VICTORIA AND ALBERT – ART AND LOVE

Eight years ago (!?) Victoria and I were fortunate enough to attend the Victoria & Albert exhibition in London. Over the years, we have traveled the length and breadth of England together and have had some fabulous experiences, but the one experience we always come back to is this one. It stands alone. In fact, we recently reminisced about it again when we were in England in May, so we’ve decided to run this post, which originally ran in 2010, again for anyone who missed it then.

One of the highlights of the London leg of our tour, and one of the visits Victoria and I had been most looking forward to, was the Victoria and Albert: Art and Love Exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace. I knew it was going to be fabulous, but had no idea how deeply it would affect me.

Upon going through the security checkpoint, we ascended the stone steps to the first gallery in the Exhibition. As we entered, the first thing Victoria and I saw was the portrait below hanging on the far wall.

Winterhalter’s now iconic painting was intended to hang at the family retreat of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. It was exhibited in 1847 at St James’s Palace, where it was seen by 100,000 people. However, the picture was not well received by some of the Press, who criticised its ”sensuous and fleshy” character. Having seen this image over and over in various books, and having a framed print of it in my office, it was breathtaking to realize that we were now gazing upon the original. Once I’d gotten over the initial shock, I looked around the rest of the room, only to find myself being presented with almost every well known, and loved, portrait of the Royal Family done by Winterhalter – in the flesh, so to speak. And all in the same room.  Good thing there were benches provided, as I had to sit down and collect myself.
This gorgeous portrait, commissioned by Queen Victoria and given to Prince Albert on his birthday, 26 August 1843, hung on an adjoining wall. Victoria was just 24 when Winterhalter completed the painting, which was later described as her husband Albert’s “favourite picture.” It’s always been one of my favorites, too, most especially because it breaks the “Victorian” mould by showing Victoria as she was with Albert – a passionate, sensuous woman deeply in love with her Prince.
Queen Victoria and her cousin the Duchess of Neomurs 1852

The painting above captures Queen Victoria with her cousin,Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld-Kohary, who was the daughter of Prince Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld and Princess Antonie de Kohary. Her father was the second son of Francis Frederick, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld and Augusta Reuss-Ebersdorf. She married Louis d’Orléans, Duc de Nemours, on 27 April 1840, in Saint-Cloud. Depicted with her hair down and shoulder exposed, Winterhalter again captured Victoria, the young woman, rather than Victoria, the Queen.  She looks relaxed and quite girl-ish as she sits companionably with and holds her cousin’s hand.
The two full length portraits above were commissioned from Winterhalter in 1842.
The First of May: The Duke of Wellington Presenting a Casket on Prince Arthur’s Birthday
Yes, this painting above was also hanging in the same room. I got as close as possible to the canvas and studied the way Winterhalter had painted the fabrics, the skin tones. Truly amazing.

Also in the same gallery were the two portraits below by Edwin Landseer –

Victoria, Princess Royal, with Eos 1841
Eos, A Favorite Greyhound, the Property of H.R.H. Prince Albert. 1841

Queen Victoria commissioned this portait of Eos, Prince Albert’s greyhound, about which I’ve posted before. Prince Albert got Eos when he was fourteen years old and brought her with him when he moved to England. This is another print that I’ve had framed in my office for years. The subject matter, the composition and Landseer’s use of four colors – white, black, red and gold – make this a striking portrait that’s always appealed to me. Eos herself lived a fascinating life, about which I’ll be posting soon. I hadn’t realized just how large the original painting is – 111.8 x 142.9 cm. or about 4 x 5 feet. Another bench was well placed directly before this portrait and I sat gazing at it for sometime. Eventually, I did rouse myself and went to see the rest of the rooms in the Exhibition but, truly, my mind and my heart remained in the first Gallery, to which I returned after a decent interval, telling Vicky she’d find me there whenever she was ready to go.

There were so many highlights on our trip, but I’ll always be grateful for our visit to Art and Love, which gave us the opportunity to see so many of these paintings hanging beside each other. No doubt it will be a long time before that occurs again and I will always remember the special meaning that day had for both Victoria and myself.

