Sir Edwin Henry Landseer

Low Life

1829, exhibited 1831

Not on display

Sir Edwin Henry Landseer 1802–1873
Oil paint on mahogany
Support: 457 × 352 mm
frame: 700 × 990 × 90 mm
Presented by Robert Vernon 1847


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. In an etching of 1822, which anticipates Low Life, the dog in this picture is identified as Jack. He belongs to the tradition of Landseer's early, unruly tykes, an element which gradually disappeared in his work. The same dog reappears in A Jack in Office (c.1833, Victoria and Albert Museum, London).

This particular work was conceived as a pair with High Life (Tate A00703), depicting a faithful deerhound, symbol of an aristocratic and chivalric past. The intention was 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 - 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 surly, battle-scarred terrier fiercely guards his master's shop. The surrounding accessories, painted with tremendous realism, indicate that his master is a rough, working-class man: the beer tankard and clay pipe, the whip and key hanging on the hook, the weathered stone step. Other props convey his actual profession: the scarred butcher's block with knife and bottle; the butcher's top hat and worn boots. The terrier represents the tough, urban values of the plebeian English workman, as opposed to the deerhound, who represents the refined, the chivalrous and the patrician.

The picture was exhibited at the British Institution in 1831 and was later acquired, along with High 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 (A00702, N00409, N00411, N00412 and N00415).

Further reading:
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.

Frances Fowle
December 2000

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