Sunday, August 15, 2010

(Sir) Edwin Henry Landseer - 'Scene in Chillingham Park: Portrait of Lord Ossulston', or 'Death of the Wild Bull'

Price Realized £1,271,650

oil on canvas
88½ x 88½ in. (225 x 225 cm.)

Probably commissioned by Charles Augustus, 5th Earl of Tankerville (1776-1859), of Chillingham Castle, Northumberland, and by descent.

London, Royal Academy, 1836, no. 14, as 'Scene in Chillingham Park; Portrait of Lord Ossulston, etc.'

By the time that Landseer exhibited this picture at the Royal Academy in 1836 he had already established a reputation for himself as one of the most precocious and individual talents of his generation and had shown in his work many of the qualities which were to make him the most celebrated painter of animals in Victorian England.

Landseer's prodigious talent was reflected in his unusually swift rise at the Royal Academy where he was elected an Associate in 1826, at the astonishingly early age of twenty-four, and later a full Academician in 1831. His network of patrons included some of the most important collectors of his day. A favourite in aristocratic circles, in which his personal charm was a considerable asset, he had already received commissions from such prominent figures as the 6th Duke of Bedford, for whom he had executed a series of family portraits as well as more ambitious historical works such as the Hunting of Chevy Chase (1825-6), the 3rd Marquess of Lansdowne, the 4th Duke of Atholl, the 1st Duke of Wellington, and the 6th Duke of Devonshire. Other notable collectors of modern art, such as William Wells of Redleaf, who was to become one of Landseer's closest friends, also prized his work.

Most importantly of all, from the point of view of Landseer's later career, reputation, and popularity, his work had also caught the attention of the young Princess Victoria, who was to succeed to the throne in 1837. Her mother, the Duchess of Kent, had chosen him to paint a picture of Princess Victoria's favourite spaniel Dash, as a birthday present in 1836, which was to be the first of many Royal commissions. Princess Victoria recorded in her journal her delight with Landseer's picture 'After my lesson Mamma gave me a portrait of dear Dash's head, the size of life, most beautifully painted by Edwin Landseer. It is extremely like'. Her journal also recorded her admiration for the present picture which she saw at the Royal Academy in 1836, and in the following years Landseer was to paint many pictures for her, not only of pets and other animals, but portraits of her and her family which perhaps more than the work of any other artist captured the romantic spirit of the early years of her reign and defined this in visual terms for future generations.

Charles Augustus Bennet, Lord Ossulston, afterwards 6th Earl of Tankerville (1809-99), who stands in the centre of the present picture, was the scion of an important Northumbrian family whose forbear Sir Ralph Grey, whose family were later created Earls of Tankerville, had acquired Chillingham Castle (fig.3), near the border between England and Scotland, in the early fifteenth century. Lord Ossulston's ancestor Sir John Bennet (d.1688), who married first Elizabeth, daughter of Lionel Cranfield, Earl of Middlesex, and whose niece, Isabella, the daughter of his younger brother Henry, 1st Earl of Arlington, married the 1st Duke of Grafton, the natural son of King Charles II, had been created 1st Baron Ossulston, of Ossulston, Middlesex, in 1682. Sir John Bennet's son Charles Bennet had married Lady Mary Grey, daughter and heiress of Forde, Lord Grey of Werk, Viscount Grey of Glendale, and Earl of Tankerville (d.1701), and after the latter's death was advanced to an Earldom by the title of his deceased father-in-law, as Earl of Tankerville. Charles Augustus Bennet (1809-99) was Member of Parliament for North Northumberland from 1832 to 1859 when he was summoned to the House of Lords in his father's barony of Ossulston. He was later Lord Steward to Queen Victoria (1867-8) and married Lady Olivia Montague, daughter of the 6th Duke of Manchester in 1850.