Victoria H. chiming in here with a few more favorites from the exhibition. The catalogue says one of these apple blossom brooches was the first gift Albert sent to his fiance. In later years he added to the collection, including more gold, porcelain and enamel brooches and a wreath for the hair. Victoria always wore them on her wedding anniversary.
This piano of gilded, painted and varnished mahogany and other materials dates from 1856. Both Victoria and Albert played, often performing duets for themselves which Albert had written. The grand piano was designed to be a showpiece in the Buckingham Palace State Rooms. One of the most prominent persons to play it was the composer Felix Mendelssohn, who was a friend of the royal couple.
A throne of carved ivory with gold and gemstone decorations was shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851, presented to Queen Victoria by the Maharaja of Travancore.  In 1876, when she became Empress of India, she was pictured sitting on this throne.  The detail is amazing.  One of the guards told us that it needed to be cleaned recently and when it was being disassembled, the curators of the Royal Collection found that it was cleverly constructed to fold up entirely flat.  Made it much easier to ship from India, for sure.
Landseer painted Victoria and Albert in their outfits for the first costume ball they held in 1842. The Buckingham Palace Throne Room was decorated with gothic tenting to delight the 2,000+ guests. Victoria is dressed as Queen Philippa of Hainault, consort of Edward III, portrayed here by Albert. The catalogue says these costumes were designed to give maximum employment to the silk weavers of Spitalfields.
Queen Victoria commissioned marble copies of her children’s forearms and feet. The carvings were based on a plaster cast made from moulds taken while the child slept. This is the hand of Victoria, Princess Royal.
We could go on almost forever about ths fascinating exhibit, but I will close with something unexpected. Neither Victoria nor Albert had a large sum of money to spend on gifts for each other. About 2,000 pounds each per year, which is not peanuts, but neither would a comparable amount in today’s values buy a Van Gogh or Monet.  So they shopped and chose very carefully, often commissioning gifts for each other based on their individual or mutual interests.  Sometimes Albert gave Victoria a song he had written and she gifted him with watercolours of their homes, favorite places and the children.
When one sees how devoted they were to each other and how they enjoyed their family life, it is easier to understand Victoria’s intense sorrow and long, long period of mourning for Albert when he died at the relatively young age of 42, leaving her a widow for 40 years until her own death in 1901.
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Interested in all things Victorian? Consider joining us on the Queen Victoria Tour as we explore Her Majesty’s life, homes and long reign.

ALL THE RIGHT SNUFF

Many snuff-takers, following the example of Frederick the Great of Prussia, made it a hobby to collect snuff-boxes, Beau Brummell having had a very curious and extensive assortment. On one occasion, when dining at Portman Square, on the removal of the cloth, the snuff-boxes made their appearance, and Brummell’s was particularly admired. It was handed round for inspection, and a gentleman, finding it rather difficult to open, incautiously applied a dessert knife to the lid. Poor Brummell was on thorns. At last he could not contain himself any longer, and, addressing the host, said, with his characteristic quaintness — “Will you be good enough to tell your friend that my snuff-box is not an oyster?”

Tortoise shell and silver snuff box,
courtesy of Ernest Johnson Antiques

Beau Brummell also prided himself on his graceful manner of opening the snuff-box with one hand only—the left. Judging from a satirical advertisement which appeared in the Spectator, it would seem that much attention was paid to this act, which afforded an opportunity of displaying the jewelled finger. So important was the act of opening a snuff box that classes were offered:

“The exercise of the snuffbox, according to the most fashionable airs and motions in opposition to the exercise of the fan, will be taught with the best plain or perfumed snuff, at Charles Lillie’s, perfumer, at the corner of Beaufort Buildings, in the Strand, and attendance given for the benefit of the young merchants about the Exchange for two hours every day, at noon, except Saturdays, at a toy-shop, near Garraway’s Coffee House. There will be likewise taught the ceremony of the snuff-box, or rules for offering snuff to a stranger, a friend, or a mistress, according to the degrees of familiarity or distance, with an explanation of the careless, the scornful, the politic, and the surly pinch, and the gestures proper to each of them.”

