What would Christmas be without our trimming the tree? Some believe that it was Prince Albert who introduced the custom of the Christmas tree to England, while others maintain that they were introduced to England by King George III’s German wife, Queen Charlotte. However, it was only circa 1848, after the London Illustrated News ran the engraving depicting showing Queen Victoria and Prince Albert celebrating around the Christmas tree with their children (above) that this tradition caught on with the public.
The painting above, Queen Victoria’s Christmas tree at Windsor in 1850 as painted by James Roberts (1824 – 1867), depicts presents around the tree from Prince Albert. We thought it might prove amusing to see what others had written about the Christmas tree in centuries past.
From Recollections from 1803 to 1837 by Amelia Murray:
“Christmas-trees are now common. In the early part of this century they were seldom seen, but Queen Charlotte always had one dressed up in the room of Madame Berkendorff, her German attendant; it was hung with presents for the children, who were invited to see it, and I well remember the pleasure it was to hunt for one’s own name, which was sure to be attached to one or more of the pretty gifts.”
From 20 Years at Court
The Hon. Eleanor Stanley (maid of honour to Queen Victoria, 1842-1862) to her Mother, Lady Mary Stanley, Windsor Castle, Saturday, Dec. 25th, 1847.
“Dearest Mama,—A merry Xmas, and many happy returns of the day to you and all the family at the dear old Castle. Yesterday evening we were desired, at a quarter to seven, to come down to the Corridor, to get our Gifts; we found all the gentlemen and Mrs. Anson already assembled, and presently the page desired us to go to the Oak-room, where the Queen and Prince already were, standing by a large table covered with a white cloth, in the middle of which was a little fir-tree, in the German fashion, covered with bonbons, gilt walnuts, and little coloured tapers. I send a bonbon as a Christmas box to little Blanche, which I took off the tree. . . . The children had each a little table with their new toys, and were running about in great glee showing them off; Prince Alfred, in a glorious tinsel helmet that almost covered his face, was shooting us all with a new gun, and Princess Alice was making us admire her dolls, etc. They had one Christmas tree among them, like us, but the Queen, Prince, and Duchess had each one, and altogether I never saw anything prettier than the whole arrangement.”
From The Memoirs of Princess Mary Adelaide, Duchess of Teck
Cambridge Cottage, January 1, 1848.
“My Dearest Draperchen, (her former governess, Miss Draper, whom she addressed as ‘Ma chere Draperchen), . . . Our Christmas went off very well. The room was beautifully decorated ; there were four fine trees, and these were connected by wreaths of laurel evergreens and holly.”
by the same author
Cambridge Cottage, January 9, 1849
“The Christmas holidays have been very happily spent by the inmates of Cambridge Cottage, and I have received a number of cadeaux! Our Trees were arranged in the Conservatory, which was hung with festoons of evergreens, from which transparent lamps were suspended. The whole was well lighted up, and looked remarkably pretty, and the three trees were quite covered with bon-bons and fruit.”
From My Reminiscences By Lord Ronald Sutherland Gower
“At Trentham, Christmas 1854, I find, on turning the pages of that record of my early years, much detail regarding our Christmas gifts and of the Christmas tree; now so general in English homes at Yuletide, but then hardly seen but in a few English houses. Our German tutor claimed to have introduced this pretty custom in this country in our family, the first implanted out of Germany having been erected by him in the hall at Stafford House. Until recently there was always one of these Christmas trees, richly decked, placed in one of the drawing-rooms at Trentham on Christmas Eve; and the household attended to see the illuminations and receive the gifts that were one by one cut off from the lighted boughs. No one was forgotten, from the most honored of the guests down to the kitchen-maids and stable-men. Christmas was worthily maintained in those days at Trentham. Generally after the tree there came a ball for the servants, given in a long gallery overlooking the stable-yard. All took part in the dances, which, with itscountry dances and Highland flings and reels, when the Scotch piper was in great demand, were always most successful festivities.”
