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The Monarch of the Glen: the strange career of a familiar image

View The Monarch of the Glen collection.

Above the doorway of the main entrance to the Black Forest Inn, a German Restaurant in Minneapolis, hangs a painting of a stag. Apparently a symbol of Teutonic pride, the stag stands filling most of the frame of the painting, with a misty, mountainous landscape behind it. The image is profoundly romantic, with its evocation of the power of nature, the untamed freedom of the wild and suggestion of nationalist associations with landscape. It fits well with the dark wood and rosemaling of the bar, yet is so familiar as to be kitsch. The painting was made in 1984, by Twin Cities artist and set designer Jack Birkla, to be hung in the Black Forest’s sister restaurant, Lorelei. It is a copy of “The Monarch of the Glen,” a nineteenth century oil painting by Sir Edwin Landseer. How did this image get to be so familiar, and how did a painting of a Scottish scene by an English painter come to represent a romantic view of Germany?

Born in London in 1803, Edwin Landseer was the son of John Landseer, a painter, engraver and an author. (Proctor) Five of the family’s seven children became artists, though Edwin was the most gifted and successful. (Hermann) The young Landseer was precocious, reaching a high level of skill and sophistication in his drawing and painting before the age of ten, and attended the Royal Academy at the age of fourteen. Even at a young age, he was especially interested in animal studies, which would become his great claim to fame. A celebrity and critical success in his lifetime, Landseer was considered one of the greatest painters of his day. According to the painter William Frith, “before he was twenty-one, Landseer had astonished the world.”

A favorite painter of the Victorians, Landseer was especially well known for his anthropomorphic depictions of animals, which were often filled with heroism or pathos. In paintings such as “The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner,” depicting a collie dolefully leaning on its master’s coffin, Landseer ascribed human emotions to his animal subjects, as did his literary contemporaries Scott and Dickens. (Treuherz) This was perfectly in keeping with the aesthetics of the time, and Landseer claimed he genuinely wished to display evidence of natural goodness through these images. The critic John Ruskin wrote of “The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner” that it was “one of the most perfect poems or pictures… which modern times have seen.” (Lambourne) Landseer’s paintings managed to depict universal ideas and concerns, and in a universally approachable manner.

Knighted in 1850, Landseer had a long friendship with the Royal family, and painted their portraits as well as those of their pets. Queen Victoria herself owned 39 of his paintings, as well as many drawings. (Lambourne) He also instructed the royals in painting and drawing. “Queen Victoria Sketching at Loch Laggan,” Landseer’s first painting of the Royal Family in Scotland, depicts his student taking a break from her work. In addition to the portraits, Victoria commissioned works by Landseer, including several with a Highland theme. “Highlander and Eagle” and “Highland Lassie Crossing a Stream” were painted from the Queen’s instructions, and she gave them as Christmas gifts to Prince Albert in 1849. Her wishes were explicit, for the “Highland Lassie…” to be “peace and sunshine” and for the “Highlander…” to represent the “spirit of the highlands.” (Pringle) A general interest in Scottish culture flourished in the Victorian era, due in part to the novels of Sir Walter Scott, some of which were illustrated by Landseer. Landseer shared with Queen Victoria this fascination with Scottish history and landscape, which he first visited in 1824, and returned to frequently. (Treuherz) His first visit to the royal estate at Balmoral was in 1850, when he received his largest royal commission. Once again, the Queen’s wishes were explicit:

It is to be thus: I, stepping out of the boat at Loch Muich, Albert in his Highland dress, assisting me out, & I am looking at a stag which he is supposed to have just killed. Bertie is on the deer pony with McDonald… standing behind, with rifles and plaids on his shoulder. In the water, holding the boat, are several of the men in their kilts, - salmon are also lying on the ground. The picture is meant to represent me meeting Albert, who has been stalking, whilst I have been fishing, & the whole is quite consonant with the truth. The solitude, the sport, the Highlanders and the water, &c will be… a beautiful exemplification of peaceful times, & of the independent life we lead in the dear Highlands. It is quite a new conception… It will tell a great deal, & it is beautiful. (Pringle)