Another great collector of snuff-boxes was Edward Wortley Montagu, the eccentric son of Lady Mary, who is said to have possessed more boxes than “would suffice a Chinese idol with a hundred noses,” a collection which perhaps was never equalled unless by that of George IV, who was not less extravagant and recherche in snuff and snuff-boxes than in other things.

Then there was Lord Petersham, who boasted a stock of snuffs worth three thousand pounds, while he had boxes adapted for all occasions— boxes for winter wear, boxes for summer use. Indeed, the story goes that he had a different box for every day in the year, and Captain Gronow saw him one day use a beautiful Sevres box, which on being admired, he said, “was a nice summer box, but would not do for winter wear.” He was a great connoisseur of snuffs, and “Lord Petersham’s Mixture” has long been proverbial as a popular snuff. He actually devoted one room of his mansion in Whitehall Gardens to properly storing his snuff. That room was a curiosity in its way, with its rows of well-made jars, and proper materials of all kinds for the due admixture, and management, of the snuffs they contained, under the able superintendence of a well-informed man, who was the guardian angel thereof. After the earl’s death the collection was sold, and prices that seem fabulous to the uninitiated were realized for the finer sorts.

Lord Stanhope used to calculate that a regular snuff-taker took one pinch every ten minutes, each pinch, and its accompanying ceremonies, occupying a minute and a half. One minute and a half out of every ten, it has been pointed out, if sixteen hours be allowed to the day, gives two hours and twenty-four minutes per day, or thirty-six and a half days in the year as the time wasted by a snuff-taker upon his nose.

On the other hand, Talleyrand defended snufftaking, not as a habit, but on principle. He maintained that all diplomatists ought to take snuff, as it afforded them an opportunity of delaying a reply which they might not have ready at hand. It further sanctioned, he said, the removal of one’s eyes from those of the interrogator, and occupied the hands, which otherwise might betray a nervous fidget calculated to expose, rather than conceal, his feelings.

Dryden was a snuff-taker, and was in the habit of frequenting Willis’ Coffee House, in Bow Street, Covent Garden, which consequently became one of the leading resorts of the wits of his time. Thus Ned Ward relates in his ” London Spy ” how “a parcel of raw, second-rate beaux and wits were conceited if they had but the honour to dip a finger into Mr. Dryden’s snuff-box.”

The eleventh Earl of Buchan—brother of Thomas Erskine, who by the force of his eloquence rose to be Lord Chancellor of England—was remarkable for his penuriousness, and eccentricity. In the year 1782 the Goldsmiths of Edinburgh presented him with a mounted snuff-box, made from the tree to which William Wallace had once been indebted for his safety. Ten years afterwards, however, Lord Buchan obtained permission from the Goldsmiths to give the snuff-box to Washington, at that time President of the United States. As a reason for so doing he maintained that Washington was the only man in the world to whom he thought the snuff-box justly due.

When a Mrs. Sterne was about to join her husband in Paris, in the year 1762, he wrote:— “You will find good tea upon the road from York to Dover. Only bring a little to carry you from Calais to Paris. Give the Custom-house Officer what I told you. At Calais give more, if you have much Scotch snuff; but, as tobacco is good here, you had best bring a Scotch mull, and make it yourself—that is, order your valet to manufacture it, ’twill keep him out of mischief;” and in another letter he adds, “You must be cautious about Scotch snuff; take half-a-pound in your pocket, and make Lyd do the same.”

