Drawing of Head and Mouth of horses from the Elgin MarblesLANDSEER, Sir Edwin
Pencil on grey paper. 245x175mm. Mounted on cream card (425x335mm inside the frame), in a wooden frame. Two drawings on one sheet, the first is of the head of a horse (from the forehead to the muzzle) and the other, smaller one, is of the nostril and muzzle. Underneath this smaller drawing is written "E. Landseer from the Elgin Marbles". At the foot of the mount is written, in pencil "Sir Edwin Landseer – early work". The inscription on the drawings paper conforms to Landseer's youthful signature and handwriting found on the few early drawings that he signed and external evidence points to these as early works. Although the drawings are not dated, we are of the view that they were done between 1815 and 1817.
Prodigiously talented from childhood (it was said that he could paint with both hands simultaneously), Edwin Landseer (1802-1873) was producing beautiful drawings by the age of eight. He is best known as a painter of animals, particularly dogs and horses although his most public work is the four bronze lions at the base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square.
In 1815 he exhibited at the Royal Academy for the first time. He had to be admitted as an “honorary exhibitor” as the rules did not allow for such young artists to show their work. In the same year, he became a pupil of Benjamin Robert Haydon who encouraged Landseer to study the Elgin Marbles. Haydon was a supporter of Lord Elgin and of the view, not then universally accepted, that the sculptures were genuine works from fifth-century BC Athens and not Roman copies. He was one of the first British artists to have access to the sculptures. Haydon also showed the sculptures to Keats who wrote a sonnet “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles” having earlier addressed two sonnets to Haydon himself when they first become friends (see item [ ] pp.91-2). The young Landseer therefore had privileged access to the Marbles and so could have made these drawings as early as 1815.
Or they may date from a year or two later. The Elgin Marbles first went on public display in London in 1816 and they were an immediate sensation particularly among artists who had never seen classical sculpture of this scale and quality. They represented an ideal which all artists were encouraged to imitate. In 1817, John Landseer, Edwin’s father, produced an etching of horses’ heads from the Marbles (now in the Welcome Collection). His son’s drawings are much better - freer, more sculptural and with true feeling for the original animal. Unsurprisingly the young Landseer’s encounter with the horses of the Parthenon had a transformative effect on his art: an early biographer wrote that Landseer, “by means of the Elgin marbles, was imbued with that care for style which distinguished his best works”. Whilst it is probably more likely that these drawings were done under the tuition of Haydon, it is touching to think of John and Edwin, father and son standing in front of these staggering sculptures and producing their respective interpretations.