Sir Edwin Landseer’s painting, The Monarch of the Glen, is to be auctioned next month at Christie’s in London and could easily fetch more than £10m. There is global interest. The picture may well end up in a private collection in Britain or abroad, unless an institution such as the National Museum of Scotland thinks it can afford a winning bid, or a UK government committee (the reviewing committee on the export of works of art and objects of cultural Interest) recommends that it should be “saved for the nation” and delays an export licence to allow a British gallery the time to raise funds.
Is The Monarch of the Glen fit to be called a “national treasure”? Only the most self-righteous aesthete would deny it that status. It was one of Victorian Britain’s favourite images and remains one of the world’s great animal portraits. Nevertheless, not a penny of public money should be spent on it. Instead, what needs to happen is a small act of corporate generosity – a token of gratitude to the climate, the landscape and the society that enabled both the picture to be painted and the fortunes of its present owners, the drinks business Diageo, to be made.
Landseer and the modern whisky industry achieved their early success around the same time. The painter, the son of an engraver, was a Londoner who made his first visit to Scotland in 1824, aged 22. A year earlier, the British government had passed the Excise Act, which by legalising whisky distilling in exchange for a £10 licence gave the business a respectability that illicit stills and smuggling had denied it. Technical developments in the same decade made production more reliable, with a consistent quality of spirit. Sold now in branded casks and bottles, the sales of Scottish whisky took off in England and then the empire. By the end of the 19th century, after the phylloxera epidemic ruined French vineyards (and consequently the trade in cognac as well as wine), it had become a fashionable drink around the world.
What helped sell scotch was the vogue for Scotland and wild Scottish things, which no painter did more to promote than Landseer. In London his pictures of animals had established him as an artistic prodigy. Almost as soon as he could walk, his father had set him to work drawing the cows and sheep that then populated the fields beside what’s now the Finchley Road; aged 13, he had two pictures accepted by the Royal Academy. Pets – dogs, especially – were a lucrative subject, and Landseer grew popular with their aristocratic owners. He became the lover of one of them, the voluptuary Georgiana, Duchess of Bedford, and the father of the last two of her 10 children. He set foot in Scotland with no firm purpose – he went as the companion to a young fellow painter who wanted to paint Sir Walter Scott’s portrait – but fell in love with the landscape. A mutual love of dogs cemented a valuable friendship with Scott, while the Duchess of Bedford’s Highland estate introduced him to a new enthusiasm among the titled rich for deerstalking.
According to his biographer, Campbell Lennie, Landseer had until that point faced a likely future “as a parlour painter of lapdogs”. In Scotland, on rugged and treeless stretches of land mysteriously known as “deer forests” – sometimes originally cleared of people in favour of sheep, more recently of sheep in favour of deer – he found what Lennie says was “almost a reaffirmation of his manhood” in a new lease of art. Landseer moved from his dog phase to his deer phase, and would eventually complete his three-act career with his lion phase, most famously the four in bronze that guard Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square.
His fondness for animals endeared him to the greatest advocate for the Highlands and Highland-ism, Queen Victoria, who appreciated his jokes and anecdotes as well as the blighting sentimentalism of his pictures, though the last came hand-in-hand with a relish for cruelty that was shared by the painter, the queen and her consort. In Germany, Prince Albert had joined “deer-drives” in which beaters scared herds of deer into enclosures where they were slaughtered by riflemen from a platform, with wives looking on and a small orchestra playing close by to compete with, and with luck to drown out, the squeals of dying animals.
Stalking in Scotland gave the deer more of a chance, but the intent to kill was the same. “There is something in the toil and trouble, the wild heather and the savage scenery, that makes butchers of us all,” Landseer wrote to a friend. “It was a most exciting sight,” Victoria noted in her diary, after watching her husband stand over a wounded stag with a gun and finish him off.
Many Landseer pictures came out of these bloody scenes and confused, contradictory moods, but the most famous of them was also the least typical. The Monarch of the Glen is a tranquil picture with no suggestion of violence. The stag stands imperious and alone against a background of peaks and cloud, close-up and, to enhance his majesty, seen slightly from below. Landseer painted it in 1850-51 as part of a commission for a triptych of panels intended to decorate the House of Lords refreshment room in Charles Barry’s new Palace of Westminster, but parliament jibbed at the price of £1500 for the three and the picture went instead to Lord Londesborough for a few hundred guineas.
From his collection it started on its long journey towards Diageo. Londesborough sold it to Lord Fitzgerald, who sold it Lord Cheylesmore, who sold it in 1916 to Thomas Dewar, who adopted the stag as a branding device for the Dewar family’s whisky business in Perthshire. The Distillers company bought Dewar’s in 1925 and was in turn bought by Guinness in 1986, which merged with Grand Metropolitan to become Diageo in 1997. Diageo sold the Dewar’s brand to Bacardi the next year, but retained the Landseer in the deal and soon after gave it on loan to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, which has displayed it in the 17 years since.
Why does Diageo want to sell? The company says its priority is to ensure all its assets “are focused on growing our business and delivering value for our employees, shareholders and the communities where we operate”. The painting had “no direct link to our business or brands”.
The last statement conflicts with the historical record: the whisky business and stags have gone together ever since men first crawled though the heather with guns and hip flasks, and the painting has been owned by one whisky company or another since 1916 (currently by one that has a 37% share of the global market in scotch, which sells – to quote from the Diageo website – 25,000 bottles of Johnnie Walker in every hour of every day). But then a lot about Diageo is slightly incredible. We might forgive the name – it came after all from a marketing consultancy, Wolff Olins – but the company goes too far when it says it takes this combination of the Latin word for day with the Greek for world “to mean every day, everywhere, people celebrate with our brands”.
They do, however, drink a lot of them. In the last financial year, Diageo made an operating profit of £3bn on net sales of £10.8bn and paid its chief executive, Ivan Menezes, £4.4m. In other words, if The Monarch of the Glen fetches £10m at Christie’s next month, that sum minus the seller’s premium will be eaten up by Menezes’s remuneration within two years. Feeding old masters into the boilers of luxury liners to keep the steam up is an image that comes to mind.
No, any business with a sense of history would give the picture to a public gallery in Scotland, the place without which both the business and the picture would be nothing. It would be the decent thing.
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