When manager of Drury Lane Theatre, Garrick brought into fashion a particular snuff mixture. It appears that a man named Hardham had been his numberer—to count the audience in the theatre—and on inventing his
“mixture,” Garrick rendered him the following service. Whilst enacting the character of a man of fashion on the stage, Garrick offered a pinch of his snuff to a fellow comedian, observing that it was the most fashionable mixture of the day, and to be had only at Hardham’s, 37, Fleet Street. As may be imagined, the puff answered beyond Garrick’s expectation, and for many years afterwards Hardham’s was the favourite mixture, when snuff-taking was the rage and fashion of the time. It may be added that Hardham, having made a large fortune by his snuff trade in Fleet Street, retired to Chichester, where he died in the year 1772, bequeathing a portion of his well-earned wealth to charitable institutions of that city, which, by-the-bye, was his native place.


Sir Joshua Reynolds took snuff so freely when he was painting that it occasionally inconvenienced his sitters. The story goes that when he was painting the large picture at Blenheim of the Marlborough family, the Duchess one day ordered the servant to bring a broom and sweep up Sir Joshua’s snuff from the carpet; but Reynolds, who would not permit any interruption while engaged in his studio, ordered him to let the snuff remain until the completion of his picture, observing that the dust, raised by the broom, would do more injury to his picture than the snuff could possibly do to the carpet.

According to another story, a gentleman told Wilkie he’d sat to Sir Joshua, “who dabbled in a quantity of snuff, laid the picture on its back, shook it about till it settled like a batter-pudding, and then painted away.”

ON THE SHELF: A COLOURED CANVAS

Guest post by author Corille Fraser

 

A Coloured Canvas, Lives, loves and losses in the artistic heart of Regency England

This is a novel about Sir Thomas Lawrence but, as the sub-title suggests, it is much more than a biography of the 18th/ 19th century portrait painter who was only six when he started impressing patrons at his father’s Black Bear Inn by sketching their pictures. The story is full of engaging characters and is told with humour and insight into the world of Regency Bath and London in the years from the American and French Revolutions, through the Napoleonic Wars and the accession of George IV to the coming of the railway, but it touches also on some of the political events and personalities of the era.

All sorts of people stopped at the Black Bear on their way from London to Bath, among them actors including David Garrick and, perhaps, the young Sarah Siddons, as yet unknown but on her way to becoming the leading tragedienne of the period. Did he draw her likeness then? Did she recognise in the boy and herself potentials for greatness? Was that the beginning of the long and tempestuous relationship between the renowned artist and the Siddons family?

Sarah Siddons

Using extensive research into letters, newspapers and comment of the time, I explored the influence his father and many close friends exerted on Lawrence’s career as it developed from West country sketcher to portraitist of Kings and Queens, Popes and Emperors, Prime Ministers, distinguished ladies, diplomats and sportsmen. I singled out some of his subjects for their particularly intriguing stories. Among those are the beautiful but confused Mr Bell, the unprepossessing but clever Irish politician, Mr Curran, the irascible artist, Henry Fuseli, neither rival nor admirer. Children and their pets were particular favourites as of course were members of the Siddons/ Kemble family.

Elizabeth Farren, later Countess of Derby, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1790

Every year from 1789 when he was twenty, his work was to be seen at the Royal Academy Exhibition. His best known studies though not always his best liked were ‘Pinky’, a wintry portrait of Miss Elizabeth Farren and the gigantic ‘Satan’ in which he blended the most imposing features of two friends: the handsome head of actor John Philip Kemble and the powerful body of champion boxer ‘Gentleman’ John Jackson.

The distinguished career was not without its problems. Despite his huge output and ever-increasing income, he was never out of debt and yet he was known to be far from profligate in his personal life. His family, which he supported, not unwillingly, for most of his life, was a financial burden; he spent, often unwisely, on works of art and the latest domestic innovations like a plumbed (but cold water) bath. His friends and advisers, Joseph Farington and John Julius Angerstein helped him organize his budget and kept him out of the bankruptcy court.

And throughout his life at all its stages, Sarah Siddons, her actor brothers Kemble, her husband-manager William who disliked and disapproved of Thomas, and above all her two daughters, sweet Sally and selfish Maria, contenders for his love in their different ways. An intense, difficult triangle that drove him to the brink of madness—or was it a quadrangle? Lawrence was to live out his life as a bachelor, his name, probably but not certainly, platonically linked with several women. His friendship with Sarah Siddons diminished but endured till his death at the age of 60 in 1830.

