A hunt for the real Monarch of the Glen

How can one painting go from promoting shortbread to representing a nation? We look at the complex history of a Scottish icon.

Sir Edwin Henry Landseer (1867) by Samuel CousinsNational Galleries Scotland: Portrait

Classic or kitsch?

Sir Edwin Landseer’s The Monarch of the Glen has managed to stand proud through the centuries, currently surveying its surroundings in Edinburgh’s Scottish National Gallery. Today it's seen as both a symbol of a forward-thinking nation and as a backward looking piece of kitsch Victoriana. Join us on a virtual hunt to gain a better understand the painting, starting in the nineteenth century and ending up in present-day Scotland.  

Queen Victoria on Fyvie with John Brown at Balmoral (1863) by George Washington WilsonNational Galleries Scotland: Portrait

Born in London in 1802, Edwin Henry Landseer was a child prodigy who became renowned throughout the British Empire as an animal painter.

Landseer’s early career benefitted from a number of rich patrons, who enjoyed his paintings of animals and sports. His friends included Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray.

The artist’s love of Scotland was shared by Queen Victoria, who along with Walter Scott brought the Highlands to a wider audience.

Alexander III of Scotland Rescued from the Fury of a Stag by the Intrepidity of Colin Fitzgerald ('The Death of the Stag') (1786) by Benjamin WestNational Galleries Scotland: National

In October 1834, London’s Palace of Westminster was razed to the ground. Following the construction of the new Houses of Parliament, there was a hunt for new artworks to decorate the interiors.

By 1849, Landseer was offered a three-painting commission on the theme of ‘the chase’, leading him to consider depicting a stag in his work.

Landseer would have been aware of works such as Benjamin West’s Death of the Stag, which featured animals alongside historical figures such as the Scottish king, Alexander III, although he wanted to focus more on the noble animal itself.

A Dead Stag by Sir Edwin LandseerNational Galleries Scotland: National

Landseer had sketched stags and owned over 30 pairs of stags’ heads and antlers, ensuring he had references to inform his new work.

Despite the influence of Sir Walter Scott on the Victorian era’s romantic view of Scotland, as Landseer started his new work the Highland Clearances were underway.

Landlords were removing the poor tenants from their homes to make way for commercial use of the land, such as sheep farming, stag hunting and other rich men’s sports.

The Monarch of the Glen (About 1851) by Sir Edwin LandseerNational Galleries Scotland: National

The Monarch of the Glen has been described as a late illustration of the British preoccupation with the ‘sublime’, meaning viewers could take visceral pleasure from the awe-inspiring forces of nature.

Anyone looking at the painting would be transported to a Scotland vaguely recognisable to country sportsmen and anyone who read Walter Scott.

The location was never explicitly named by Landseer, though it is thought it could be on the Blackmount estate in north Argyllshire or Glen Quoich in Aberdeenshire.

The artist allows viewers to get up close to the stag, adding moisture around its nostrils and detail to its eyelashes.

Landseer also adds texture to the antlers, crowned with twelve tines, or points, that identify him as a ‘royal’ stag.

Queen Victoria was impressed with the work, which ultimately didn't hang in Parliament and ended up in private hands. It was sold to Albert Denison, 1st Lord Londesborough, before being bought by James Barratt, the chairman of the soap manufacturer, Pears.

Barratt's success using paintings in adverts inspired the next owner of the Monarch, Thomas Dewar, to use it to promote Dewar's whisky from the 1920s onwards.

The Monarch of the Glen soon took on a new life, the painting and its title achieving awareness away from galleries and private residences as it featured in adverts, cartoons, cans of Baxter’s soup and on shortbread tins.

Author Compton Mackenzie borrowed the title for his 1941 novel, which the BBC adapted into a hit TV series in 2000.

While some critics see the painting as obscuring the harsh realities of life in the Highlands for a more mythical view of Scotland, others see it as a technically brilliant Scottish icon.

Queen of Scots, Sovereign of the Most Ancient and Noble Order of the Thistle and Chief of Chiefs (2010) by Julian CalderNational Galleries Scotland: Portrait

In 2013, The Scottish National Portrait Gallery acquired a new portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, photographed against a Highland backdrop at Balmoral.

The new work was dubbed 'The Real Monarch of the Glen' by some newspapers.

Today Landseer's The Monarch of the Glen sits proudly in the Scottish National Gallery, the property of a nation still trying to come to terms with its past as it looks to the future.

Credits: Story

The Monarch of the Glen by Christopher Baker, National Galleries of Scotland

Monarch of The Glen: The Creation of an Icon by Lachlan Goudie

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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