By 1864, Sir Edwin Landseer’s pictures of dogs, stags and horses obligingly taking their place in the human scheme of things had made him the most beloved artist in Britain. He was Victoria and Albert’s favourite painter, a knight of the realm and at work on the four huge bronze lions that guard the base of Nelson’s Column. He was also increasingly showing signs of the mental disturbances – depression, melancholy, paranoia – that would lead to him being declared insane in 1872. It was a state of mind exacerbated by those lions. In a sketch of 1862/63 he showed himself as a prone figure about to be eaten by one of the beasts; scribbled on the sheet were the words “My Last Night’s Nightmare”.
It was while in this oppressed mood that Landseer painted the greatest work of his career, Man Proposes, God Disposes, now in Royal Holloway College. This huge panorama of Arctic savagery in which two polar bears tear at the remains of a wrecked ship and a dead sailor was a direct reference to the fate of Sir John Franklin’s 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage. Franklin, his two ships and 129 men disappeared and what had happened to them obsessed the British public. Numerous search expeditions were sent out but it wasn’t until 1859 that Admiral Francis McClintock found definitive evidence that Franklin and all his men had perished – though rumours that the men had resorted to cannibalism before they died still swirled thrillingly around.
Landseer never travelled further north than Scotland but the idea of the Arctic as a barren, primeval and savage realm had already been given pictorial form by the likes of Caspar David Friedrich and Frederic Church, and in the drawings that illustrated explorers’ accounts (while shipwreck and cannibalism were the subjects of Théodore Géricault’s 1818-19 Raft of the Medusa). What Landseer painted was an inversion of the natural and moral order of the Victorian age. There was nothing new about acknowledging the sublimity or apocalyptic overtones of nature but Landseer’s bears have a shocking ferocity as they go about their business: one shredding the ship’s red ensign, the other (resembling the lion of his nightmare sketch) crunching on human bones. What is being destroyed by the teeth and claws of the animals is the British state and its servants. When the painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy, Lady Franklin, unsurprisingly, refused to look at it.
In Paradise Lost Milton imagined man and nature in peaceful harmony until the animals were turned vicious by human sin and it is tempting now to see Landseer’s painting as both an environmentalist allegory and an image of the futility of human endeavour. It is more chilling though. John Martin, among others, had made numerous epic paintings about human insignificance but what makes Landseer’s picture so startling is its depiction of human irrelevance. It is a painting by an unsettled man not about hubris, not even about nature, but of unrelieved pessimism and godlessness.
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special