Story type: Essay
The man behind his work was seen through it–sensitive, variously gifted, manly, genial, tender-hearted, simple and unaffected; a lover of animals, children and humanity; and if any one wishes to see at a glance nearly all we have written, let him look at Landseer’s portrait, painted by himself, with a canine connoisseur on either side.
Happy lives make dull biographies. Young women with ambitions should be very cautious lest mayhap they be caught in the soft, silken mesh of a happy marriage, and go down to oblivion, dead to the world.
“Miss Pott–the beautiful Miss Pott,” they called her. The biographers didn’t take time to give her first name, nor recount her pedigree, so rapt were they with her personality. They only say, “She was tall, willowy and lissome; and Sir Joshua Reynolds painted her picture as a peasant beauty, bearing on her well-poised head a sheaf of corn.”
It was at the house of Macklin, the rich publisher, that John Landseer, the engraver, met Miss Pott. She was artistic in all her instincts; and as she knew the work of the brilliant engraver and named his best pieces without hesitation he grew interested. Men grow interested when you know and appreciate their work; sometimes they grow more interested, at which time they are also interesting.
And so it came about that they were married, the beautiful Miss Pott and John Landseer, and it can also be truthfully added that they were happy ever afterward.
But that was the last of Miss Pott. Her husband was so strong, so self-centered, so capable, that he protected her from every fierce wind, and gratified her every wish. She believed in him thoroughly and conformed her life to his. Her personality was lost in him. The biographer scarcely refers to her, save when he is obliged to, indirectly, to record that she became the mother of three fine girls, and the same number of boys, equally fine, by name, Thomas, Charles and Edwin.
Thomas and Charles grew to be strong, learned and useful men, so accomplished in literature and art that their names would shine bright on history’s page, were they not thrown into the shadow by the youngest brother.
Before Edwin Landseer was twenty years of age he was known throughout the United Kingdom as “Landseer.” John Landseer was known as “the father of Landseer,” and the others were “the brothers of Landseer.”
And when once in Piccadilly, the beautiful Miss Pott (that was) was pointed out as “the mother of Landseer,” the words warmed the heart of the good woman like wine. To be the wife of a great man, and the mother of a greater was career enough–she was very happy.
Queen Anne Street, near Cavendish Square, is a shabby district, with long lines of plain brick houses built for revenue only.
But Queen Anne Street is immortal to all lovers of art because it was the home of Turner; and within its dark, dull and narrow confines were painted the most dazzlingly beautiful canvases that the world has ever seen. And yet again the street has another claim on our grateful remembrance, for at Number Eighty-three was born, on March Seventh, Eighteen Hundred Two, Edwin Landseer.
The father of Landseer was an enthusiastic lover of art. He had sprung from a long line of artistic workers in precious metals; and to use a pencil with skill he regarded as the chief end of man.
Long before his children knew their letters, they were taught to make pictures. Indeed, all children can make pictures before they can write. For a play-spell, each day John Landseer and his boys tramped across Hampstead Heath to where there were donkeys, sheep, goats and cows grazing; then all four would sit down on the grass before some chosen subject and sketch the patient model.
Edwin Landseer’s first loving recollections of his father went back to these little excursions across the Heath. And for each boy to take back to his mother and sisters a picture of something they had seen was a great joy.
“Well, boys, what shall we draw today?” the father would ask at breakfast-time.
And then they would all vote on it, and arguments in favor of goat or donkey were eloquently and skilfully set forth.
I said that a very young child could draw pictures: standing by my chair as I write this line is a chubby little girl, just four years old, in a check dress, with two funny little braids down her back. She is begging me for this pencil that she may “make a pussy-cat for Mamma to put in a frame.”
What boots it that the little girl’s “pussy-cat” has five or six legs and three tails–these are all inferior details.
The evolution of the individual mirrors the evolution of the race, and long before races began to write or reason they made pictures.
Art education had better begin young, for then it is a sort of play; and good artistic work, Robert Louis Stevenson once said, is only useful play.
Probably Edwin Landseer’s education began a hundred years before he was born; but his technical instruction in art began when he was three years old, when his father would take him out on the Heath and placing him on the grass, put pencil and paper in his hand and let him make a picture of a goat nibbling the grass.
