Scotland is a stew of genuine Medieval and Victorian architecture, ideas, myths and fables, with a dollop of pop culture thrown in.
Merlin’s Tomb, 1815, by Joseph Michael Gandy, is a fantasy based on Rosslyn Chapel.
The Scotland we imagine was largely the invention of the novelist Sir Walter Scott. It was he who made the legends of the Highlands fit reading for polite society. At the time, Scotland was moving into the modern world of capitalism and engineering. Meanwhile, the Highland Clearanceswere pushing people out of their tribal lands and off to the New World. Scott wrote at this pivotal time in Scottish history, and his stories drew a line between the romantic then and the pragmatic now.
There’s a monument to George IV in Edinburgh; it marks the first visit of a United Kingdom monarch to this city in two centuries. To be fair, much of that time Scotland was in rebellion.
Portrait of George IV of the United Kingdom, 1829, David Wilkie, courtesy of the Royal Collection. The king actually wore pink tights for his visit.
Scott stage-managed the king’s visit. He had just three weeks to plan the event, but succeeded in creating an affair that impressed both the ruler and his own countrymen. Tartan had been banned after the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, but Scott dressed the king up in it. Overnight, tartan became a potent symbol of Scottish national identity.
Rosslyn Castle, c. 1820, Joseph Mallord William Turner, courtesy Indianapolis Museum of Art
As Scotland went off the boil, many Englishmen visited. Among them was the painter JMW Turner. During his first trip in 1801, he sketched Rosslyn Castle. Later, he returned and painted the Castle for Scott’s serial, The Provincial Antiquities and Picturesque Scenery of Scotland. This teamed the United Kingdom’s greatest romantic writer with its greatest romantic artist. Turner continued to illustrate Scott’s books, becoming enough of chum to visit Scott at his vast country pile, Abbotsford, in 1831.
Edinburgh from Calton Hill, c. 1819, Joseph Mallord William Turner, courtesy National Galleries Scotland
The picturesque was a compromise between two Enlightenment ideals: beauty and sublimity. By the end of the 18th century, thinkers had come to the conclusion that these were not rational, but emotional states. The beautiful was sensual; the sublime provoked awe or terror. The picturesque combined them in a more easily-digested package.
Where better to experience this than in the Scottish Highlands? “The mountains are ecstatic,” wrote Thomas Gray in 1765. “None but those monstrous creatures of God know how to join so much beauty with so much horror.”
Nobody was more susceptible to the Scottish picturesque than Queen Victoria. In 1842, she and Prince Albert paid their first visit to Scotland. They were so struck by the Highlands that they returned regularly, ultimately purchasing the Balmoralestate in 1848.
View from the walk near the Dee in Balmoral Grounds, 1849, Queen Victoria, courtesy Royal Collection Trust
Victoria’s affection for Scotland was deep and abiding. The Royal Couple enthusiastically decorated Balmoral Castle in Balmoral tartan, stags’ heads, and other Scottish tchotchkes. This led to an international craze for all things Scottish.
The queen visited Rosslyn Chapel on her first trip north. It was then half-ruined and overgrown, and she noted that it deserved restoration. Work commenced in 1862, and the chapel was rededicated to worship that same year. Today, Rosslyn Chapel is a stew of Medieval and Victorian architecture, ideas, myths and fables, with a dollop of pop culture thrown in—much, in fact, like the myth of Scotland itself.
Cropped-haired, chain-smoking, pants-wearing lesbian, she was a darling of Victorian collectors.
The Horse Fair, 1852-55, Rosa Bonheur, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Henry James, who invented the fictional New Woman of the 19thcentury, made his heroines pay a price for their independence. Was that accurate?
Recently I wrote about les trois grandes dames of Impressionism and the early feminists who came to be known as New Women. Their rise coincided with James’ novels, so it’s hard to say which came first, the fiction or the truth. Either way, the accepted story is that they made great sacrifices in order to be true to themselves.
Americans know Rosa Bonheur mainly for the sprawling The Horse Fair in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bonheur was a genre painter, an animalière, as they were called in the 19thcentury.
Weaning the Calves, 1879, Rosa Bonheur, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Bonheur was a fractious child and an indifferent student, but she was an apt draftsman from a very young age. That’s not surprising, since she was from a family of excellent artists. Her father was painter Oscar-Raymond Bonheur. Among her siblings were painters Auguste Bonheur and Juliette Bonheur and sculptor Isidore Jules Bonheur. Improbably, they all focused on animals as their subject. All of them were highly competent artists. None of them were as successful as their sister.
Bonheur was the eldest. It was not until she failed an apprenticeship as a seamstress at the tender age of 12 that she returned to her father’s studio for serious training. He set her to traditional study, copying works from books and sketching plaster casts. From there she moved to dissection and anatomy studies of animals in the abattoirs of Paris.
Bonheur’s permission de travestissement from the Paris police.