Landseer, who had first visited Scotland in 1824, appears to have met Lord Ossulston for the first time at Glenfeshie, in the Scottish Highlands, where Landseer was staying with the Duke and Duchess of Bedford. The artist, who was a close friend of the Bedfords, was a regular guest at the spartan retreat which they had created at Glenfeshie, which lay to the south of the Doune, a hunting lodge close to Aviemore in the Cairngorms, which they rented every year. In his short essay The Chillingham Wild Cattle. Reminiscences of Life in the Highlands (op.cit.), Lord Ossulston described the amusing circumstances of his first encounter with the artist. Lord Ossulston, who had just arrived from staying with the Duke of Atholl at Blair Atholl to stay with his friend Horatio Ross, on the other side of Glenfeshie, had set out in the morning to go stalking in the company of the forester Charlie Mackintosh. They had just spotted a large herd of hinds and a big stag grazing near a burn beneath them when they heard the crack of a rifle shot which scared away the herd and felled the stag. Thinking this was likely to be the work of a poacher they set off to see who was responsible:

Upon this we dived into a hollow close to our right that took us down to the burn, and crawling under its banks, we soon esconced ourselves behind a heathery knoll within a few yards of our poacher, to watch his proceedings before we finally pounced upon him. He was a little, strongly built man, very like a pocket Hercules or Puck in the ''Midsummer Night's Dream.'' He was busily employed in grallocking his deer. This he did with great quickness and dexterity ... He next let the head hang over, so as to display the horns, and then squatting down on a stone opposite, took out of his pocket what I thought would be his pipe or whisky flask; but it is a sketch book! Seeing that we had mistaken our man, I came out into the open, and then found myself face to face with my friend of many years to come - Landseer.

In his Reminiscences Ossulston remembers some of the facets of Landseer's character and manner which had most impressed him and had formed the basis of a lifelong friendship:

It is difficult to do justice to the attractions of his society. He was acknowledged to be the best company of his day. His powers of description, whether of people or of scenery, were most graphic and amusing, and though simple in words, had very much of natural poetry in them. And in his anecdotes, which were full of humour, the marvellous changes of voice, and expression of countenance he could assume as a perfect actor, brought the persons themselves whom he was speaking of in reality before you. Even in the common occurences of a daily walk, he would, in passing down a street, draw one's attention to something curious or absurd, which one might have passed fifty times without noticing.

According to Ossulston's account, a few days after having met Landseer, and having spent much time together in the company of the Duke and Duchess of Bedford and their house party, he left Glenfeshie together with him to go to Chillingham. At Chillingham he recalled that Landseer 'at once devoted himself to the wild cattle as keenly as he had done to his beloved deer, observing them with his glass for days from some hiding place, and noting minutely their ways and characteristics'.

The exact origin of the celebrated Chillingham herd of wild white cattle, which remarkably still survives at Chillingham today, is uncertain. However, it is thought that they are directly descended from the indigineous wild cattle that populated Britain in ancient times. The breed, which is known for its distinctive shape, its almost pure pinky white colour, and its ferocity, is once thought to have inhabited the great Caledonian forest that stretched from Chillingham, on the Northumbrian side of the Cheviot border, to the Highlands. The wild cattle are believed to have been first coralled within the park walls of the Castle some seven hundred years ago, in the thirteenth century, when the King of England gave permission for Chillingham to be 'castellated and crenellated' and for a park wall to be built, primarily for the purposes of food. Ever since they were enclosed within the park walls the herd have been inbreeding with the result that the herd has remained pure, the purest of all the surviving herds of White Cattle, a last remnant of this ancient indigineous breed, although they are now smaller than they once were (for further information on the Chillingham herd see G. K. Whitehead, The Ancient White Cattle of Britain and their Descendants, London, 1953, pp. 43-54).

Landseer was evidently greatly impressed by the majestic animals and his enthusiasm for the cattle inspired him to draw and paint them. He first painted one of the bulls in The Bride of Lammermoor, of circa 1830 (fig. 2), which is based on a scene from the novel of the same name by Sir Walter Scott, chosing to show the moment in the novel when Master Ravenswood, heir of a ruined family, saves Lucy Ashton, the daughter of the man who has dispossessed him of his lands, from a charging wild bull, anticipating the theme of the present picture. Landseer would have been aware of Scott's account of the Chillingham cattle in the edition of the novels, The magnus Opus for which he himself supplied a number of illustrations.

