The Sunday Section: Art - Sir Edwin Henry Landseer

The things I’ve discovered while researching blog posts!  I never once stopped to wonder who was responsible for the lion sculptures in Trafalgar Square, and I wasn’t even looking for that piece of information.  Turns out it was the very man I was planning a post on – Sir Edwin Henry Landseer.

Edwin Landseer was born in London in 1802.  His father, John Landseer, was an engraver and Edwin’s first art teacher.  The elder Landseer recognised his son’s artistic talents early on and encouraged it.  He would take, not only Edwin but his other sons out into nature as he believed that the natural world was the best art teacher; the boys would observe and sketch animals grazing in the fields of Hampstead Heath.

Edwin also studied under the history painter, Benjamin Robert Haydon who believed the best way to fully understand animal musculature and skeleton structure was to perform dissections; he encouraged Edwin to do just that.

In 1815, aged just 13, Edwin Landseer exhibited at the Royal Academy.   In 1826, aged 24, he was elected an Associate, and an Academician in 1831 when he was 29 years old.

'Attachment' (1829)

'Hawking' (1832)

In his late 30s, Landseer suffered what was most likely a severe nervous breakdown, which affected the rest of his life.  He was routinely plagued by bouts of melancholy, depression and hypochondria, made worse by his consumption of alcohol and drugs.

'The Falcon' (1837)

'The Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner' (1837)

Despite this, Landseer was very popular in Victorian Britain; his art could be found in the homes of the aristocracy and, in the form of reproductions, in middle-class homes.  Unrivalled in his reputation as an animal painter, the variety of black-and-white Newfoundland dog that he popularised in his paintings came to officially be known as the ‘Landseer’.  He celebrated them as water rescue dogs in, amongst others, ‘ A Distinguished Member of the Humane Society’ and ‘Saved’.

'A Distinguished Member of the Humane Society' (1838)


'Dignity and Impudence' (1839)

He received numerous commissions from Queen Victoria, initially of her pets.  In 1839, the year before her marriage, the queen commissioned a portrait of herself, which she intended as a present for Prince Albert.  Landseer appears to have been well-liked by the royal family.  He taught Victoria and Albert to etch; made portraits of their children as babies; and made portraits of the couple dressed for costume balls.  One of his last paintings was of the queen herself – a life-size equestrian portrait, which he did using earlier sketches.  The painting was shown at the Royal Academy in 1873.

'Queen Victoria on Horseback' (1840)

'Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at the Bal Costumé 12 May 1842'

'Windsor Castle in Modern Times: Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and Victoria, Princess Royal' (1843)

Edwin Landseer was knighted in 1850 at the age of 48.

'Shoeing' (1844)

'A Scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream' (1850)

Many of Landseer’s paintings were associated with Scotland, the best known surely being ‘Monarch of the Glen’.

'Monarch of the Glen' (1851)

At the 1861 Royal Academy Exhibition, he entered ‘The Shrew Tamed’, and caused a controversy.  Critics were left uneasy at the portrayal of a beautiful young woman easily dominating a powerful animal despite the catalogue describing it as a portrait of Ann Gilbert, a noted equestrienne, applying the taming techniques of the famous American horse whisperer, John Solomon Rarey.

'The Shrew Tamed'

'Study of a Lion' (1862)

Some of Landseer’s later works have a darker tone, maybe mirroring his mental state.  One of his paintings from 1864, ‘Man Proposes, God Disposes’, is based on the failed Arctic expedition of Sir John Franklin.  It shows two polar bears among the remains of the dead.  

The painting was purchased by the entrepreneur and philanthropist, Thomas Holloway.  It hangs in the picture gallery of the college he founded, Royal Holloway College, which was officially opened by Queen Victoria in 1886 as an all-woman college.  A longstanding rumour maintains that anyone who sits by the painting is driven mad by it; so college tradition states that the painting be covered with a Union Jack when exams are held in the gallery where it hangs.

In 1866, Landseer was elected President of the Royal Academy, but he declined the invitation.

'The Arab Tent' (1866)

'The Wild Cattle of Chillingham' (1867)

The bronze lions at the base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square were installed in 1867, over 9 years from when the government commissioned Landseer to make them.  

(Jose L. Marin)

That he finished the lions, and was still painting in the last years of his life is amazing considering his deteriorating mental state; in July 1872, his family requested that he be declared insane.

Edwin Henry Landseer died on 1st October 1873.  Flags flew at half-mast; shops and houses lowered their blinds; his Trafalgar Square lions were hung with wreaths, and large crowds witnessed the passing of his funeral cortege.  He was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral.

He’d left behind 3 unfinished paintings, which were completed by his friend, John Everett Millais; that Millais finish them had been Landseer’s dying wish.