarch returns to his throne unharmed, so too the human monarch returns to her throne, unharmed.
While Landseer’s painting may at last be finding a permanent home in a public collection, that collection looks likely to be the National Galleries of Scotland, rather than the Palace of Westminster, where it was originally intended to be displayed. In the wake of Brexit and the Scottish independence movement, you may make whatever political conclusions of this arrangement that you will. Personally, I tend to agree with art historian Bendor Grosvenor, who in this piece comes close to saying that really, the painting should be the subject of a donation rather than a sale.
But be that as it may, this painting is a real treasure, for whatever public institution ends up becoming its proud and permanent custodian.