From Letters by Lady Harcourt, December 17, 1885
“Yesterday I made an excursion to the city with Hilda Deichmann and her husband to buy things for our Christmas trees. It was most amusing ransacking in all the big wholesale houses, and reminded me of my childish days and similar expeditions to Maiden Lane . . . . . . . . Our shopping was most successful. All the prettiest things come from the German shops. The ginger-bread animals were wonderful,—some horses and dogs with gilt tails and ears most effective. The decorations were really very pretty—the stars and angels quite charming.”
by the same author
To G. K. S., Albert Gate, London, December 24, 1885.
“The sisters and I have been shopping all day getting the last things for the tree, which is to be on the 26th. The streets are most animated, full of people, all carrying parcels, and all with smiling faces. . . We wound up at the Army and Navy Stores, and really had some difficulty in getting in. They had quantities of Christmas trees already decorated, which were being sold as fast as they were brought in.”
Victoria H here: I have always had a special feeling for Queen Victoria, obviously because it was the name my father — with his entirely British heritage — chose for me.
The above view of the Queen in 1838 is one of my favorite portraits.
Above, the Queen in her 1838 coronation robes by American artist Thomas Sully (1783–1872). The painting hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City though it has been copied many times and can be found in various configurations many places.
Above, Artist Sir George Hayter (1792-1871) also painted Victoria in her coronation robes. The ceremony took place on June 28, 1938, about a year after Victoria became Queen at age 18 after the death of her uncle, William IV (1765-1937).
Victoria was Queen until her death in 1901, the longest reign in English history at the time. The Hayter painting is in the National Collection in Britain and a copy of it hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, London.
Victoria’s name became the title of an age characterized by a revolution in industry, transportation, communication, medicine, culture, and, perhaps, family relationships and sexual behavior. At the beginning of her reign, horses and sailing ships provided transportation. At the end of her life, we had dirigibles and the Wright Brothers first flew just a couple of years later. Wonder what Victoria would have thought of blogging?
In celebration of the 200th Anniversary of Queen Victoria’s birth this year, Number One London Tour will be exploring all aspects of the Queen’s life, from her birth at Kensington Palace to her death in 1901 at Osborn House on the Isle of Wight, on our 2019 Queen Victoria Tour. Full details and Tour itinerary can be found here.
From: The Letters of Queen Victoria by John Murray
The King of the Belgians to Queen Victoria.
Laeken, 21st May 1845.
My Dearest And Most Beloved Victoria,— Receive my sincerest and most heartfelt good wishes on the happy reappearance of your birthday. I need not dwell on my sentiments of devotion to you; they began with your life, and will only end with mine. The only claim I make is to be remembered with some little affection. Thank heaven, I have little to wish you, than that your present happiness may not be disturbed, and that those who are dear to you may be preserved for your happiness.
My gift is Charlotte’s portrait. The face is extremely like, and the likest that exists; the hair is a little too fair, it had become also darker. I take this opportunity to repeat that Charlotte was a noble-minded and highly gifted creature. She was nervous, as all the family have been; she could be violent, but then she was full of repentance for it, and her disposition highly generous and susceptible of great devotion. I am the more bound to say this, as I understood that you had some notion that she had been very imperious, and not mistress of her temper. Before her marriage some people by dint of flattery had tried to give her masculine tastes; and in short had pushed her to become one day a sort of Queen Elizabeth. These sentiments were already a little modified before her marriage. But she was particularly determined to be a good and obedient wife; some of her friends were anxious she should not; amongst these Madame de Flahaut must be mentioned en premiere ligne.
This became even a subject which severed the intimacy between them. Madame de Flahaut, much older than Charlotte, and of a sour and determined character, had gained an influence which partook on Charlotte’s part a little of fear. She was afraid of her, but when once supported took courage.
People were much struck on the 2nd of May 1816 at Carlton House with the clearness and firmness with which she pronounced “and obey” etc., as there had been a general belief that it would be for the husband to give these promises. The Regent put me particularly on my guard, and said, “If you don’t resist she will govern you with a high hand.” Your own experience has convinced you that real affection changes many sentiments that may have been implanted into the mind of a young girl. With Charlotte it was the more meritorious, as from a very early period of her life she was considered as the heiress of the Crown; the Whigs flattered her extremely, and later, when she got by my intervention reconciled to the Tories, they also made great efforts to please her.
