“The ultimate biscuit tin image”

So it’s crunch time for Landseer’s The Monarch of the Glen, or “the ultimate biscuit tin image” of Scotland: a bulky stag set against the violet hills and watery skies of an isolated wilderness,” according to The Sunday Herald.

I can’t imagine anybody in the contemporary art world shedding a tear for its’ loss after nearly two decades on loan to The National Gallery of Scotland, mind you. Because if any picture ever summed up the cliched irrelevance of Victorian art then surely this is it, and it’s not the one I would rescue from the fire should the building ever take.

But – and this is a big but – did you ever get the feeling you were missing something? Just before we metaphorically chuck it on the bonfire, isn’t it worth reflecting on what it’s worth?

This, after all, might have been the image that sold a million shortbread fingers, but does that alone make it bad Art? And if it does, then why do so many people like – no let’s admit this, love it?

The nub of this it seems to me is that this isn’t so much a painting – as an idea, a concept, a way of life, a vision. It’s the Victorian vision of Romantic Highland Scotland distilled into a striking image.


Imagine painting one image which will encapsulate an idea of the Romantic Highlands, this is heather, weather, whisky, wilderness and wildlife all in one. We might be bored of the image but such economy of means should be admired

Landseer was good at this. He did visual expressions of BIG ideas; as his Lions in Trafalgar square nobly attest to an idea of Empire. It’s just a pity he also stooped to expressing smaller, incidental, almost trivial things; the royal’s favourite hounds and horses for instance, maudlin expressions of grief and cutsie pictures of anthropomorphic pets. Popular taste it seems quickly loses it savour, while big ideas transcend .


Landseer did big ideas and that’s not a common skill, as the efforts on the fourth column in Trafalgar square regularly attest.


He also did popular taste, The Old Shepherds chief Mourner is harder to see today as great Art.

So it might have graced a million biscuit jars, but I’d argue that its’ enduring, inexplicable popularity, far from putting The Monarch Of The Glen beyond the pale with the contemporary artist should make us interested in why it’s so enduringly popular.

Buy ‘us’ I mean visual artists,  and the ‘why’ it seems to me, is easy to explain. Yes, it’s popularist, cliched even, and yes it reflects its’ time, but, and this is important, it’s the distillation and communication of a complex web of ideas into a simple, strong , striking and memorable visual image.

And, when you think about it; how many paintings, works of art even, fit that criteria? The Angel of the North by Gormley, Mother and Child Divided by Hurst – these are of the same quality: simple, strong, striking, memorable, visual images.

Bizarrely, that most brand-aware of branded goods companies, Diageo, feels it no longer needs to own the painting as it has (and I quote) ‘no direct link to (their) business or brands’, but then when did they ever sell stags, or Scotland or the Scottish dream and how did the value of understanding how to create a big visual band cease to be important at Diageo?

We might not mourn its’ passing, but we ought to reflect on the reasons behind the popularity of The Monarch Of the Glen.

One thought on ““The ultimate biscuit tin image”

  1. To say that something has become a cliche is also to say that once it was new and powerful. Which raises and interesting question about how to rescue cliche. Maybe one just has to wait long enough?


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