Analysis of the subject reveals a problematic relation between image and actuality. Deer and Deerhounds
corresponds closely to the episodes described in contemporary accounts of field sports in the Scottish Highlands, notably William Scrope’s The Art of Deer-Stalking
(1838), which Landseer and his brothers illustrated.9
Either a stag would be stalked by the shooters and their gillies, or beaters would drive the whole herd past the concealed guns. Only when an animal had been wounded would the dogs be released to bring it down. The stricken stag usually ‘went to soil’, that is, it sought refuge in a lake or river, as we see here. One of the shooters would then approach and administer the coup de grace
. But there is no overt human presence in Landseer’s painting – other than our spectatorship. And rather than seeing the accoutrements of the modern field sportsman, we see a scene that evokes ancient traditions of hunting. In fact, the deerhounds belong to a venerable breed cherished by the celebrated author Sir Walter Scott,10
and Scott’s description of a deer hunt in The Lady of the Lake
(1810) was one source for the painting. Scrope’s book similarly evoked Scotland’s ‘Ossianic’ and feudal past, in a highly romanticised account of the sport. The reality was less heroic. The great shooting estates, supposedly pristine wildernesses, had often been created by the enforced removal of crofters in the Highland clearances, and the departure of the sheep farmers who had replaced the crofters. Alongside the great landowners, there were legions of wealthy industrialists who acquired lodges or rented shooting rights, and by the later 1830s were descending on the Highlands by coach, steamboat or train.11
Their excursions were anything but primitive, involving increasingly powerful and accurate rifles and telescopes as well as an army of servants to provision the sportsmen and to locate, retrieve and carry home the game.