A red deer stag stands with its powerful neck raised, antlers filling the sky. In the background mists swirl over the Scottish Highlands. The Monarch of the Glen was painted in 1851 by Sir Edwin Landseer, a star in his own time. Animals were his speciality, both in painting and sculpture – the lions at the base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar square are his. Emotive portraits of animals went down very well with the Victorian public, crossing the class divide. Queen Victoria had Landseer paint her pets, while the middle classes bought prints of his work to hang at home.
New colour printing technology meant that paintings could enter mass consciousness on a scale never known before, making fashionable artists like Landseer very wealthy in the process. In newly industrialised Britain, their images were also snapped up for advertising.
The Monarch of the Glen never did get to hang in the refreshment rooms of the House of Lords, for which it was originally commissioned, because the House of Commons refused to pay. But although the painting was bought privately, it has rarely been out of the public eye. A century of advertising whiskey has fuelled its fame: the John Dewar and Son distillery aquired it to give whiskey a more upmarket image and today it serves as the logo of the Glenfiddich distillery.
The image continues to crop up in other settings, such as the much debated “Stag Scene” in Stephen Frears’ film, The Queen. Making an overt reference to The Monarch in the Glen, Fears uses the stag to symbolise the pressurised Queen, who is moved to tears by the apparition of the wild animal. Its the only time in the film she lets the strain show. Frear observes
. . . in Scotland, they cull the stags to keep the numbers down. The ones they go for first are the older ones. Now, if you’ve got 14 points, as the stag in the film does, you are older; in other words, a deer with that number of points is an old deer and should have been killed.
Note: in Landseer’s painting the stag is a 12-pointer.