Catalogue entry

T03395 THE HARPER 1821–2

Oil on canvas 35 7/8 × 28 (912 × 710)
Inscribed ‘EL’ on top of the harp
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1982
Prov: ...; Thomas Landseer, the artist's elder brother, sold Christie's 14 April 1880 (280, as ‘A Welsh Bard’) 17 gns bt Permain; ...; R. Durant, sold Christie's 12 June 1886 (127, as ‘The Bard’) 24 gns bt Nathan; ...; purchased c.1950 at a saleroom in Tunbridge Wells by Mr and Mrs R. Beling who in 1970 gave it to their daughter from whom bt by the Tate Gallery
Exh: BI 1822 (284)
Lit: New Monthly Magazine, VI, 1822, p.159

‘The Harper’ was first shown at the British Institution when Landseer was just entering his twentieth year and it was unusual in being the first of his exhibited pictures (having established his reputation as an animalier after his debut at the Royal Academy in 1815) to deal solely with the human figure.

The subject of the Bard had been treated by a number of British artists before this date - most notably by Thomas Jones (in 1774), Benjamin West (in 1778, see Tate Gallery T01900), Henry Fuseli (in 1780), William Blake (in ?1809, see Tate Gallery N03551) and John Martin (in 1817). Landseer's picture is a re-working of the proto-romantic image of the heroic poet described in Thomas Gray's pindaric ode The Bard (published in 1757) which had provided the inspiration for these earlier paintings; however, in Landseer's case, there might well be a more specific debt to Walter Scott's poem The Lay of the Last Minstrel, first published in 1805, which was widely read during the early years of the nineteenth century.

This particular picture betrays an academic preoccupation both with the handling of chiaroscuro and the disposition of drapery - all clearly based on the study of a model in the studio - as well as with the need to set the figure in an appropriate landscape - in this case a wild and stormy one. A study of this sort at this particular moment in Landseer's career inevitably recalls that period between 1815 and 1818 when the young artist was working simultaneously in the studio of the history painter B.R. Haydon and studying in the Royal Academy Schools. Such an interest in the conventions of academic art which ‘The Harper’ betrays, seems to suggest that, rather than merely glancing backwards, Landseer was consciously looking forward with an awareness that the most likely way to professional eminence and respectability was through the more familiar interpretation of historical subject-matter - employing the human figure - rather than through those depictions of the brute creation on which his remarkable rise to fame was founded. It was, indeed, a large canvas in which human figures played an important part, ‘The Battle of Chevy Chase’ (RA 1826, Birmingham City Art Gallery) which finally ensured Landseer's election as an ARA in November 1826, and, in a sense, therefore, ‘The Harper’ anticipates this later work.

When it was exhibited ‘The Harper’ was only noticed by the critic of the New Monthly Magazine, who described it as a work in ‘a quiet and subdued style, which is not without promise in another line of the art than that in which Landseer is unquestionably destined to reach the most distinguished excellence’. The latter prediction accurately foretells Landseer's great success as an animal painter; if there is one feature of this picture which clearly links it with the greater part of Landseer's output it is the beard of the Harper himself - a remarkable tour de force of brushwork in which seemingly every hair is accounted for.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986