29 November 2018 – 3 February 2019
After 160 years, The Monarch of the Glen by Sir Edwin Landseer has returned to the National Gallery for a limited time, given on loan from the National Galleries of Scotland which had just bought it last year after a public fundraising appeal.
Admittedly a rather small exhibition, it makes up for its size with the beauty of the 14 sketches and paintings and with the intricate way in which they are arranged within one simple room. You could say it is a miniature of Landseer’s development as an artist and an overview of his life, going clockwise around the room. It starts with a portrait to the left of the door, showing Landseer as painted by Sir Francis Grant, introducing the painter behind one of Britain’s most-beloved animal depiction, The Monarch of the Glen.
(Photo courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland)
The left wall of the room is taken up with sketches of different animals, not all exclusively drawn by Landseer himself. The sketch of a horse by George Stubbs which Landseer acquired for himself reveals to the viewer the story of Landseers relentless study of the animal anatomy, of animal muscle and bone structure, by buying and analysing old master paintings from artists he admired. (Sidenote: George Stubb’s famous painting ‘Whistlejacket’, a larger-than-life depiction of a racehorse, is now to be found in Room 34 of the National Gallery. Comparing the two artists you will notice how much of Landseer’s work was informed by Stubbs.) Another famous but rather unexpected artist exhibited in the sketch section: The Queen Victoria herself. Landseer was one of the Queen’s favourite painter and thus visited her and King Albert frequently in the Highlands, teaching them to etch and draw.
The next wall is occupied by three paintings, putting into practice what the sketches have taught Landseer. Of course, the central piece is the name-giving, magnificent depiction of a stag in the highlands: The Monarch of the Glen. The ruffled texture of its fur and the way its antlers are catching the first rays of morning sun stand out so vividly from the foggy highland landscape in the background, it seems almost impossible that Landseer painted it all in his studio in St. John’s Wood, and not perched up there on that mountain ridge. Another painting that stands out is that of a stag wading through a still lake in front of a new dawn, a flock of birds just stirred up by this intruder.
The right wall of the room is dedicated to another interesting aspect of Landseer’s work. One of the reasons why it is such a serendipitous moment to finally have his opus back in the National Gallery is that he has designed the lions guarding the base of Nelson’s Column out in Trafalgar Square. Regardless of critics saying that he was a painter and not a sculptor, he had accepted the commission and even had a living lion shipped to his studio to examine it in the greatest possible detail. These studies are reflected in the different lion sketches and paintings exhibited.
Closing the circle to the right of the door hangs a painting that beautifully contrasts the old with the new and shows how art can always be re-invented and re-modelled to reflect emerging trends and the changes in how we perceive and appreciate art: Peter Blake has put a new twist on the Monarch in the 1960s when he made a quite a faithful adaption in pop-art style.
The Monarch and Landseer’s lifelong fascination with the animal and its beauty serves in today’s context of climate change and environmental pollution as a powerful reminder of the regard we as nations of the world should hold for nature and its inhabitants, the stag’s defiant gaze almost a provocation to finally start acting on its behalf.