Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-1873) was a child protégé artist, a favourite of Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort and arguably the finest British painter of animals in 19th century. His most famous works are the monolithic sculpted lions that lie at the feet of Nelson’s Column in London’s Trafalgar Square but, in his lifetime, Landseer’s sentimental animal portraits were bought by royalty and the aristocracy and published as etchings for the masses. Blessed with success and cursed by fragile mental health, Sir Edwin suffered several breakdowns but never ceased to paint masterpieces for over fifty years.
Aged seven, Landseer was taught how to etch by his father. He could paint in oils before his tenth birthday and, in 1813, aged eleven he won the Society of Arts’ Silver Palette for his animal studies. When Landseer was thirteen his A Mule and A Pointer Bitch and Puppy were exhibited at the Royal Academy where he would study a year later. The President of the RA Henry Fuseli called Landseer ‘my little dog boy’ and painter C. R. Lesile described him as ‘a curly-headed youngster dividing his time between Polito’s wild beasts at Exeter ‘Change and the Royal Academy Schools’. Landseer also studied the wild animals that were kept in the menagerie at the Tower of London until 1834 and made a study of the Elgin Marbles then displayed in Burlington House at the Royal Academy.
In 1824 Leslie took Landseer to Scotland to visit Sir Walter Scott who the young artist sketched with his dogs. The visit began a life-long passion for the Highlands and Landseer would visit annually painting arguably his most famous canvas of a stag in Scotland called Monarch of the Glen (1854). Aged twenty-four, Landseer was honoured by being made an associate of the Royal Academy. He moved to No 1 St John’s Wood Road and would spend the next fifty years entertaining the great and the good in his studio. An early supporter was the celebrated dandy Count d’Orsay.
Though Landseer was commercially successful, he was hopeless with finances so his father managed his affairs (with his sister keeping house) until his friend Jacob Bell secured engraving rights for his work. These engravings were carried out by Landseer’s brother Thomas and would form the lion’s share of his income while also making him one of the most popular artists of his day. His Times obituary recorded that ‘animals recognised in Landseer a friend and a master. His power over them and his marvellous way of winning their affection was unfailing’. Landseer was equally gifted in the art of entertaining Society. The Times writes ‘Landseer was a brilliant conversationalist, full of humour and anecdote. His manner of telling a story was graphic and marked with a certain dramatic power’.
Landseer was famed for working swiftly and impressionistically. It was said of him that ‘a single drag of the brush gave a more effectual rendering of the coat of an animal than could be achieved by a painstaking imitation of each hair’. He would place a canvas on his easel, leave it untouched for days then complete a painting in as little as two hours. His party piece at dinner was to draw two different animals with a pencil in each hand and it was said ‘both drawings were strong and vigorous; that drawn with the left hand in no way inferior to its companion sketch’. Landseer’s own estimation of his talent was modest. He famously said ‘if people only knew as much about painting as I do, they would never buy my pictures’.
Queen Victoria patronised Landseer in the early years of her reign before she married Prince Albert and called him ‘the cleverest artist there is’. On one occasion, she rode unannounced to St John’s Wood Road and invited Landseer to accompany her as he sketched an equestrian portrait of the young queen. In 1840 Landseer’s health failed him from overwork and ‘the demands of a social life that held only too great a fascination for him and produced a somewhat detrimental effect on his character’. It was said the failure of a royal portrait contributed to Landseer’s distress and Jacob Bell took him on a tour of Europe with no painting allowed to calm his nerves.
The artist’s breakdown did nothing to dim his popularity with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert who she married in 1840. Landseer was a regular visitor to Balmoral and Osborne House. He played billiards with the Prince Consort and took long walks with The Queen. He painted numerous portraits of the royal couple, their children, their animals and their houses. When painting Prince Albert’s favourite greyhound Eos with the Consort’s top hat and gloves as a surprise, a message came from Queen Victoria to return the hat and gloves immediately because Prince Albert had asked for them. Landseer was knighted in 1850 but Queen Victoria severed contact in 1861 following the death of Prince Albert.
In his History of Modern Painting, Richard Muther called Landseer ‘the spoilt child of fortune. In high favour at court, honoured by the fashionable world and tenderly treated by criticism, he went on his way triumphant’. He also surmised that Landseer’s success was down to his ability ‘to make animals more beautiful than they really are and to make them the medium for expressing human sentiment’. Nowhere was that more demonstrable than in the 1837 canvas The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner depicting a sheepdog with its snout resting on the shepherd’s coffin. The Pretty Horse Breaker (1861) is of particular interest for Henry Poole. The sensual portrait of a luscious lovely in riding habit resting on the flank of a stallion was actually of Annie Gilbert but was the spitting image of Catherine ‘Skittles’ Walters the celebrated Victorian courtesan and customer of Henry Poole.
Landseer had developed a dependence on drugs and alcohol during the troubles of 1840. In the 1860s his mental health deteriorated further. By 1865 he felt that he had outlived his greatness, that his ‘hand and brain were growing alike feeble and that he had times of melancholy and nervous distress (when) he would shut himself away from his dearest friends’. Landseer was unanimously voted President of the Royal Academy in 1865 but he judged his health too weak to accept the honour. A posthumous biography reports ‘his health had shown signs of seriously breaking down. Extreme nervous excitability manifested itself in various ways and attacks of mental distress undermined his constitution’.
As the attacks of depression grew more frequent, Landseer retreated to his studio and continued to paint almost to the last. From 1870 the artist’s mind was lost to ‘mental anguish’ and in 1872 his family had Landseer certified insane. But as the Times obituary records ‘his popularity as an artist was unequalled until the day of his death by that of any artist in England in the nineteenth century’. Of his death in 1873 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 surrounding Nelson’s Column were hung with wreaths.