Lord Ossulston evidently soon decided that Landseer should have the opportunity to take a closer look at the cattle and a decision was taken to shoot one of the bulls to make this possible. As it was considered 'ignoble' to kill such a bull by a 'pot shot' a more sporting plan was hatched to chase a bull out of the herd on horseback and thereby to bring him to bay. This, however, could not be done in the upper park at Chillingham, where the woods, bogs and ravines provided unsuitable ground for horses, so it was decided to first separate the selected bull from the herd in the lower park, which provided open space much more suitable for horses. The lower park and the upper park were separated from each other by a fence and advantage was taken of the fact that at night the gates between them were left open and the herd was allowed to graze freely in the lower park. A keeper was placed in ambush beside a gate, which was to be shut on one of the bulls after the main herd had returned to the upper park in the early morning. Unfortunately the plan went badly wrong and the bull charged and tossed one of Lord Tankerville's keepers breaking four of his ribs and piercing his chest with its horn. The keeper was only saved by the prompt action of Ossulston's deerhound, Bran (whose name, is taken from that of one of Scott's celebrated dogs), which held the bull off the keeper's body. Ossulston recorded that the keeper, called Barnes, survived his wounds and lived to be eighty, but that the bull 'was forthwith shot, and together with Bran and the other personages concerned, was the subject of Landseer's picture of the 'Dead Bull''.

Landseer's monumental composition is dominated by the handsome and aristocratic figure of the young Lord Ossulston, standing beside his pony Hotspur, with a rifle in his left hand, his right foot resting on the majestic Chillingham bull lying at his feet. Ossulston looks towards his valiant deerhound, Bran, who had proved the hero of the occasion. Lord Ossulston's head keeper, Coles, kneels beside the dead bull, to the left of the composition, with his arm around his master's deerhound, looking at the lifeless bull almost with a sense of wonder. A bloodhound beyond the head keeper imitates his master by putting his paw on the dead bull, while the right hand side of the composition is closed off by another bloodhound with a weary gaze. One of the most interesting aspects of Ossulston's account of the historical context of the picture is his first hand description of Landseer at work on the composition and the virtuosity with which it was painted, 'his unerring hand and eye guiding the brush with faultless precision, from the broadest to the minutest touches; for though dashed in with marvellous rapidity they never were retouched.'

The picture was one of four which Landseer exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1836 where it met with much critical acclaim. The Times (op.cit.) described it as 'one of those extraordinary mixtures of man and animal in nature ... worthy of being classed with pictures of the same kind by Rubens and Snyders' and commented that it is 'difficult to say whether the landscape, the portraits, or the animals, are the best painted by this true observer of nature'. While the Athenaeum commented that the death of the bull had 'offered Mr. Landseer the opportunity of giving a graceful and spirited portrait of the young Lord'.

Landseer, who painted a series of portraits of Lord Ossulston's sister Lady Malmesbury, remained a friend of Lord Ossulston's throughout the rest of his life, and thirty years after completing the present picture was commissioned by Ossulston, by now Earl of Tankerville, to paint two further heroic vertical compositions: The Deer of Chillingham Park and the Wild Cattle of Chillingham (figs. 4 and 5; now Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle Upon Tyne; Ormond, op.cit., nos 153 and 154) which were to accompany the The Death of the Wild Bull in the Dining Hall at Chillingham Castle, where they were hung high up on either side of the doorway opposite it. Landseer, who may well have been involved with the overall scheme of decoration in the Dining Hall, evidently designed the later pictures to fit into the overall scheme, with his earlier composition in mind. The two later pictures were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1867 (nos. 124 and 144) and in that exhibition the Wild Cattle of Chillingham was accompanied by a quotation from Sir Walter Scott which gives an insight into Landseer's Romantic vision of the Chillingham Bulls:

'Mightiest of all the beasts of chase
That roam in woody Caledon
Crashing the forest in his race,
The mountain bull comes thundering on
Fierce, on the hunter's quiver'd band,
He rolls his eyes of swarthy glow,
Spurns, with black hoof and horn, the sand,
And tosses high his mane of snow.'

As Ormond (op.cit.) comments 'The effect of the three paintings in the large lofty hall at Chillingham must have been singularly impressive'.

1 comment: