The Monarch of the Glen, Sir Edwin Landseer
Painted in 1851, Sir Edwin Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen is one of the most famous paintings of the Victorian era, and became the subject of countless reproductions through all manner of print media; engraving, reproduction, and lithograph. By the twentieth century, the painting had become utterly ubiquitous and emerged as an object of kitsch, the ultimate symbol of Victoriana. The fate of this startling canvas was sealed when it was first purchased by a soap company for use as their advertising image. It subsequently changed hands between brands who utilized its popularity to promote their products before finally falling into the Diageo collection at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Yet Landseer originally intended that this large solitary deer standing proudly in front of the last rays of sunlight illuminating the summit of Ben Lomond would articulate a perfect balance between political power and the energy of nature. Painted on commission for the Houses of Parliament in London by the preeminent animal painter of the nineteenth century, Monarch of the Glen was intended to remind visitors to the House of the part played by Scotland in the union of the United Kingdom.
Although much to the chagrin of many in Scotland, this English painting by the English painter Landseer has become a symbol of a chastened Scotland. The Highlands of the artist’s Monarch of the Glen are emptied of their inhabitants, replaced instead by a romantic installation of a deer in the landscape. The regal posture, and the reminder that the beast in the ‘monarch’ of the glen, appears to dissolve any right of a Scotsman the right to self-rule. Although an eloquent and towering achievement of form and balance, Monarch of the Glen is a manifestation of submission and control. Landseer’s deer embodies the brute force of nature and the freedom of the wild world submitted to the rule of the British empire.
Landseer attempted to use the figure of the deer as a powerful and resonant emblem of the Scottish nation. Commonly the creature was understood to be neither a predator nor a tyrant, instead of posing as a legitimate sovereign reigning alone in a herd reminiscent of the clan structure of Scotland. The message could not be clearer: Queen Victoria was to be the sole human monarch over this anthropomorphic highland beast. Cloaked in the flattery of national pride, Landseer’s beautiful image is a mythical landscape that both individual and nation have strived hard to own and use for their own means.