Her understanding was extremely good; she knew everybody, and I even afterwards found her judgment generally extremely correct. She had read a great deal and knew well what she had read. Generous she was almost too much, and her devotion was quite affecting, from a character so much pushed to be selfish and imperious.
I will here end my souvenir of poor dear Charlotte, but I thought that the subject could not but be interesting to you. Her constancy in wishing to marry me, which she maintained under difficulties of every description, has been the foundation of all that touched the family afterwards. You know, I believe, that your poor father was the chief promoter, though also the Yorks were; but our correspondence from 1814 till 1816 was entirely carried on through his kind intervention; it would otherwise have been impossible, as she was really treated as a sort of prisoner. Grant always to that good and generous Charlotte, who sleeps already with her beautiful little boy so long, where all will go to, an affectionate remembrance, and believe me she deserves it.
Forgive my long letter, and see in it, what it really is, a token of the great affection I have for you. Ever, my dearest Victoria, your devoted Uncle,
Number One London will be celebrating the 200th Anniversary of Queen Victoria’s birth during the 2019 Queen Victoria Tour, visiting Kensington Palace, where she was born, Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, the Brighton Pavilion and Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight, where the Queen died in 1901. Complete Tour details can be found here.
Originally posted on February 12, 2011, ahead of the other wedding of the decade, that of William and Katherine.
As I write this, there is no word on the designer Kate Middleton has chosen to create her wedding gown, though I have heard many breathless accounts of who is and who is not in the running. So let’s indulge our royal wedding mania by looking at some of the gowns worn in the past.
Above is the dress worn by Princess Charlotte of Wales at her May 2, 1816, wedding to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, as exhibited in the Museum of London here.
The Lady’s Magazine of May, 1816, described the gown: White silk net embroidered in silver strip with a spotted ground and borders. The wedding dress, composed of a most magnificent silver lama on net, over a rich silver tissue slip, with a superb border of silver lama embroidery at the bottom, forming shells and bouquets above the border; a most elegant fullness tastefully designed, in festoons of rich silver lama, and finished with a very brilliant rollio of lama; the body and sleeves to correspond, trimmed with a most beautiful point Brussels lace, in a peculiar elegant style.
The manteau of rich silver tissue lined with white satin, trimmed round with a most superb silver lama border, in shells to correspond with the dress, and fastened in front with a most brilliant and costly ornament of diamonds. The whole dress surpassed all conception in the brilliancy and richness of its effects. Head dress, a wreath of rose buds and leaves, composed of the most superb brilliants.” At right, an engraving of Charlotte and Leopold at their wedding in Carlton House.
The portrait of Queen Victoria, at left, is by Winterhalter. It shows a rather wistful young bride at the time of her wedding to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg (nephew of the above-mentioned Leopold) on February 10, 1840 in the Chapel Royal of St. James Palace.
It was this gown and veil that supposedly has inspired generations of brides ever since to wear white for their ceremonies, though many brides had previously dressed in fashionable white as well as in a variety of other hues.
At right, an image of Queen Victoria’s dress on a mannequin in the collection of Kensington Palace.
Left, the wedding gown of Alexandra of Denmark, who married Victoria’s son, eventually King Edward VII, on March 10, 1863 in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. She was Princess of Wales for almost forty years before becoming Queen in 1901. After her husband’s death in 1910, she was known as the Queen Mother until she died in 1925.
Like Charlotte’s mother, Caroline, Princess of Wales, and like the first wife of the present Prince of Wales, Diana (see below), Alexandra had to endure the infidelity of her husband. But unlike the other two, she stuck with him to the end. We’ve all heard the possibly-apocryphal story about how Alexandra invited one of his mistresses, Alice Keppel, to comfort Edward VII on his deathbed.