The resultant painting, “Queen Victoria Meeting the Prince Consort on his Return from Deer Stalking in the Year 1850,” fulfilled all of the Queen’s wishes, and despite being exhibited to unfavourable reviews, went on to be produced as a popular etching. (Pringle)

There is a great irony to Victoria’s wish to depict the Highlands as a serene world of peace and beauty. Just one hundred years previously, this same landscape had seen two Jacobite rebellions and, despite the Prince Consort’s Scots dress, Georgian statutes forbidding Highland apparel had only been revoked in 1780. The Royal Family were not always so comfortable in this landscape. This mythologised landscape also turns a blind eye to the pain of the Highland clearances and the abject poverty and squalor of the newly industrialised cities. The Highlands of myth thus serve to sever the present from history and to suggest that the current order is timeless. (Pringle) In a further irony, this landscape, stripped of historical referent, allowed for greater projection of romantic notions of Nationality. As the rise of urbanization and the clearances both broke traditional ties to the land, the land came more and more to represent an idealised Scottish nation. Emptied of any specificity, landscape can become a symbol, but that symbol becomes free-floating, appropriated to many ends. Images of the Highland myth served Scottish national pride and the Crown in England equally well. In fact, divorced from political specificity, the images float so free of referent that they can come to embody generalised nature, generalised sport, and even other nations.

Starting in the 1840’s, Landseer created a series of stag paintings based on his trips to the Highlands. These highly romanticised images depict the animals fighting, challenged by each other, reaching safety across a lake, hunted or shot dead; their bodies are painted with incomparable accuracy and the landscapes are superbly handled… they bring to animal painting the epic and heroic qualities of high art. …the stags seem to represent forces of nature, free yet doomed.”(Treuherz )Commissioned as part of a series of three panels to hang in the Refreshment Rooms of the House of Lords, “The Monarch of the Glen” was painted in 1851. (Ormond) The roughly five foot square oil painting depicts a ‘royal’ stag, with twelve point antlers, meticulously rendered, standing as though slightly above the viewer. The stag’s body is seen nearly in profile, with its head turned to look out beyond the viewer at an unseen vista. The stag is clearly standing on a mountaintop, and behind it, in the distance, are more mountains, engulfed in mist. The painting presents a romanticised view of the Scottish Highlands, while simultaneously seeming to represent the “glory of Victorian Britain at the height of the Empire.”(National Museum of Scotland) While the expenditure for the Refreshment Room commission was turned down by the House of Commons, “The Monarch of the Glen” was sold privately and went on to become one of Landseer’s most well known images, and one of the most well known paintings of the 19th century.

Landseer’s images of deer became very popular. Paintings such as “Stag at Bay,” “The Challenge,” “The Drive,” “ Scene in Braemar,” and of course, “The Monarch of the Glen” all became well known through editions of prints. (Ormond) Prior to the 19th century most works of art gained fame through their display in a church, a museum, or in the collection of a wealthy owner. An image could only be known as an original object. Reproductions of images were only available in monochromatic prints; true to the drawing of an image, perhaps, but not the color and texture. During Landseer’s life, however, steel engraving plates and chromolithography brought prints within the grasp of a wider section of the populace. (Hughes) While Landseer never charged high prices for his paintings, he made a large fortune from prints, which sometimes were engraved by his father or brother. (Proctor) Landseer also created some works specifically for the print market. An album of twenty prints of deer, entitled “The Forest,” was published from his chalk drawings in 1868. (Ormond) The technology of color printing was not the only factor in allowing a wider dissemination of his work. At the same time as the steel engraving plate made famous artworks affordable, the framing costs for works on paper dropped due to the repeal of the tax on glass. (Hughes) Suddenly “high” art was a part of the general population’s daily lives.

This new market for reproductions of artworks had an interesting effect on the Victorian art market. Often, the reproduction rights to a work of art were included in its sale price. Paintings were worth much more if they were sold along with their reproduction rights, and conversely, works which would reproduce well were worth more. Luckily, the Victorian audience “valued exactly those features of the picture which could survive reproduction – the story, the moral, the iconographic detail, the close attention to Nature.” (Hughes) In a strangely democratic twist, this meant that popular taste drove the high art market.

Corporations began to take an interest in art at about this same time, perhaps due to the prestige associating with art brought to their name, and perhaps due to the money to be made through reproduction. Furthermore, the abolishment of the advertising duty in 1853 led to an explosion in advertising, and a greater demand for imagery. The expansion of advertising and commercial imagery continued with the end of the newspaper stamp in 1855. Newspapers became more readily affordable, and a new market for pictorial magazines developed, especially those aimed at women. (Nevett) One of the first companies to seize on these marketing opportunities was the A. & F. Pears soap company, whose co-founder Thomas J. Barratt was one of the founders of modern advertising. One of Barratt’s most famous forays into the art world was the purchase of the reproduction rights to “Bubbles,” a painting of a child gazing at a floating soap bubble, by the renowned Victorian painter Sir John Everett Millais. The image promptly became an advertisement for the soap, as well as a corporate logo. Barratt also produced millions of individual reproductions of the image, which soon became a favorite print in people’s homes. From 1891 to 1920 Barratt produced the Pears Annual, a publication featuring fiction, illustrations, advertisements for Pears soaps, and at least two large prints for framing. Having been purchased by Pears, “The Monarch of the Glen” appeared as a color plate in the 1916 Pears annual, similarly finding its way into millions of homes. (

A. & F. Pears had links with John Dewar and Sons distillery, to whom the painting was sold, and it is with Dewar’s that the painting of “The Monarch of the Glen” became most closely associated. Whisky was not widely known or available until the early nineteenth century, when industrial advances allowed for greater production and quality control. Even then, the drink was considered rough and ungentlemanly; it was a rural curiosity. By the late nineteenth century, however, whisky advertising was widespread. These advertisements often traded on the broadest caricatures of Scots, but frequently associated whisky drinking with wealth and refinement in order to alter societal perceptions of the drink. Dewar’s took this idea even further. Rather than simply using illustrations of high-class drinkers, their advertisements suggested refinement by using ‘high art’ in their advertising images. (Murray) Having purchased “The Monarch of the Glen,” and its reproduction rights, Dewar’s quickly put the painting to work. The image itself became the trademark of the company, was reproduced in advertisements as well as collectibles such as a Royal Doulton ceramic flagon, which featured an illustration of the painting. (Dewars email) The painting signified both mythic Scotland and high culture, perfectly embodying the necessary associations for Dewar’s. Prints of the painting became common in pubs. Through these reproductions the image was further disseminated, and further dissociated with the world of fine art. The official Dewar’s logo changed over time and Dewar’s advertising later concentrated on the image of the Dewar’s Highlander. Dewar’s, however, was not the only whisky to use the “Monarch of the Glen” as its logo. The image of the stag was especially apt for Glenfiddich distillery, whose name comes from the Gaelic for “valley of the deer.” The stag image remains the logo and advertising identity of Glenfiddich, and has appeared on bottles, decanters, water jugs, print ads, key-chains, glasses, mirrors, bar mats and even a recent television ad campaign. The company claims the stag image embodies their latest tagline, “the independent spirit,” a pun referring to the whisky itself as well as “the continued family ownership of the brand.” (

