Landseer's dog paintings of the 1830s are among his most popular works. About half consist of commissioned, life-size 'portraits', the rest are independent subjects, smaller in scale and usually with a narrative content. This particular work was conceived as a pair with Low Life (Tate A00702), and depicting a battle-scarred terrier, guarding his master's shop. The intention is to juxtapose two dogs from different worlds and different social classes as representations of their absent owners. There is a long literary and pictorial tradition behind such contrasts as virtue and vice, good and evil, which usually have some kind of moral purpose. Here the contrast is more one of character than of morality.
The deerhound in this picture reflects an aristocratic world of chivalry; the interior is like a scene from a Walter Scott novel. Various props scattered on the table and floor give the impression that the dog's master is a knight: hawking gloves, two rapiers, a sixteenth century-style helmet and breastplate, a standing cup, old leather-bound books, a partially unrolled document, a quill pen, a candlestick made from an eagle's talon and a bellpull. Through the window can be glimpsed a castellated tower. The dog itself was once thought to have been Scott's dog Maida, but in pose and colouring the dog is closer to Landseer's own deerhound, which appears with Maida in A Scene at Abbotsford c.1827 (Tate N01532). This dog represents the chivalrous, the rural and the patrician, as opposed to the feisty terrier, which represents the tough, urban values of the plebeian English workman.
The picture was exhibited at the British Institution in 1831 and was later acquired, along with Low Life, by Robert Vernon, who had an important collection of 19th Century British art. Vernon owned several works by Landseer, eight of which he bequeathed to the National Gallery in 1847. Two of these were destroyed in the flood of 1928, but the other six, including High Life, are still in the Tate collection (Tate A00702, N00409, N00411, N00412 and N00415).
Richard Ormond, Sir Edwin Landseer, exhibition catalogue, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia 1982, p.99, no.59, reproduced p.101, in colour.
Robin Hamlyn, Robert Vernon's Gift - British Art for the Nation 1847, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1993, p.69.