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Sir Edwin Landseer
1802–1873

Blackcock

Full screen

Medium
Ink wash heightened with blue and red chalks on laid paper
Size
9 × 11 inches · 228 × 280 mm
Notes
Signed in monogram lower right and inscribed: Como, 17”Oct /1848
Collections
  • William, 7th Viscount Strathallan (d. 1886), presumably a gift from the artist; 
  • and by family descent.

Quite apart from Landseer’s continuing reputation as a painter of animals and sporting subjects, his extraordinary skill as a draughtsman both in oil as well as with the pen has become increasingly celebrated. His drawings were eagerly sough-after – usually as gifts – by his contemporaries and he can now be seen to be one of the most skilful and inspired of draughtsmen of the earlier part of the nineteenth century. The intuitive facility, inventiveness as well as the emotional qualities of the best of his drawings ranks Landseer alongside Delacroix and Hugo.

In 1840, having achieved great professional and social success, Landseer began to suffer from the depression and instability that was to shadow him for the rest of his life. However, in these years his annual visit to the Scottish Highlands where Landseer, a renowned wit and raconteur as well as keen shot and fisherman, was welcomed by his aristocratic hosts. Landseer always kept a sketchbook on him and he was an inveterate draughtsman making studies from life of elements that might have a later use in his paintings as well as for the amusement of his companions for whom he made many humorous studies, sketching whilst out in the field, and even sometimes at the dinner table. Here he has magnificently improvised with ink handled with a brush to create a rapid and atmospheric work, which maintains the spontaneity of a sketch but has the successful finish of a painting. The monochromatic palette and muted composition deliver a beautiful rendering which manages to be both unsentimental and emotionally charged. In writing of Landseer’s paintings of dead game birds, Richard Ormond notes that they are ‘intensely physical and charged with emotion’ (Richard Ormond, The Monarch of the Glen: Landseer in the Highlands, 2005, p.56).

Amongst the earliest of Landseer’s renditions of blackgame is in his Scene in the Highlands (Private Collection on loan to The National Galleries of Scotland) of 1825-28. This large and formal group portrait of the Duke of Gordon with his sister, The Duchess of Bedford, and his nephew, Lord Alexander Russell, is adorned with dead game in the foreground; amongst the trophies of the hunt is a brace of dead blackcock. Looking at this wonderful depiction of a dead Blackcock, one is instantly reminded of Landseer’s Grouse (Private Collection, UK) and Ptarmigan (Philadelphia Museum of Art), both of 1833. In those complex images, Landseer contrasts a shot bird with a living mate, thus sentimentalising and humanising their fate. He wants one to imagine the bird’s experience. However, in the current drawing Landseer draws the viewer into the perspective of the sportsman. The stark use of wash brilliantly conjures a cold snowy mountain, and the restrained patches of coloured heightening add the drama: a subtle addition of blue chalk in the feathers breathes life into the bird, and the spots of bright red not only identify the markings of this prized gamebird, but also highlight its fate. 

However, a poignant and relevant comparison should be drawn with A Random Shot (Bury Art Gallery and Museum). Whilst this large picture is painted in oils, and its subject is a shot deer, the stark white setting of a cold snowy hilltop is instantly reminiscent, as are the small but glaring touches of red blood; and importantly, it was painted in 1848. Ormond argues that this mountaintop setting references a sacrificial altar, as well as raising the subject to universal significance. It may well be that this composition was derived from his spontaneous sketch of the Blackcock.

Landseer, who became famous for his paintings of horses, dogs and Highland Scenes, was born in London, the son of John Landseer A.R.A.  He first exhibited works at the Royal Academy in 1815 at the precocious age of thirteen.  After being elected A.R.A. at the age of twenty-four he became R.A. in 1831.  Further honours followed.  A great favourite of Queen Victoria, he was knighted in 1850, received a gold medal at the Paris Exhibition of 1855 and in 1866 was elected President of the R.A., a position that he declined. At his death, the nation mourned, and he was undoubtedly the most famous and popular painter of his day. His depictions of animals carry on in the sporting tradition established and dominated by George Stubbs. Yet Landseer’s prowess at describing fur and feather, and his ability to breathe life into his subjects, has left him unsurpassed in the realm of animal painting.

The enigmatic inscription ‘Como’ has so far eluded explanation. The drawing was obviously made in Scotland where Landseer is recorded as being in October 1848 and Richard Ormond has suggested that ‘Como’ may refer to a hunting lodge or estate known familiarly by that name.