Princess Mary of Teck wed Prince George, Duke of York on 6 July, 1893 in the Chapel Royal of St. James Palace. She had been engaged to Prince Albert Victor, eldest son of the Prince of Wales in 1891, but Albert Victor died in the great influenza epidemic of 1891-92. Mary and George fell in love and were married with the approval of Queen Victoria as well as Edward and Alexandra, Prince and Princess of Wales. George succeeded his father as George V in 1910. Queen Mary, who was a godchild of Queen Victoria, had five sons and one daughter.
Her eldest son, known to all as David, was more than a disappointment. After inheriting the throne as Eward VIII in 1936, he abdicated less than a year later to marry Wallis Simpson.
After her husband’s death, Queen Mary chose to be addressed as Her Majesty, Queen Mary, rather than as Queen Mother. She was very supportive of her second son, who became King George VI after his brother’s departure from the throne. According to several sources, she was the first dowager queen of Great Britain to ever attended the coronation ceremony of her husband’s successor.
As Duke of York, the second son of George V and Mary grew up in the shadow of his dashing older brother. He married Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon on 26 April 1923 in Westminster Abbey. At the time of the wedding, it was not expected that “Bertie” would take the throne. Lady Elizabeth’s gown, perhaps for that reason, was not as elaborate as some of her predecessors. It was certainly in the style of the day, a rather loose gown, slightly less than floor length. Below is the dress on a mannequin in a Kensington Palace exhibition of several years ago, along with a detail of the veil and bodice.
On 20 November, 1947, Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II) married Prince Philip of Greece (later Duke of Edinburgh) in Westminster Abbey. The designer was Norman Hartnell and the fabric is silk spun at Lullingstone Castle in Kent. She wore a diamond and pearl tiara and a filmy veil. The long train was decorated with traditional symbols, such as Tudor roses and wheat. All the details of the royal romance, the wedding, the gown and the ceremony were eagerly read around the world. It is said the happy event was like a tonic to the war-weary Britons still enduring shortages of goods and rationing.
The Gown on a mannequin
Princess Margaret, second daughter of King George VI, married Antony Armstrong-Jones (later Earl of Snowdon) on May 6, 1960, at Westminster Abbey. Television cameras covered the event and the broadcast was seen worldwide. Like her sister, Margaret chose Norman Hartnell to design her bridal gown.The couple had two children: David, Viscount Linley in 1961 and Lady Sarah Armstrong-Jones in 1964. The Snowdons were divorced in 1978 and Princess Margaret died in 2002.
14 November 1973 – Anne, Princess Royal, married Captain Mark Phillips in Westminster Abbey. Born in 1950, she is Queen Elizabeth II’s only daughter.Anne and Phillips have two children, Peter Phillips born in 1977 and Zara Phillips born in 1981. After divorcing Phillips in 1992, Anne married Timothy Laurence, in Scotland on December 12, 1992.
On 29 July 1981, Lady Diana Spencer and Charles, Prince of Wales, were married in St Paul’s Cathedral. Her dress was controversial — and still is. The designers, David and Elizabeth Emmanuel, immediately shot to the top echelon of British fashion. Like many of Diana’s fashions, the gown (or a replica) travels around the world for popular exhibition.
Charles and Diana had two sons, Prince William, born in 1982, and Prince Harry, born in 1984, before separating in the late 1980s, the Prince living in Highgrove and the Princess at Kensington Palace. Formal separation came in 1992 and the marriage of Charles and Diana ended in divorce on 28 August 1996. On 31 August 1997, a year after the Prince and Princess divorced, Diana died in a car crash in Paris.
Sarah Ferguson and Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, married at Westminster Abbey on 23 July 1986. The Duke and Duchess of York had two children during their marriage: Princess Beatrice of York (born 1988) and Princess Eugenie of York (born 1990). They separated in 1992 and divorced in 1996, though they are often together for vacations and family events.
Of all the gowns shown above, I think I like Sarah’s best, as designed by Lindka Cierach. It is beautiful, flattering to her and has no gimmicks. Princess Elizabeth’s was lovely too, but I like Sarah’s veil better. All in all this one is the winner in the gown category, if perhaps not in the list of “most suitable royal brides.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.