Then the boy noted for himself that a goat had a short tail, a cow a switch-tail, and horses had no horns, and that a ram’s horns were unlike those of a goat.
He had begun to differentiate and compare–and not yet four years old!
When five years of age he could sketch a sleeping dog as it lay on the floor better than could Thomas, his brother, who was seven years older.
We know the deep personal interest that John Landseer felt in the boy, for he preserved his work, and today in the South Kensington Museum we can see a series of sketches made by Edwin Landseer, running from his fifth year to manhood.
Thus do we trace the unfolding of his genius.
That young Landseer’s drawing was a sort of play there is no doubt. People who set very young children at tasks of grubbing out cold facts from books come plainly within the province of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and should be looked after, but to do things with one’s hands for fun is only a giving direction to the natural energies.
Before Edwin Landseer was eight years of age his father had taught him the process of etching, and we see that even then the lad had a vivid insight into the character of animals. He drew pictures of pointers, mastiffs, spaniels and bulldogs, and gave to each the right expression.
The Landseers owned several dogs, and what they did not own they borrowed; and once we know that Charles and Thomas “borrowed” a mastiff without the owner’s consent.
All children go through the scissors age, when they cut out of magazines, newspapers or books all the pictures they can find, so as to add to the “collection.” Often these youthful collectors have specialties: one will collect pictures of animals, another of machinery, and still another of houses. But usually it is animals that attract.
Scissors were forbidden in the Landseer household, and if the boys wanted pictures they had to make them.
And they made them.
They drew horses, sheep, donkeys, cattle, dogs; and when their father took them to the Zoological Garden it was only that they might bring back trophies in the way of lions and tigers.
Then we find that there was once a curiosity exhibited in Fleet Street in the way of a lion-cub that had been caught in Africa and mothered by a Newfoundland dog. The old mother-dog thought just as much of the orphan that was placed among her brood as of her sure-enough children. The owner had never allowed the two animals to be separated, and when the lion had grown to be twice the size of his foster-mother there still existed between the two a fine affection.
The stepmother exercised a stepmother’s rights, and occasionally chastised, for his own good, her overgrown charge, and the big brute would whimper and whine like a lubberly boy.
This curious pair of animals made a great impression on the Landseers. The father and three boys sketched them in various attitudes, and engravings of Edwin’s sketch are still to be had.
And so wherever in London animals were to be found, there, too, were the Landseers with pencils and brushes, and pads and palettes.
In the back yard of the house where the Landseers lived were sundry pens of pet rabbits; in the attic were pigeons, and dogs of various breeds lay on the doorstep sleeping in the sun, or barked at you out of the windows.
It is reported that John Landseer once contemplated a change of residence; he selected the house he wanted, bargained with the landlord, agreed as to terms and handed out his card preparatory to signing a lease.
The real-estate agent looked at the name, stuttered, stammered, and finally said: “You must excuse me, Sir, but they say as how you are a dealer in dogs, and your boys are dog-catchers! You’ll excuse me–but–I just now ‘appened to think the ‘ouse is already took!”
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The Landseers moved from Queen Anne Street to Foley Street, near Burlington House. This was a neighborhood of artists, and for neighbors they had West, Mulready, Northcote, Constable, Flaxman and our own picturesque Allston, of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The Elgin Marbles were then kept at Burlington House, and these were a great source of inspiration to the Landseer boys. It gave them a true taste of the Grecian, and knowing a little about Greece, they wanted to know more. Greece became the theme–they talked it at breakfast, dinner and supper. The father and mother told them all they knew, and guessed at a few things more, and to keep at least one lesson ahead of the children the parents “crammed for examination.”
Edwin sketched that world-famous horse’s head from the Parthenon, and the figures of horses and animals in bas-relief that formed the frieze; and the boys figured out in their minds why horses and men were all the same height.
Gradually it dawned upon the father and the brothers that Edwin was their master so far as drawing was concerned. They could sketch a Newfoundland dog that would pass for anybody’s Newfoundland, but Edwin’s was a certain identical dog, and none other.
Edwin Landseer really discovered the dog.