Note: A Coloured Canvas is available on both Google Books and Amazon.  Corille was born in Scotland, lives in Australia and has a background in theatre and radio. You can visit her website here.

 

THE AMAZING SARAH BIFFEN, ARTIST EXTRAORDINAIRE

by Victoria Hinshaw
Originally published in 2010

Sarah Biffen (1784-1850) was born without arms or legs, a condition known as phocomelia, and survived infancy only by the intervention of a clergyman who protected her. In her family she was known as a pixie child, and she was even feared by some in her West Country village.

Self portrait by Sarah Biffen, painted in 1830, holding the brush in her teeth.

At age 12, Sarah became a phenomenon at circuses and fairs, displayed painting or sewing with her teeth and was known as “The Limbless Wonder.” A few years later, the Earl of Morton arranged for her to study with William Craig, a Royal Academician who was also drawing master to Princess Charlotte of Wales.

She became a professional miniaturist and did work for George IV, William IV, and Queen Victoria. She is mentioned in novels by William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens, and her paintings were accepted for exhibition by the Royal Academy. She received a silver medal from the Society of Arts in 1821.

This is a miniature of Edward, Duke of Kent (1767-1820), a waterclour on ivory, painted by Sarah Biffen in 1839 and purchased by the Duke’s daughter, Queen Victoria. It is part of the Royal Collection.

Sarah married William S. Wright in 1824, but the marriage was unsuccessful. After she moved to Liverpool, her work gradually went out of fashion and her ability to paint faded as well. Obviously the incredible muscle control in her mouth and neck would have been reduced as she aged. She was supported in her last years by a pension from the Queen and funds donated by her friends and colleagues.

In the words of the National Gallery of Scotland’s description of her self-portrait, “This remarkable self-portrait reveals something of Sarah’s dignity and strong character, as well as showing the determination and skill of a woman who rose from being a side-show exhibit to a celebrated royal portrait painter.”

I discovered her work when I attended the exhibition The Intimate Portrait: Drawings, miniatures and pastels from Ramsay to Lawrence at the British Museum in 2009. I fnd her one of the most amazing women I have ever heard of. Almost beyond belief!

SIR EDWIN LANDSEER, R.A.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

by Kristine Hughes Patrone

One of my favourite painters is 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,  painted following a visit to the Highlands of Scotland in 1824. So inspired was he, and so taken by the wild Scottish landscape and people, that 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 when it came to art, 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 here. 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 afterwards introduced his Grace’s Blenheim spaniel just above the highly-bred greyhound. The painting now hangs in the visitor’s entrance Hall at Chatsworth House, while 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, and a personal favourite, 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, another favorite has always been the evocative 1837 painting titled, “The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner,” seen below. I found a color print in a magazine years ago, 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 Shepherd and the sort of man the Old Shepherd 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 Shepherd as a loner, perhaps uncomfortable in the company of others. Making monthly trips to town for 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 Shepherd 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 Shepherd himself. How long had the Old Shepherd 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 Shepherd 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 Shepherd 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.

Dignity and Impudence 1839 Sir Edwin Henry Landseer 1802-1873 Tate Museum, Bequeathed by Jacob Bell 1859

To evoke such thoughts and feelings in the viewer was one of Landseer’s greatest talents. Praise for Landseer is and was unanimous, with he and Stubbs still standing as the greatest English animal painters of all time, yet Landseer had no talent for business. It was his art patron and personal friend, Jacob Bell, who took Landseer in hand and arranged for him to put realistic prices on his paintings. Previously, Landseer had consistently undervalued his own work, a fact which benefited Bell early on as a collector. However, having purchased eighteen Landseer paintings, Bell left them all to the nation upon his death, including Dignity and Impudence, above, one of Landseer’s best known works. Another patron who benefited early on was John Sheepshanks, son of a wealthy Leeds clothier who became one of the age’s leading art collectors. He purchased the above mentioned The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner for a “ludicrously small” price, according to W.P. Frith. Thankfully, Sheepshanks also left his collection of art to the nation and The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner now hangs in the V&A for all to see

Bell and Sheepshanks had both inherited huge sums from their industrialist fathers, allowing them to buy and grow art collections by several contemporary painters. Their wealth also allowed them to socialize with the aristocracy and Landseer, by proxy, was given entree to that world early on, before his talent would no doubt have eventually opened some of the same doors.

