To modern sensibilities Sir Edwin Landseer’s work is not easy to swallow. Nationalists insist on seeing him as an apologist for the infamous Highland Clearances when people were removed from the glens to make way for sheep. Animal lovers are no more sympathetic towards him, viewing his paintings of hunting and hawking as illustrative of a barbarous age when wild beasts existed simply to satisfy man’s bloodlust.
Nor does his purple-tinged vision of Scotland find much favour. His Highlanders wear kilts and tam-o-shanters, tuck dirks into their socks and play the bagpipes. Even worse, they invariably have a roof over their heads. The stark reality of poverty is conspicuous by its absence. Landseer, so the revisionists argue, saw what he wanted to see. His representation of Scotland was no more accurate than that of Sir Walter Scott who, through the phenomenal success of historical novels such as Rob Roy and Waverley, stands accused of the tartanisation of a nation, in the eyes of some smart, sophisticated Scots a sin worse than serial murder.
So far, so predictable. To its credit, the exhibition at the Royal Scottish Academy panders to all the preconceptions about Landseer, its organisers seemingly in tune with an age when it was sport to chase a deer until it was exhausted and then allow the dogs to finish it off. From the moment Landseer first saw Scotland he fell in love with it. He arrived in 1824 and in a sense he never left it. In painting after painting he memorialised a time and place in adoring detail. The hills are misty, the stags noble and the gaunt trees are blasted by lightning. Every picture tells a dramatic story of life and death and the rawness of nature. Landseer was to paint what Scott was to print.
Like Scott, he is often accused of sentimentalism. It would be perverse to deny otherwise. At his worst, he was capable of paintings which could decorate a chocolate box, especially where domestic animals—dogs in particular—were concerned. He made several portraits of Scott’s deerhound Maida, including one a few weeks before it died, of which the author thought there was no ‘finer exemplification of age and its consequences acting upon an animal of such strength and beauty’.
That said, however, it is clear that where animals were concerned Landseer was a sympathetic realist. In later years his canvases are empty of people and given over to animals. Some are spectacular, such as ‘None but the Brave Deserve the Fair’, in which two stags are locked like prize-fighters in mortal combat, while the herd looks anxiously on. For sheer drama though ‘Hawking’ shows Landseer’s art at its most spectacular, one beautiful bird—a peregrine hawk—bringing about the demise of another—a heron. It is undoubtedly shocking but then so is a Goya firing squad or Picasso’s Guernica.
Landseer, as TC Smout sagaciously acknowledges in the exhibition catalogue, could depict cruelty without flinching, whether it was man’s cruelty towards animals, or animal to animal. Man’s inhumanity to man was not his subject, not least because the perpetrators of it were often those who gave him his commissions. He was as much a pragmatist as he was a romantic.
Alan Taylor is associate editor of the Sunday Herald