He discovered that dogs of one breed may be very different in temper and disposition; and going further he found that dogs have character and personality. He struck an untouched lode and worked it out to his own delight and the delight of great numbers of others.
His pictures were not mystical, profound or problematic–simply dogs, but dogs with feelings, affections, jealousies, prejudices. In short, he showed that dogs, after all, are very much like folks; and from this, people with a turn for psychology reasoned that the source of life in the dog was the same as the source of life in man.
Plain people who owned a dog beloved by the whole household, as household dogs always are, became interested in Landseer’s dogs. They could not buy a painting by Landseer, but they could spare a few shillings for an engraving.
And so John Landseer began to reproduce the pictures of Edwin’s dogs.
The demand grew, and Thomas now ceased to sketch and devoted all his time to etching and engraving his brother’s work.
Every one knew of Landseer, even people who cared nothing for art: they wanted a picture of one of his dogs to hang over the chimney, because the dog looked like one they used to own.
Then rich people came and wanted Edwin to paint a portrait of their dog, and a studio was opened where the principal sitters were dogs. From a position where close economy must be practised, the Landseers found themselves with more money than they knew what to do with.
Edwin was barely twenty, but had exhibited at several Royal Academy Exhibitions and his name was on every tongue. He gave no attention to marketing his wares–his father and brothers did all that–he simply sketched and had a good time. He was healthy, strong, active, and could walk thirty miles a day; but now that riches had come that way he bought a horse and rode.
Then other horses were presented to him, and he began to picture horses, too. That he knew horses and loved them is evidenced in many a picture. In every village or crossroads town of America can be found copies of his “Shoeing,” where stands the sleek bay mare, the sober, serious donkey, and the big dog.
No painter who ever lived is so universally known as Landseer, and this is because his father and brothers made it their life-business to reproduce his work by engraving.
Occasionally, rich ladies would want their own portraits painted with a favorite dog at their feet, or men wanted themselves portrayed on horseback, and so Landseer found himself with more orders than he could well care for. People put their names, or the name of their dog, on his waiting-list, and some of the dogs died of old age before the name was reached.
“I hear,” said a lady to Sydney Smith at a dinner party–“I hear you are to have your portrait painted by Landseer.”
“Is thy servant a dog that he should do this thing?” answered the wit. The story went the rounds, and Mulready once congratulated the clergyman on the repartee.
“I never made the reply,” said Sydney Smith; “but I wish I had.”
Sydney Smith was once visiting the Landseer studio, and his eye chanced to light on the picture of a very peculiar-looking dog.
“Yes, it’s a queer picture of a queer dog. The drawing is bad enough, and never pleased me!” And Landseer picked up the picture and gave it a toss out of the window. “You may have it if you care to go get it,” he carelessly remarked to the visitor. Smith made haste to run downstairs and out of the house to secure his prize. He found it lodged in the branches of a tree.
In telling the tale years afterward, Smith remarked that, whereas many men had climbed trees to evade dogs, yet he alone of all men had once climbed a tree to secure one.
Sir Walter Scott saw Landseer’s picture of “The Cat’s Paw,” and was so charmed with it that he hunted out the young artist, and soon after invited him to Abbotsford.
Leslie, the American artist, was at that time at Scott’s home painting the novelist’s portrait. This portrait, by the way, became the property of the Ticknor family of Boston, and was exhibited a few years ago at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Landseer, Leslie and Scott made a choice trio of congenial spirits. They were all “outdoor men,” strong, sturdy, good-natured, and fond of boyish romp and frolic. Many were the long tramps they took across mountain, heath and heather. They visited the Highland district together, fished in Loch Lomond, paddled the entire length of Loch Katrine, and hunted deer on the preserve of Lord Gwydr.
On one hunting excursion, Landseer was stationed on a runway, gun in hand, with a gillie in attendance. The dogs started a fine buck, which ran close to them, but instead of leveling his gun, Landseer shoved the weapon into the hands of the astonished gillie with the hurried whispered request, “Here, you, hold this for me!” and seizing his pencil, made a hasty sketch of the gallant buck ere the vision could fade from memory.
In fact, both Landseer and Leslie proved poor sportsmen–they had no heart for killing things.
