Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014
An exhausted stag has swum to reach one of the many islands on Loch Maree in the Highlands of Scotland, a place of refuge from the violence of the hunt. Now the scene is one of silence and serenity, highlighted by the ethereal evening light – the arc of the animal’s path echoed in the balancing curve of the disturbed ducks overhead. This has been described as ‘the first of Landseer’s symbolic pictures of deer’ (exh. cat. Philadelphia and London 1981-2, p.170) and the artist would frequently return to the theme, most memorably with ‘The Monarch of the Glen’ of c.1851 (on loan to the National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh). Having already established himself as a talented animal painter by the time he first visited Scotland in 1824, Landseer’s abilities became quickly sought after by Scottish landowners, who invited him to stay in the Highlands during the summer season, both as an artist and as an entertaining and witty guest.
Queen Victoria bought this painting before her first visit to Scotland as Queen in September 1842. On her return she remarked of Landseer’s Highland sketches: ‘Now that we have been in Scotland & in the Highlands, we can judge how true are the representations of the scenes & scenery there’ (Journal, 13 January, 1843). Prince Albert was an enthusiastic shot himself, returning one day during the 1842 visit with nineteen roe-deer, three brace of grouse, several hares and a capercaillie (Journal, 8 September), but the British press were quick to condemn the German prince for this interest. Landseer also took part in deer shooting, although not without a degree of moral conflict about the cruelty of blood sports, of which some sense comes across in ‘The Sanctuary’. In the Royal Academy Catalogue Landseer appended an extract from a poem by William Russell, ‘The Stricken Deer’:
Poor hunted hart! The painful struggle o’er,
How blessed the shelter of that island shore!
There, whilst he sobs, his painting heart to rest,
No hound nor hunter shall his lair molest.
Queen Victoria purchased the picture from its first owner, William Wells of Redleaf, Landseer’s single most prolific patron, after seeing it at the Royal Academy exhibition: ‘My chief present to Albert was a beautiful picture of a stag swimming through water & disturbing wild duck. Mr Wells gave it up to me’ (Journal, 26 August, 1842). The picture was placed in the Prince’s Writing Room at Windsor.
Text adapted from 'Victoria and Albert: Art & Love', London, 2010