To make The Horse Fair, Bonheur visited the Paris horse market twice weekly for 18 months. She sought and gained a permission de travestissement(permission to cross-dress) from the Paris police to avoid drawing attention to herself. Earlier forays to the slaughterhouse, she said, had resulted in harassment.
That may have been a polite fiction, as Bonheur routinely dressed like a (male) peasant at home. This was not solely a political statement; she felt that trousers were more practical when working with farm animals. She wore her hair at collar length—slightly longer than the male styles of the time, but too short to be worn up as most women did. And while she wore trousers at home, she dressed in feminine style for formal portraits.
Rosa Bonheur in her garden at By, c. 1890s, provenance unknown
Bonheur was openly lesbian; she lived with her childhood chum Nathalie Micas for over 40 years, until Micas’ death in 1889. Later, she lived with American genre painter Anna Elizabeth Klumpke. “I am a painter. I have earned my living honestly. My private life is nobody’s concern,” she wrote.
What effect did this have on her career? Apparently, none. She exhibited regularly at the Paris Salon from 1841 to 1855, winning exemption from jury approval in 1853. Her greatest sales, however, were in the United Kingdom, where she was introduced by her dealer in 1855. She made many trips to England and Scotland to sketch. On one of these trips, she was introduced to Queen Victoria, who was a fan.
Changing of Meadow, 1863, Rosa Bonheur, Kunsthalle Hamburg
As she grew older, Bonheur’s work gained popularity among the new American millionaires, including Cornelius Vanderbilt. When he bought The Horse Fair in 1887 on the secondary market, it was for a record sum.
By 1860, Bonheur was wealthy enough to acquire a chateau at By, near Fontainebleau. She remodeled it extensively, including adding pens for her animal models. She was the first woman to be awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour, in 1865. And she was famous enough to paint “Buffalo Bill” Cody when his Wild West show visited Paris in 1889.
Bonheur made a success of her life, on her own terms. It’s the work, not the artist, which ultimately sells.
“The Monarch of the Glen,” 1851, Sir Edwin Landseer
Sir Edwin Landseer’s The Monarch of the Glen is perhaps the most widely-copied of Victorian paintings. It has been used for everything from the Hartford Insurance Company’s stag logo (c. 1867) to biscuit tins and butter wrappers.
Completed in 1851, it was part of a three-panel commission destined for the Refreshment Rooms of the House of Lords in the ‘new’ Palace of Westminster. The House of Commons, however, balked at paying Landseer’s bill of £150. That’s about £17,000 in today’s money, whereas Monarch is valued at about £10 million. Apparently, the 19th century House of Commons wasn’t very good with money.
“Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner,” 1837, Sir Edwin Landseer
Monarch was sold instead to one Lord Londesborough for 350 guineas. Londesborough sold it to Lord Fitzgerald, who in turn sold it to Lord Cheylesmore. It was owned briefly by the Pears Soap Company and sold in 1916 to Thomas Dewar, who wanted it for the Dewar whisky business in Perthshire.
From there it became a corporate asset, traveling with the Dewar’s name as it was absorbed into larger and larger companies. Eventually, Dewar’s was bought by the world’s largest manufacturer of booze, Diageo. They sold the brand but kept the stag. In 1999, Diageo loaned the painting to the National Galleries of Scotland, where it has hung ever since.
“A Distinguished Member of the Humane Society,” 1838, Sir Edwin Landseer. Landseer had a thing for Newfies.
Having decided that the painting has no relevance to its current brands, Diageo has decided to peddle the thing at public auction in March. If the National Galleries can raise £4 million from the public, Diageo will donate the remainder of the value of the painting. (If you are interested in contributing, you can do so here.)
When Landseer painted Monarch of the Glen, he was working within a craze for all things Scottish. Greatly influenced by Sir Walter Scott’s romantic novels, young Queen Victoria and her husband first visited Scotland in 1842. It became one of their favorite hang-outs. Whisky itself was newly respectable after the Excise Tax of 1823 legalized its distillation. Forever after, whisky and stags have been linked together in our sentimental view of Scotland.
Landseer is most famous for his lions at the base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, but he was a prolific and popular painter of Victorian sentimentality. When he died in 1873, all Britain mourned. By the 20th century, when Monarchwas being slogged around for advertising purposes, Landseer’s animal portraits were anathema to high-brow art critics. We are more or less past that now.
“Man Proposes, God Disposes,” 1864, Sir Edwin Landseer
I can’t imagine how much money has been made by The Monarch of the Glen in its 165 years. It’s sold soap, insurance, whisky and everything else. (In modern America, artists don’t automatically transfer licensing with works of art, thank goodness.)
Diageo is under no legal obligation to give Monarch to Scotland. However, it has indirectly—through the acquisition and resale of the Dewar’s marque—made a lot of money off the old stag. Since its net income last year was in excess of £2 billion, it wouldn’t suffer from writing off the whole £10 million tab.
Still, I expect the Scottish people will stump up the £4 million. Here’s hoping that The Monarchof the Glen stays in Edinburgh forever.