Paul Johnson

The Highland Rembrandt

Edwin Landseer: The Private Drawings

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Sir Edwin Landseer (1802–73) was in his day the most popular painter in Britain, and the most eccentric. His father, who figures frequently in the Farington Diaries, was the leading London engraver, always soliciting help in getting other engravers made full members of the Royal Academy. Two of his sons became engravers and two of his daughters miniaturists. But it was Edwin, the youngest son, who was the prodigy. Aged eleven, he won a Society of Arts silver palette for his drawing of a spaniel. He exhibited at the RA two years later, was elected an associate member of the Royal Academy aged twenty-four and a full member before he was thirty, and in due course was offered the presidency, which he declined. His prodigious skill in depicting animals, especially dogs, horses and deer (he painted fur even more skilfully than Dürer) secured him a lucrative trade among the aristocracy, and he was Queen Victoria’s favourite painter. Engravings of his works made him a rich man. He enlarged his studio-house at No 1 St John’s Wood Road until it could accommodate the largest animals, including giraffes. While he was engaged on his most famous commission, the bronze beasts in Trafalgar Square, his butler delighted to announce, after breakfast, ‘Sir Edwin, the lion has arrived.’ (The story that, on the first occasion, he asked: ‘Did you order a lion, sir?’ is apocryphal.) The elderly and docile creature came from the zoo in a furniture van, attended by two keepers. 

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