Edwin Landseer by Sir Francis Grant, oil on board, circa 1852

By 1835, Landseer could boast some very important people amongst his clients, including the Dukes of Aberdeen, Argyll, Atholl, Devonshire and Wellington, but life changed significantly for Landseer the next year, after he was commissioned by the Duchess of Kent to paint a portrait of Dash, her daughter, the future Queen Victoria’s, King Charles Spaniel, which pleased Victoria greatly. Just months afterwards, Victoria took the throne and commissioned Landseer to paint a further portrait for her. She wrote in her diary: “Saw Lord Conyngham and Edwin Landseer, who brought a beautiful little sketch which he has done this morning, of a picture he is to paint for me of Hector and Dash. He is an unassuming, pleasing and very good-looking man, with fair hair.” Landseer must, indeed, have been pleasing to the new Queen, as she would go on to commission many further paintings and portraits from him, to invite him to stay at Windsor, at Osborne and in the Highlands and remained, to the last, one of Landseer’s most loyal patrons and his friend.

In addition to acting as friend to both Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Landseer also taught them both to draw and, further, to engrave. His elder brother, Tom, was a well known engraver, as was their father, and with Tom’s help, and that of Henry Graves, the Royal couple were taught to engrave and press prints of their own making on a press set up in Buckingham Palace for just this purpose.

Queen Victoria by Edwin Landseer, commissioned as her engagement portrait

 

The Princess Royal with Eos and Dove, commissioned by Queen Victoria
Princess Alice with Dandy, commissioned by Prince Albert

 

The King of the Castle by Landseer with his dog, Brutus at centre

Landseer will always be thought of as a masterly painter of dogs, stags and, much later, lions, but it is by his dogs that he is most remembered. His own dog, Brutus, was a model for many of his early dog portraits,  followed by Lassie, a Scottish sheepdog and a pedigreed pooch called Breechin. Landseer owned dogs, and gained fame by painting dogs, which led people to believe that he had some special, uncanny connection to dogs, which prompted friends, and even strangers, to write to him for advice concerning their own problem pooches. Eventually, Landseer’s connection to dogs began to work against him, as critics began to complain that his later canine portraits were overly coy and/or sentimental. Landseer went from painting studies like The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner or even Eos, to endowing the dogs he put on canvas with overtly human expressions or attitudes. In Laying Down the Law, mentioned above, Landseer inserted the Duke of Devonshire’s spaniel into the finished picture at the Duke’s request. Some say that the inclusion ruined the symmetry of the composition. Regardless, such was the fate of an artist whose chief source of income were the commissions he received from wealthy and aristocratic clients who clamored to have their pets memorialized by the great man himself. Landseer continued to paint other subjects and to show them at the Royal Academy, but this may be where the rot began to seep in – more and more, Landseer began to doubt his own abilities, he became less sure of himself and often gave in to bouts of melancholy and drink. More frequently than not, he began to put off beginning a commissioned work and to miss promised deadlines, even though he was renowned for being able to deliver fully realized paintings in record time. The head of Odin took him two hours, to complete and Landseer tossed off Rabbits in three quarters of an hour.