In the United States “The Monarch of the Glen” was further disseminated by yet another corporation, the Hartford Fire Insurance Company. Starting in 1861, a mere ten years after the painting’s completion, the Hartford began using a stag as its logo. The original design, while based upon Landseer’s “Monarch,” depicted the stag by a stream, creating a visual pun on the words ‘hart; and ‘ford.’ However, by 1875 this background had given way to the original’s mountaintop perch. Divorced from any initial meanings regarding the Scottish nation or Victorian rule, the stag now came to represent strength, reliability and trustworthiness. As their British counterparts had, the Hartford used popular interest in prints as a marketing tool. In 1890 the John A. Lowell Company was hired to create a steel engraving of Landseer’s painting, which was distributed across the country. (Hartford representative) Throughout the years since the Hartford has used the image in countless ways. In addition to the Lowell Company’s engraving, the image has appeared on signs, plaques, cufflinks, pendants, children’s badges, and modernised posters, all serving the Hartford’s brand. Beginning in 1974 the company even used the image in television ads, created by McCaffrey-McCall, with a trained elk named Lawrence wandering through the commercials, while an announcer discussed the company. At the end of the ad, Lawrence struck the familiar pose of the original painting and then morphed into the company’s logo. (website)

This new meaning, strength, reliability and trustworthiness, was apparently widespread in America. The image appeared in other corporate logos, as if to certify that a product was of high quality. Most interesting of all, little over a decade after the painting’s completion, the “Monarch” appears on currency. In 1863 Abraham Lincoln convinced Congress to pass the National Banking Act, establishing a National banking system. These banks were to issue their own US paper currency, with US government securities backing the notes. At least two such banks, the Bank of Michigan and Allen’s College Bank in Pennsylvania, issued notes which featured an engraving of the “Monarch of the Glen,” distributing its likeness more widely than ever before.

As photography and full color reproduction blossomed at the end of the nineteenth century, the artistic avant-garde moved away from naturalistic depictions of narrative, and towards a fascination with those aspects of a painting which didn’t survive reproduction: texture, the artist’s touch, the ‘aura.’ As Impressionists, Fauves and Cubists experimented with the formal elements of artistic construction, a work like “The Monarch of the Glen,” barely a generation old, began to look antiquated. An image which, at the time of its creation, seemed like the apogee of 19th century painting started to look maudlin, old fashioned and out of touch. The painting, if it was discussed at all, was known as an icon of kitsch. Perhaps, though, familiarity simply breeds contempt. An image which has had other meanings successfully superimposed over its original content comes to seem empty of meaning. Do all of these iterations drain an image of its power? Does the image’s ubiquity prevent us from seeing it with fresh eyes? Or, does it simply become an entirely blank slate, upon which any meaning can be projected?

Kitsch or fine art, the popularity of Landseer’s painting as a print and icon continues to this day, with a search on Google turning up 141,000 hits for the phrase “Monarch of the Glen.” Many of these websites are devoted to Landseer and his work, but not all. Far more sites are selling posters or prints, often associated with sporting and hunting goods. There is even a recent BBC television series titled “The Monarch of the Glen,” a name which was presumably already familiar to its viewers. “The Monarch of the Glen” has become a free-floating sign, which can be attached to any referent, from nations, to whisky, to fire insurance and currency, and whose continued popularity may stem from both its strength as an image and its malleability as a symbol.


Victorian Painting Julian Treuherz, Thames and Hudson 1993
Masters of British 19th Century Art Ida Procter, Dobson 1961
Sir Edwin Landseer Richard Ormond, Rizzoli 1981
The Art of Whisky Jim Murray, PRO Publications1998
Nineteenth Century British Painting Luke Hermann, Giles de la Mare Publishers 2000
“The Privation of History: Landseer, Victoria and the Highland Myth” Trevor R. Pringle
The Iconography of Landscape Cambridge University Press 1988
Art and Money Robert Hughes, New Art Examiner, October/November 1984
Advertising in Britain T. R. Nevett, William Heinemann Ltd. 1982"

View The Monarch of the Glen collection.