Lesley Riddoch: Monarch of the Glen a real opportunity

Plans to save the picture for the nation don't have to reinforce its image as the preserve of the elite, writes Lesley Riddoch

The Monarch of the Glen is an oil-on-canvas painting of a red deer stag completed in 1851 by the English painter Sir Edwin Landseer
The Monarch of the Glen is an oil-on-canvas painting of a red deer stag completed in 1851 by the English painter Sir Edwin Landseer

Is it really a cause for universal celebration that The Monarch of the Glen is likely to be saved for Scotland at the “knockdown” price of

£4 million?

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I wonder.

Firstly there’s that price tag. Scotland’s national galleries announced last week they’ll fundraise to buy “one of the most famous paintings depicting Scotland” from Diageo, after the multinational drinks company agreed to gift half the painting’s £8m value instead of selling it on the open market. Put like that the deal looks sound. But set against Diageo’s net profit of £2.24 billion in 2016, you wonder why they couldn’t have gifted it completely.

And set against the controversial multi-million pound refurbishments of Buckingham Palace and Westminster, it seems there is silly money for projects which please the elite but nothing for hundreds of thousands of commoners who depend on food banks and have learned to dread Christmas.

Secondly, the cynics may wonder if Diageo’s “gracious” offer was cleverly timed to offset bad publicity over the Scotch Whisky Association’s decision to challenge minimum alcohol pricing in the Supreme Court. Diageo is a core part of the SWA just as minimum pricing is a core part of SNP policy. But despite two election victories, the drinks giants intend to take their opposition to Scottish Government policy to the highest court in the land, mimicking the tobacco industry of the last century which used deep pockets and legal process to stall anti-smoking measures for a decade.

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Leader comment: £4m for Monarch of the Glen is a price worth paying

But there’s a third reason for mixed feelings about expensive plans to save the Monarch of the Glen; it means very different things to different people and that fact is rarely acknowledged.

For Peter Brown, Christie’s international head of Victorian and pre-Raphaelite art, the artwork is “one of the greatest pictures of the 19th century and known worldwide. It has a universal currency in that it has been so widely reproduced [and] is an extraordinarily masterful piece of painting… the brushwork is superb, the way the mist parts round the beast, the dew on the antlers, the realisation of fur, the way the heather sparkles in the morning light. There is an incredible sense of command and destiny there and it is those qualities that lift it out of the ordinary and make it so beloved.”

Well, yes. But whose command and whose destiny?

For many Scots the picture represents the command, destiny, entitlement and enduring power of a landowning elite for whom deer and sheep were more important than local people. Let’s not use the past tense. As the imminent eviction of the Paterson family on Arran a week today demonstrates, the quasi-feudal nature of life in rural Scotland is not just a past problem.

While the Englishman Edwin Landseer was producing the classic image of the Scottish Highlands in 1851, thousands of real Scots were being cleared from real hillsides in the Cairngorms to make way for deer and create the “empty” idyll that still haunts and defines Scotland. There’s no denying the painting is an important icon and central to Scots identity – but there’s also no denying it’s a divided and contested identity. All too often, though that inconvenient truth is politely overlooked.

This matters.

When Landseer’s idealised image of the noble beast became the classic portrait of deer and Highland life it displaced pre-existing portraits like that created a century earlier by Duncan Ban MacIntyre. This illiterate Perthshire gamekeeper recited a poem from memory to a pibroch pipe tune which described deer and mountain life from the perspective of a local Gael. ‘In Praise of Ben Dorain’ was transcribed by the son of a neighbouring minister, and much later translated into English by Iain Crichton Smith who said of it:

“Nowhere else in Scottish poetry do we have a poem of such sunniness and grace and exactitude maintained for such a length, with such a wealth of varied music and teaming richness and language.”

And yet, despite such fulsome praise from the venerated Crichton Smith, educated Scots probably don’t recognise the name of Duncan Ban MacIntyre but have learned to recognise, value and will probably fundraise for the Landseer’s Monarch. Whose reality gets pride of place? The official or the unofficial, the landowner’s or the local’s and indeed the Scot’s or the Gael’s? Perhaps, you might think, a cheerful amalgam of all outlooks and artefacts is possible. Why not let a thousand flowers blossom?

Actually, I agree. I don’t think the National Galleries should abort its planned purchase – far from it. Interpreted and displayed with sympathy for its manifold meanings, the Monarch offers Scots a chance to explore long-suppressed tensions about ownership, class, clearance and identity. It would be too simple, too boring and downright inauthentic to simply hang “The Monarch” in a gallery with a few notes about the artist. The painting could act as a fulcrum for debate with different meanings and interpretations commissioned and displayed on a rolling basis. Why not?

At the Museums Association annual conference in Glasgow earlier this month, bold connections were made between health, identity and the role of museums in either validating or dismissing lived experience. Speaker after speaker insisted museums must accept they decide whose story gets into collections and whose is habitually excluded. Rio de Janeiro’s Museum of Tomorrow stole the show. There is only one artefact on display (a gift). Instead the vast space is used to ask questions about mental health, global warming, gender identity and land ownership using visual and virtual displays that are digitally connected and constantly updated to reflect the many different perspectives on any one subject and the constant stream of change in the world.

Might The Monarch not prompt such a step-change in curation here?

After all there has been change and continuity aplenty in Glenfeshie since The Monarch of the Glen was painted there 160 years ago.

It is still owned by one of Europe’s largest landowners but nowadays that’s a billionaire Danish entrepreneur not the Queen and Anders Poulsen is culling the deer population and regenerating 1,200 acres of Caledonian pine forest.

Of course the next private owner may do the opposite – such is the unpredictability of living with the most concentrated pattern of landownership in the developed world.

Is that not part of The Monarch’s story, and are we not ready to unpack it?