A Dialogue at Waterloo exhibited 1850 Sir Edwin Henry Landseer 1802-1873, Tate Museum, Presented by Robert Vernon 1847

Queen Victoria had offered Landseer a knighthood in 1842, which he humbly refused to accept until 1850. That same year, he was still taking canine commissions from the Queen and it was also the first year that he was invited to stay at Balmoral and to bring with him “his drawing materials.” In this same year, Landseer’s contribution to the Royal Academy show as his Dialogue at Waterloo, commissioned by his patron Robert Vernon for the princely sum of three thousand pounds. The outsized picture (six feet by 12 feet in size) was produced by Landseer in response to Vernon’s request for a Waterloo painting. Vernon had made much of his fortune by supplying horses to the military and he was also an admirer of the Duke of Wellington. However, Landseer knew full well that his strengths as an artist did not translate to full blown battle scenes. Instead, he portrayed the elderly Wellington revisiting the field at Waterloo on horseback, accompanied by his daughter-in-law, the Marchioness of Douro – a nice sentiment, however the scene never actually took place outside of Landseer’s creative imagination. Regardless, the subsequent engraving sold extremely well.

Landseer at work on the Trafalgar Square Lions, John Ballantyne c. 1865

Increasingly, Landseer suffered bouts of melancholia, causing him to isolate himself within his home in St. John’s Wood and to turn to alcohol and drugs for relief. Despite this, Landseer enjoyed popularity throughout the Victorian era and, although he had no previous experience as a sculptor, in 1859 Landseer was commissioned by the government to make the four huge bronze lions for the base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, London. It took him eight years to complete the work. Lions were not a new animal for Landseer – he had been given the carcass of a Regent’s Park zoo lion by it’s keeper after it had died of old age in 1848. After 1859, Landseer managed to acquire another elderly lion, still living, which he kept in his garden. He also made visits to the Regent’s Park zoo to study their still living lions. Landseer completed other works over the course of the eight years, in between bouts of melancholy, but once again, he stalled for time on the most important work in progress. Finally, the clay models were completed and were cast in bronze by Baron Marochetti, whose experience to that point had largely been confined to casting large equestrian statues for public spaces. The lions were put in place and unveiled in Trafalgar Square on 25 January, 1867.

To this day, rumours persist that Landseer’s lions are not anatomically correct and that, unable to secure an actual lion as model, Landseer instead used a common variety house cat as his study. The facts prove this to be untrue. In actual fact, though Landseer had models to hand, he was most likely unable to bestir himself to make use of them. As with his Dialogue at Waterloo, he solved the problem in the end by using a sort of “bait and switch” tactic – the Art-Journal got right to the heart of the matter: “it appears that one body only has been modelled, while two heads were made, each of which served for two bodies. Thus the same body was cast in bronze four times, and the heads twice each.” Another reason for the persistence of the cat rumour can be traced back to early complaints that resting lions do not place their paws flat on the ground, as house cats do, but instead have them angled inwards. Despite The Illustrated London News having published photographs showing zoo lions with their paws in both positions, the rumours refuse to die.

The lion debate could not have done anything to soothe Landseer’s nerves and his mental health deteriorated further and he isolated himself further from both friends and the art world. When his drinking was worst, Landseer’s elder brother, Charles, sent him to a home in Surrey, to dry out. and confided to his friend, T.S. Cooper, that Landseer was a perfect wreck and suffering from the D. T.s. Still, Cooper was shocked by what he found when he visited Landseer and realized that Charles had not been exaggerating the artist’s condition. However, Landseer had not lost his skill. As Lord Frederick Hamilton recalled: “On another occasion there was some talk about a savage bull. Landseer, muttering ‘Bulls, bulls, bulls,’ snatched up an album of my sister’s and finding a blank page in it made exquisite little drawings of a charging bull. The disordered brain repeating, ‘Bulls, bulls, bulls,’ he then drew a bulldog, a pair of bullfinches surrounded by bullrushes and a hooked bull trout fighting furiously for freedom. That page has been cut out and framed . . . ”

In 1872, Landseer’s health had broken down to the point where his family had him certified as insane and he died the following year.  The Times wrote: ‘Sir Edwin has been long known to be in a most precarious state of health but the news will not the less shock and grieve the worlds of both art and Society in which he was an equal favourite.’ Landseer was buried with full honours in St Paul’s Cathedral and his lions guarding Nelson’s Column were hung with black wreaths.