Contributor: Fanny Lacôte
Location: Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland
Description: The painting The Monarch of the Glen (c. 1851), by Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-1873), has become a quintessentially Scottish image. The most ‘[…] potent, visual evocation of Scotland’s impact upon the popular imagination’, according to Scottish artist Lachlan Goudie, ‘it’s right up there with bagpipes, tartan and a mouthful of shortbread’. Until 2017, The Monarch of the Glen remained in private and corporate collections. Following a public appeal in 2016, the National Galleries of Scotland purchased the painting from the Diageo drinks conglomerate for £4 million.
Its iconic dimension set aside, The Monarch of the Glen is also a late expression of the Romantic era, and Sir Edwin Landseer’s homage to Highland Romanticism. The English romantic artist became a regular visitor to Scotland from 1824 onwards, combining hunting expeditions with sketching trips. Commissioned to hang in the House of Lords refreshment rooms, The Monarch of the Glen was painted in Landseer’s studio in London, and is considered a triumph of Victorian Romanticism. The English work crystallised romantic representations of the Scottish Highlands, with its wilderness, its sublime landscapes and sweeping vistas, castles, waterfalls, and herds of deer.
As Queen Victoria’s favourite painter, Landseer was a key participant in the royal couple’s ‘Highlands Romantic mania’. The Queen’s vision of Romantic Highlands, a world of glens and swirling mists fed on Robert Burns’ poems and Walter Scott’s Waverley novels, which Landseer illustrated in parallel to his own paintings of the Highlands. The latter include representations of the royal family living the Highland idyll at Balmoral Castle – see, for example, Queen Victoria landing at Loch Muick (1850). In addition, engravings of Landseer’s paintings by his brother Thomas became bestsellers that middle-class Victorian families and migrants to America would buy to remind them of an idealised and romanticised version of the motherland, thus establishing the Landseer brothers as diffusers of the Highlands Romanticism.
The Monarch of the Glen represents imaginary misty Highland landscapes, for it remains impossible to locate exactly the place from which the background landscape is taken. The originality of the painting lies in its composition: the romantic landscape is relegated to the background, and the focus is on the red stag, looking majestic, far removed from its many contemporary representations as hunted game – as for instance in paintings by Richard Ansdell.
The Highland Stag became the iconic animal of Scotland and premier animal in medieval period. In Celtic mythology, the stag personifies untamed nature. Its antlers, shaped like the branches of a tree, are emblematic of the regenerative and cyclical pattern of nature. Revered as a spiritual animal, a mediator between heaven and earth, a symbol of nobility, elevation and purity, it was a popular motif in heraldry and may be found on many Scottish Clans Crests.
The late eighteenth century was a time where the fascination with Romantic Scotland kicked off. The Highlands, one of Europe’s great wildernesses, led composers, writers, poets, and painters to represent an idealistic and romantic picture of Scotland. Highland Stag hunting, a sport of the Scottish nobility, seems to have gradually become a commonplace of this stereotypical Romantic Scotland, and a recurring theme featuring in works by Scottish writers associated with the Romantic movement. In the mid-eighteenth century, James Macpherson’s Ossian tells of a fine race of stags, inhabitants of the deep glens, quarry for ‘the sons of the narrow vales, the hunter of deer’ (The Works of Ossian, ‘Fingal’, 1765). Two decades later, Robert Burns celebrates the Highlands’ spectacular romantic sceneries in My Heart’s In The Highlands (1789), a poem which mentions chasing deer, while in 1810, ‘The Lady of the Lake’ by Walter Scott narrates rivalries between Scottish clans and opens with a stag hunt in a glen. This romantic representation of the Highlands also led to a cultural appropriation of Scottish symbols and leisure activities by wealthy English landowners, from the wearing of tartan fabric to deer hunting.
Deer stalking was taken to the ultimate level in the nineteenth century, with many estates in Scotland dedicated to providing game lands for their wealthy landlords. The growth of these estates, in some cases, went hand-in-hand with the Highlands Clearances. The new cash crops of deer and sheep led to the eviction of the tenant farmers, to poverty, and mass migration away from the Highlands. The second phase of Clearances, with its ‘assisted emigration’ process, happened at the time The Monarch of the Glen was being painted. It is with this context in mind that journalist Mark Brown from The Guardian discusses the controversial dimension of the English painting that has been designated by fame to represent Scotland: ‘Is an elitist celebration of hunting in the Highlands, ignoring the displacement of working families in the 19th century, politically unpalatable?’
Whatever the answer, it is impossible to ignore the public appeal of such an iconic painting: the national galleries mention individuals sending cheques and £5 notes in envelopes to help to purchase The Monarch of the Glen. This ‘triumph’ of Victorian Romanticism has become one of the most reproduced visual icons in history. Stripped from its context of creation and its romantic dimension, it is nowadays endlessly subjected to commercial appropriations all around the world.
The Monarch of the Glen presents an interestingly paradoxical version of Romanticism. Indeed, the latter tends to be defined at a national level, a definition that does not quite apply to this particular case. The English painting represents a romanticised image of Scotland, which has become an icon of the country it represents, so much so that it has been bought by the Scottish National Galleries with the intention for it to stay ‘at home’, that is to say, not in its country of creation but in the country it represents.
Date: c. 1851
Creator: Edwin Landseer (1802-1873)
Subject: Edwin Landseer – Highland Stag – Scottish Highlands
Media rights: National Galleries Scotland, Creative Commons Licence
Object type: painting, oil on canvas
Format: 63.80 x 168.90 cm (framed: 199.50 x 204.50 x 13.70 cm)
Publisher: National Galleries Scotland
Digital collection record: https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/159116/monarch-glen
Catalogue number: Accession number NG 2881
Brown, Mark, ‘Monarch of the Glen saved from auction block after £4m fundraising drive’, The Guardian, 17 March 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/mar/17/scotland-wins-fight-keep-monarch-glen-painting-edwin-landseer?page=with%3Aimg-2 [accessed 02/10/19].
Cirlot, J. E., A Dictionary of Symbols, second edition, translated from the Spanish by Jack Sage, London, Routledge,  1971.
Fowle, Frances, ‘Sir Edwin Landseer, Highland Music, ?1829, exhibited 1830’, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/landseer-highland-music-n00411, [accessed 02/10/19].
Goudie, Lachlan, ‘Monarch of The Glen: The Creation of an Icon’, https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/features/monarch-glen-creation-icon [accessed 02/10/19].
National Galleries Scotland, ‘Sir Edwin Landseer, The Monarch of the Glen’, https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/159116/monarch-glen, [accessed 02/10/19].
Stephens, Frederic George, Sir Edwin Landseer, London, Scribner & Welford, 1880.