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The Monarch of the Glen is one of the most resonant and recognisable British paintings of the nineteenth century.

The Monarch of the Glen

The Monarch of the Glen 1851

Edwin Henry Landseer (1802–1873)

National Galleries of Scotland

It was painted in 1851 by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer for the House of Lords, but because of controversies around the cost of new works of art being commissioned by Parliament, it was sold to a collector. The painting remained in private hands until 2017 when it was acquired by the National Galleries of Scotland, but has never been out of the public eye.

Its celebrity status was originally in part due to the reputation of Landseer himself, who, by the 1850s, was Britain's pre-eminent animal painter. Thanks to numerous reproductions of his works, especially via steel engravings, he was also one of the most famous artists in the world.

Edwin Landseer

Edwin Landseer c.1852

Francis Grant (1803–1878)

National Portrait Gallery, London

Landseer's Monarch was first exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts, which at the time was housed within The National Gallery. During the following decade, he designed the other most public and affectionately regarded commission of his career – the bronze lions at the base of Nelson's Column, which dominate Trafalgar Square in front of the Gallery. They have become a symbol of 'Britishness', while the Monarch remains above all a Scottish icon.

Edwin Landseer

Edwin Landseer c.1865

John Ballantyne (1815–1897)

National Portrait Gallery, London

Landseer was born in London in 1802 and first visited Scotland in 1824, being overwhelmed by the experience of the landscape and the people. He developed a particular affinity with Sir Walter Scott.

Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832)

Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) 1824

Edwin Henry Landseer (1802–1873)

Walker Art Gallery

He saw the country as a land of beauty with a riveting history, and some of his most successful sporting pictures and historical works have a highland setting.

The Pot of Gartness, Drymen, Stirlingshire

The Pot of Gartness, Drymen, Stirlingshire c.1830

Edwin Henry Landseer (1802–1873)

The Fitzwilliam Museum

Although painted in Landseer's studio they were informed by brilliant drawings and oil sketches made on his travels.

Head of 'Driver', a Deerhound Owned by the 5th Duke of Gordon

Head of 'Driver', a Deerhound Owned by the 5th Duke of Gordon

Edwin Henry Landseer (1802–1873)

National Trust for Scotland, Brodie Castle

From the 1830s, the artist frequently painted deer and stags. However, he often portrayed them being pursued and at the mercy of hunters or as trophies of the chase.

Queen Victoria in Windsor Home Park

Queen Victoria in Windsor Home Park 1865

Edwin Henry Landseer (1802–1873)

Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage

What distinguishes his painting of the Monarch is its dominant, almost triumphal air – the stag appears to be master of all he surveys and unthreatened by any human interaction. He may though have just sensed our presence as a stalker, who has managed, unseen, to get very close to our quarry.

The stag's appearance is precisely defined, with details such as the moisture around his nostrils and even his eyelashes being deftly painted. He is a 'royal' or twelve-point stag – a reference to the number of tines on his antlers. The veracity of his depiction was based on careful studies made in Scotland and London, and on a number of landed estates across England where Landseer was a guest.

Deer in a Landscape (Studies of Deer)

Deer in a Landscape (Studies of Deer)

Edwin Henry Landseer (1802–1873)

Nottingham City Museums

The ideal of a magnificent specimen that dominates the kingdom of nature is a compelling one that was also explored by other artists in the nineteenth century, such as Charles Towne and John Linnell.

The Monarch of Pasture Land

The Monarch of Pasture Land 1831

Charles Towne (1763–1840)

Walker Art Gallery

The Fallen Monarch of the Forest

The Fallen Monarch of the Forest 1850–1880

John Linnell (1792–1882)

Harris Museum, Art Gallery & Library

However, while their monarchs – a prize bull and an ancient tree – have been long forgotten, the familiarity of Landseer's creation has endured. This is chiefly because his painting was employed as a hugely successful marketing icon.

The key moment in terms of its shift in status came when the painting was owned by James Barratt (1841–1914), a manufacturer and pioneer of the advertising industry. He inspired Thomas Dewar (1864–1930), 1st Baron Dewar, who bought Landseer's Monarch in 1916, to harness it to promote an archetypal Scottish product – whisky.

In the wake of this, it was endlessly reproduced on packaging. Shortbread and soup are perhaps the most famous examples, but there seems to be no end to its recycling. This all kept the painting remarkably visible through the twentieth century, when conversely the reputation of mid-Victorian art was in a steady decline.

Artistic responses to the Monarch have played cleverly on its dual status as a Victorian paragon in a later age of disrespect. Artists who have been irresistibly drawn to it include Sir Bernard Partridge, Ronald Searle, Sir Peter Blake and more recently Peter Saville.

Although it has perhaps not been universally loved, Landseer's most famous work seems to have lost none of its quality of recognition and ability to inspire.

Christopher Baker, Director of European and Scottish Art and Portraiture at the National Galleries of Scotland

A book by Christopher Baker on the iconic painting is available from the National Galleries of Scotland