A beautiful live deer was a deal more pleasing to Landseer than a dead one; and he might truthfully have expressed the thought of his mind by saying, “A bird in the bush is worth two on a woman’s bonnet.” And indeed he did anticipate Thoreau by saying, “To shoot a bird is to lose it.”
The idea of following deer with dogs and guns, simply for the sport of killing them, was repugnant to the soul of this sensitive, tender-hearted man.
In the faces of his deer he put a look of mingled grandeur and pain–a half-pathos, as if foreshadowing their fate.
In picturing the dogs and donkeys, he was full of jest and merriment; but the kings of moor and forest called forth deeper and sadder sentiments.
That wild animals instinctively flee in frenzied alarm at man’s approach is comment enough on our treatment of them.
The deer, so gentle and so graceful, so innocent and so beautiful, are never followed by man except as a destroyer; and the idea of looking down a rifle-barrel into the wide-open, soulful eyes of a deer made Landseer sick at heart.
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To Landseer must be given the honor of first opening a friendly communication between the present royal family and the artistic and literary world.
Wild-eyed poets and rusty-looking, impecunious painters were firmly warned away from Balmoral. The thought that all poets and painters were anarchistic and dangerous–certainly disagreeable–was firmly fixed in the heart of the young Queen and her attendants.
The barrier had first been raised to Landseer. He was requested to visit the palace and paint a picture of one of the Queen’s deerhounds. It was found that the man was not hirsute, untamed or eccentric. He was a gentleman in manner and education–quite self-contained and manly.
He was introduced to the Queen; they shook hands and talked about dogs and horses and things, just like old acquaintances. They loved the same things, and so were friends at once. It was not long before Landseer’s near neighbors at Saint John’s Wood were stricken speechless at the spectacle of Queen Victoria on horseback waiting at the door of Landseer’s house, while the artist ran in to change his coat. When he came out he mounted one of the groom’s horses for a gallop across the park with the Queen of England, on whose possessions the sun never sets.
These rides with royalty were, however, largely a matter of professional study; for he not only painted a picture of the Queen on horseback, but of Albert as well. And at Windsor there can now be seen many pictures of dogs and horses painted by Landseer, with nobility incidentally introduced, or vice versa, if you prefer.
It was in Eighteen Hundred Thirty-five that Landseer began to paint the pets of the royal family, and the friendly intimacy then begun continued up to the time of his death in Eighteen Hundred Seventy-three.
In the National Academy are sixty-seven canvases by Landseer; and for the Queen, personally, he completed over one hundred pictures, for which he received a sum equal to a quarter of a million dollars.
Landseer’s career was one of continuous prosperity. In his life there was neither tragedy nor disappointment. His horses and dogs filled his bachelor heart, and when Tray, Blanche and Sweetheart bayed and barked him a welcome to that home in Saint John’s Wood where he lived for just fifty years, he was supremely content.
His fortune of three hundred thousand pounds was distributed at his death, as he requested, among various servants, friends and needy kinsmen.
Landseer had no enemies, and no detractors worth mentioning. That his great popularity was owing to his deference to the spirit of the age goes without saying. He never affronted popular prejudices, and was ever alert to reflect the taste of his patrons. The influence of passing events was strong upon him: the subtlety of Turner, the spiritual vision of Fra Angelico, the sublime quality of soul (that scorned present reward and dedicated its work to time) of Michelangelo were all far from him.
That he at times attempted to be humorous by dressing dogs in coats and trousers with pipe in mouth is to be regretted. A dog so clothed is not funny–the artist is.
The point has also been made that in Landseer’s work there was no progression–no evolution. His pictures of mountain scenery done in Scotland before he was thirty mark high tide. To him never again came the same sweep of joyous spirit or surge of feeling.
Bank-accounts, safety and satisfaction are not the things that stir the emotions and sound the soul-depths. Landseer never knew the blessing of a noble discontent. But he contributed to the quiet joy of a million homes; and it is not for us to say, “It is beautiful; but is it art?” Neither need we ask whether the name of Landseer will endure with those of Raphael and Leonardo. Edwin Landseer did a great work, and the world is better for his having lived; for his message was one of gentleness, kindness and beauty.
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