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Oil painting - The Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner
  • The Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner
    Edwin Landseer, born 1802 - died 1873
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The Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner

  • Object:

    Oil painting

  • Place of origin:

    Great Britain, Uk (painted)

  • Date:

    1837 (painted)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Edwin Landseer, born 1802 - died 1873 (painter (artist))

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Oil on canvas

  • Credit Line:

    Given by John Sheepshanks, 1857

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    British Galleries, room 122h, case WS

Object Type
Oil paintings with sentimental scenes of animals became popular with collectors such as John Sheepshanks and the Rev. Chauncy Hare Townshend, as well as with the Victorian public in general.

Subjects Depicted
Landseer's choice of subject illustrates the Victorian obsession with the trappings of death, combined here with his speciality, the accurate and almost anthropomorphic representation of dogs and other animals. Its mixture of pathos and realism appealed to all sections of society, and the critic Ruskin praised the fine technique and the subtle choice of details. This painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1837 and proved a great success, particularly as an engraving after this picture was published and sold widely in the following year.

Edwin Henry Landseer (1802-1873) was a child prodigy, exhibiting some drawings at the Royal Academy when he was only 13. From an early age he was a frequent visitor to the menagerie in Exeter Change in the Strand, London, where he drew lions, monkeys and other animals. Animals remained the main subjects of his art. Queen Victoria collected his paintings, as did John Sheepshanks. The two biggest collections of his work are in the Royal Collection and here in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Physical description

In a sparsely furnished room, a dog rests its head on the coffin of its master, the shepherd.

Place of Origin

Great Britain, Uk (painted)


1837 (painted)


Edwin Landseer, born 1802 - died 1873 (painter (artist))

Materials and Techniques

Oil on canvas


Height: 45.7 cm, Width: 61 cm, Depth: 7 cm, Height: 702 mm framed, Width: 857 mm framed, Depth: 68 mm framed

Object history note

Given by John Sheepshanks, 1857. By Sir Edwin Henry Landseer RA (born in London, 1802, died there in 1873)

Exhibited at the Royal Academy 1837

Descriptive line

Oil painting entitled 'The Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner' by Edwin Henry Landseer. Great Britain, 1837.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Catalogue of British Oil Paintings 1820-1860, Ronald Parkinson, Victoria and Albert Museum, London: HMSO, 1990, pp. 143-44
The following is the full text of the entry:

"LANDSEER, Sir Edwin Henry, RA (1803-1873)
Born London 7 March 1803, fourth of seven children of the engraver John Landseer. Studied with BR Haydon, entered the RA Schools 1817 (at the age of 14); won annual prizes of the Royal Society of Arts 1813-17. A precocious and prodigious talent, as both painter and draughtsman, he exhibited - in a long and distinguished career - 179 works at the RA between 1815 and 1873, 94 at the BI 1818-65, and four at the SBA 1826-32.
Subjects included portraits, but predominantly dealt with animal and human genre, often based in Scotland. Elected ARA 1826 (at the earliest permitted age), RA 1831. Received the patronage of the Russell family, and - most importantly- that of the Royal family, to whom he was Drawing Master, beginning in 1836 with the Duchess of Kent (Queen Victoria's mother); most significantly, he represented in visual form the Queen and Prince Albert's love for the life and landscape of the Scottish Highlands. Together with George IV's celebrated visit to Edinburgh 1822, and the great popularity of Sir Waiter Scott's Waverley novels, Landseer's contribution to the place of Scotland in European culture in the 19th century was considerable. The artist's own popularity was increased by the great number of reproductive prints after his works (Graves alone lists 434 by 126 engravers, see Lit below); his 'Monarch of the Glen' (exh, RA 1851), commissioned by the House of Lords but the cost refused by the House of Commons, was eventually bought by Sir Thomas Dewar and reproduced on his family firm's whisky bottle labels. Also significant was his anthropomorphic treatment of animals, particularly dogs; the Art Journal obituarist stressed that 'his dogs are not mere portraits only, they are thinking, almost rational, creatures, wanting only the gift of speech to hold converse with us'. Knighted 1850; offered PRA 1865, but refused, almost certainly because of his poor physical and mental health. Died London 1 October 1873; buried in St Paul's Cathedral. His studio sale was at Christie's 8-15 May 1874; a commemorative exhibition was held at the RA 1874/5. After the Royal Collection, the V&A possesses the largest holding of Landseer's works; there are a great many drawings and prints as well as the oils catalogued below, principally from the Sheepshanks Gift, one of the artist's most important patrons.

LIT: F G Stephens The Early Works of Sir Edwin Landseer RA 1869; J Dafforne Pictures by Sir Edwin Landseer ... 1873; Art Journal 1873, p326 (obit); interleaved copy of 1874 RA exhibition catalogue, annotated by C S Mann, with photographs of prints after Landseer, 1874-7,4 vols (National Art Library, V&A); A Graves Catalogue of the Works of the Late Sir Edwin Landseer 1876; C Monkhouse entry in DNB; C Lennie Landseer: Victorian Paragon 1976; R Ormond Sir Edwin Landseer Philadelphia Museum of Art and Tate Gallery exhibition catalogue 1981 (With full bibliography).

The Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner
FA93 Neg 54050
Canvas, 45.7 X 61 cm (18 X 24 ins) Sheepshanks Gift 1857
Exhibited at the RA in 1837. Admired by the Athenaeum critic as 'one of the most simply pathetic things in the Exhibition', the work became both famous and a popular success due to the 1838 engraving and Ruskin's eulogy in the first volume of Modern Painters published 1843. Ruskin cited the picture as illustrating his definition of 'Greatness in Art' and his belief that 'the greatest picture is that which conveys to the mind of the spectator the greatest
number of the greatest ideas'. Ruskin thought it:

One of the most perfect poems or pictures (I use the words as
synonymous) which modern times have seen ... Here the exquisite
execution of the glossy and crisp hair of the dog, the bright sharp
touching of the green bough beside it, the clear painting of the wood of
the coffin and the folds of the blanket, are language -language clear and
expressive in the highest degree. But the close pressure of the dog's breast
against the wood, the convulsive clinging of the paws, which has dragged the blanket off the trestle, the total powerlessness of the head laid close and motionless upon its folds, the fixed and tearful fall of the eye in its utter hopelessness, the rigidity of repose which marks that there has been no motion nor change in the trance of agony since the last blow was struck on the coffin-lid, the quietness and gloom of the chamber, the spectacles marking the place where the Bible was last closed, indicating how lonely has been the life, how unwatched the departure, of him who is now laid solitary in his sleep; - these are all thoughts - thoughts by which the picture is separated at once from hundreds of equal merit, as far as mere painting goes, by which it ranks as a work of high art, and stamps its author, not as the neat imitator of the texture of a skin, or of the fold of a drapery, but as the Man of Mind.

'The Poor Dog', otherwise titled 'The Shepherd's Grave', may be seen as a forerunner of the present work; it was exhibited at the BI in 1829 (now private collection, see Ormond p104, repr).
A sketchbook including a drawing for the present work (dated, presumably incorrectly, 1825 in the catalogue) was lot 1001 in the artist's studio sale at Christie's 8 May 1874; a sketch from the collection of the Marchioness of Londonderry was sold at Christie's 20 April 1885 (55), bought Nathan £1 18s.

EXH: RA 1837 (112); International Exhibition Dublin 1865 (19); RA Bicentenary Exhibition RA 1968-9 (231); La Peinture Rornantique Anglaise et les Pre-raphaelites Petit Palais, Paris, 1972 (155); Great Victorian Pictures Arts Council 1978 (25); Zwei Jahrhunderts Englische Malerei 1979-80 (364); Tate 1982 (66)

ENGR: BP Gibbon 1838; Frederick Hollyer 1869; G SHunt 1884, as pl 87 of Works of Sir Edwin Landseer RA (first series 1881-93); lithograph Jacob Bell

LIT: Athenaeum 6 May 1837, p330; Literary Gazette 13 May 1837, p306; Blackwood's Magazine September 1837; Stephens, p58 (repr pl 13); Dafforne, ppl6-7; Cornhill Magazine 1874, p87; Mann I, pp 134-5a; Graves no 233; T H Ward English Art in the Public Galleries of London nd [1888], p165 (repr): ] Manson Sir Edwin Landseer 1902, pp89-91 (repr): G Reynolds Victorian Painting 1966, pIS, 20, 27 (repr pl 8); Lennie, pp83, 91, 130-1, 133, 149; R Treble Great Victorian Pictures Arts Council exhibition catalogue 1978, p47; Ormond, pll0

Ronald Parkinson"
Richard Ormond, Monarch of the Glen: Landseer in the Highlands. Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, 2005.
Exhibition catalogue
100 Great Paintings in The Victoria & Albert Museum. London: V&A, 1985, p.130
The following is the full text of the entry:

"Sir Edwin Landseer RA 1802-1873
British School
Exhibited RA 1837
Oil on panel, 45.8 X 60.5 cm
FA.93. Sheepshanks Gift

This is one of the most famous of Landseer's paintings - it established his fame - and a picture that has come to represent the quintessence of all we associate with the word Victorian. It was painted in 1837, the year the young Queen ascended to the throne, together with a less well known companion picture The Shepherd's Grave, showing the same dog continuing to grieve at his master's last resting place, just as the famous Edinburgh dog Greyfriars Bobby was to do in real life.
It is easy to enumerate the qualities in The old Shepherd's Chief Mourner which so appealed to the contemporary Victorian public, who eagerly purchased engravings of the picture which became one of the best loved prints of the century. Every detail of the composition develops a different thread of the story, successfully combining the themes of rustic piety, honourable but obscure old age, the dignity of rural poverty, and above all the value of loyalty and fidelity, expressed in the dog's devotion to his master. Most contemporary critics analysed the painting in this way, notably John Ruskin in a famous eulogy of the work in Modern Painters in 1843, in which he described it as 'one of the most perfect poems or pictures (I use the words as synonymous) which modern times have seen'. But it is more interesting to try to understand why the Victorians cared so much about dogs. England is, and remains a nation of animal lovers, and was the first country to establish a society for the prevention of cruelty to animals, in 1824. The dog, the animal closest to man, was central to this concern, and Landseer's works perfectly expressed it in pictorial terms.
He was to paint many more famous 'doggy' pictures in the years immediately after The old Shepherd's Chief Mourner,notably Dignity and Impudence and A Distinguished Member of the Humane Society. Although their anthropomorphic qualities - the association of human attitudes with canine behaviour - have at times been severely criticized, they have never completely lost their appeal, and recent exhibitions have confirmed the outstanding ability of Landseer as an animal painter.

Lionel Lambourne"

Exhibition History

Monarch of the Glen: Landseer in the Highlands (Royal Scottish Academy Building, Edinburgh 14/04/2005-10/07/2005)

Labels and date

British Galleries:
This scene of the sentimental devotion of a dog won praise and popularity for its famous artist, Edwin Landseer. The animals he painted display human feelings and characteristics. One of the important aims of British art of the day was to illustrate sentiment and affection in paintings. [27/03/2003]


Canvas; Oil paint


Oil painting

Subjects depicted

Death; Shepherd; Dog (animal); Coffins; Grief; Sadness


Paintings; Death; British Galleries; Anthropomorphism

Collection code


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