Saturday, February 15, 2014

Painting of the Day: Queen Victoria at Osborne, 1867

Queen Victoria at Osborne
Sir Edwin Landseer, 1867
Crown Copyright
The Royal Collection
Image Courtesy of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Queen Victoria’s “Go-to” painter for many reasons was Sir Edwin Landseer (1803-1873). Her Majesty admired Landseer’s work for its monumentality and sense of historical accuracy as well as his sensitive and accurate depictions of children and animals. After the 1861 pre-mature death of Prince Albert, Victoria commissioned Landseer to create a pair of paintings which she called “Sunshine and Shadow.” She wrote in her journal that she was “seized with a great wish” to see illustrated the contrast between those dear, joyful times which she had shared with Prince Albert on the Highlands at Balmoral and at their vacation home, Osborne House, and the overwhelming grief she felt since the Prince Consort’s death.

Her Majesty asked, for the “Shadow” portion of the pair that she be painted, “as I am now, sad & lonely, seated on my pony, led by Brown, with a representation of Osborne.”

And, that’s just what Landseer did.

Here, we see the Queen in the mourning attire she donned for the remainder of her life. Landseer pictures Her Majesty seated upon Flora, the royal pony. Flora is being led by John Brown. Behind them, we can see the grand terraces of Osborne, the clock stopped at 3 p.m. Her Majesty reads a letter while, on the ground, her gloves and other letters have been cast aside. As I’ve mentioned before, imagery of cast-off gloves often symbolized a woman alone.

Landseer has also carefully painted two of the Queen’s dogs, a Border Collie (most likely the one called Sharp) and a Skye Terrier whom we know as “Prince.” Princesses Louise and Helena are seen in the background.

That Victoria asked for Brown to be included in the painting speaks of her affection for the servant who had originally been a ghillie (an outdoor servant) at Balmoral. Upon the passing of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria and Brown enjoyed a close friendship. John Brown was deeply protective of the Queen, and she was fiercely loyal to him despite the opposition of her advisors and family, especially the future King Edward VII.

The Queen’s grief was compounded when Brown died in 1883. She wrote:

Perhaps never in history was there so strong and true an attachment, so warm and loving a friendship between the sovereign and servant…Strength of character as well as power of frame – the most fearless uprightness, kindness, sense of justice, honesty, independence and unselfishness combined with a tender, warm heart…the most remarkable of men.

Landseer painted the portrait based on many live sittings as well as a variety of photographs of the Queen on horseback, the dogs, and the princesses. He began the work on “Shadow” in 1865—creating sketches, but didn’t begin actual painting until 1867. Landseer claimed to have been unsettled by the fog and suggested that his failing eyesight had delayed him. The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1867, at the end of the year. He wrote, upon the opening of the exhibit:
If there is any merit in my treatment of the composition it is in the truthful and unaffected representation of Her Majesty’s unceasing grief – The story should be told by the Picture.

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