A troubled artist: Sir Edwin Landseer

The RCVS headquarters tidy-up has revealed another gem, and led us to discover the fascinating story of a troubled man. Eight large prints of paintings by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer (1802-1873), depicting animals and bucolic scenes, have been discovered.

Landseer (1802-1873), an English painter, was renowned for his paintings of horses and dogs. Included in his artistic achievements are the lion sculptures in Trafalgar Square. His dog paintings of the 1830’s are by far his most popular work, ‘Dignity and Impudence’ (1839) being the most famous of all.

Edwin Landseers 'Dignity and impudence' 1839

Dignity and Impudence (1839)

The two dogs in the life sized ‘portrait’ belonged to Jacob Bell, a chemist, who commissioned the work. The bloodhound is called Grafton and the West Highland terrier is named Scratch. Landseer cleverly parodies the Dutch portraiture style, where the subject is framed by either a window or a door, with a hand hanging over the edge. According to the Tate’s summary of Landseer’s painting, Grafton was quite the bohemian and was a visitor at several artists’ studios in London but Scratch was Bell’s favourite of the two dogs. Apparently, Bell made a bet with the owner of a poodle that his West Highland terrier was the better looking of the two. Landseer was to be the judge, he took one look at Scratch and announced, without any prompting, ‘Oh what a beauty!’

Bell and Landseer’s lifelong friendship was founded on a mutual love of animals. Eventually Landseer came to rely on Bell as a business advisor, being ill equipped to deal with every day business matters. Along with Landseer’s brother James, Bell oversaw the commission and sale of his portraits, securing the very best prices. He took on rather more duties than a normal business manager might, as he was heavily involved in the rebuilding of Landseer’s home and helped him to purchase land.

Landseer was the youngest son of an engraver and initially developed his talents with his father. He was later sent, along with his two brothers, to study under Benjamin Robert Haydon, the historical painter, in 1815. It was Haydon who encouraged Landseer to study animal anatomy. His early paintings benefit from his excellent anatomical knowledge and portray a variety of moral messages which contributed to his popularity with his Victorian audience. His later work was marred by his sentimentality and the humanization of his animal subjects.

Landseer had social as well as professional success; his friends included Dickens and Thackeray. He moved freely in aristocratic circles and enjoyed royal patronage in the 1840s.  A favourite painter of Queen Victoria’s, she described Landseer as being ‘very good looking although rather short’. Landseer visited Balmoral in 1850 to paint a portrait of the royal family. The painting was never finished, and the failure of his first royal commission greatly contributed to his deteriorating mental health.

In 1840, Landseer suffered a severe mental breakdown, thought to be triggered by the Duchess of Bedford’s refusal of his marriage proposal (Incidentally, the Duchess was the originator of the very British concept of ‘afternoon tea’!). For the rest of Landseer’s life he was plagued by severe bouts of depression, exacerbated by his alcohol and drug use. His family had him declared insane in July 1872. Landseer died a year later on 1 October, 1873. The country mourned the loss greatly, shops and houses lowered their blinds, flags were hung at half mast and crowds lined the street to watch his funeral procession.

See our full collection of Edwin Landseer’s prints on our Facebook page.

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10 Responses to A troubled artist: Sir Edwin Landseer

  1. segmation says:

    Did you know that the best known of Landseer’s works are lions sculptures in Trafalgar Square, London? I wonder if Landseer had any mental health issues when he created these lions?

  2. leah j. wolfe says:

    Thank you for bringing me a new artist! And I love the extra details about Bedford’s tea-time and Queen Victoria’s comment about his height. What a good giggle to start the day.

  3. sad to say the least…

  4. It seems artistry and depression share a close kinship. I enjoyed the read.

  5. Val Mills says:

    I’ve had an old postcard of Dignity & Impudence and often wondered about the background to it. Thanks for this!

  6. Chas Spain says:

    I’m so excited to see an RCVS Freshly pressed – I’m an MRCVS (using a slightly different moniker here which I’m not sure is in the rules…) Absolutely wonderful post about an intriguing artist, his subjects and the associated history.

  7. msfreddiej says:

    Very nice, wonder if there is a movie about his life and work. Beautiful portrait. Wonderful article. Thank you

  8. myinnerdog says:

    Fantastic post about my most favorite canine artist! Thanks!

  9. Avery says:

    i love his painting called the Terrier!!!!!!!!!!

  10. Thank you for this interesting blog – can I suggest a tiny correction – the Duchess of Bedford with whom Landseer conducted a thirty year affair was actually Georgiana Russell, not Anna Maria. Georgiana was almost 20 years older than Landseer and widowed in 1839 hence the marriage proposal when she became the Dowager Duchess of Bedford. Her stepson Francis Russell and his wife Anna Maria, formerly the Marquis and Marchioness of Tavistock, were then elevated to the title of Duke and Duchess of Bedford. I regret to say that there is no truth in the story of Anna Maria ‘inventing’ the meal of afternoon tea. The English afternoon tea party is a complex social ritual that was taking place long before the Victorian era. And thank you for illuminating Landseer’s life and work.

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