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.
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.
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 Monarch was 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.
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 Monarch of the Glen stays in Edinburgh forever.