Home-Spun Artists: Historical Sketches Series — Edwin Landseer

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Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-1873) — English painter

Edwin Landseer’s father John Landseer was an engraver and lover of art and descended from a long line of artistic workers in precious metals. His mother, a Miss Pott, was also artistic. Edwin was the youngest son of a close-knit family which included seven children — his brothers, Thomas and Charles, were artists.

Quote from Little Journeys to the Homes of Famous People: Eminent Painters by Elbert Hubbard, 1899, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, pages 443-468.


Long before his children knew their letters, they were taught to make pictures. Indeed, all children can make pictures before they can write. For a play spell each day John Landseer and his boys tramped across Hampstead heath to where there were donkeys, sheep, goats, and cows grazing; then all four would sit down on the grass before some chosen subject and sketch the patient model.


A Fox in Profile, 1807 (Landseer was 5 years old)

Edwin Landseer’s first loving recollections of his father went back to these little excursions across the Heath. And for each boy to take back to his mother and sisters a picture of something they had seen was a great joy.

“Well, boys, what shall we draw today?” the father would ask at breakfast time.

And then they would all vote on it, and arguments in favor of goat or donkey were eloquently and skillfully set forth. …


Two Dogs in Profile, 1808

Art education had better begin young, for then it is a sort of play: and good artistic work, Robert Louis Stevenson once said, is only useful play.

Probably Edwin Landseer’s education began a hundred years before he was born; but his technical instruction in art began when he was three years old, when his father would take him out on the Heath and placing him on the grass, put pencil and paper in his hand and let him make a picture of a goat nibbling the grass.

Then the boy noted for himself that a goat had a short tail, a cow a switch tail, and horses had no horns, and that a ram’s horns were unlike those of a goat.

He had begun to differentiate and compare — and not yet four years old!

When five years of age he could sketch a sleeping dog as it lay on the floor better than could Thomas, his brother, who was seven years older.

We know the deep personal interest that John Landseer felt in the boy, for he preserved his work, and today in the South Kensington Museum we can see a series of sketches made by Edwin Landseer, running from his fifth year to manhood.

That young Landseer’s drawing was a sort of play there is no doubt. People who set very young children at tasks of grubbing out cold facts from books come plainly within the province of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and should be looked after, but to do things with one’s hands for fun is only a giving direction to the natural energies.

Before Edwin Landseer was eight years of age his father had taught him the process of etching, and we see that even then the lad had a vivid insight into the character of animals. He drew pictures of pointers, mastiffs, spaniels, and bulldogs, and gave to each the right expression.

The Landseers owned several dogs, and what they did not own they borrowed; and once we know that Charles and Thomas “borrowed” a mastiff without the owner’s consent.

All children go through the scissors age, when they cut out of magazines, newspapers, or books all the pictures they can find so as to add to the “collection.” Often these youthful collectors have specialties; one will collect pictures of animals, another of machinery, and still another of houses. But usually it is animals that attract.

Scissors were forbidden in the Landseer household, and if the boys wanted pictures they had to make them.

And they made them.

They drew horses, sheep, donkeys, cattle, dogs; and when their father took them to the Zoological Garden it was only that they might bring back trophies in the way of lions and tigers.


The Head of a Pig, 1810

Then we find that there was once a curiosity exhibited in Fleet Street in the way of a lion cub that had been caught in Africa and mothered by a Newfoundland dog. The old mother dog thought just as much of the orphan that was placed among her brood as of her sure enough children. The owner had never allowed the two animals to be separated, and when the lion had grown to be twice the size of his foster mother there still existed between the two a fine affection.

The stepmother exercised a stepmother’s rights, and occasionally chastised, for his own good, her overgrown charge, and the big brute would whimper and whine like a lubberly boy.

This curious pair of animals made a great impression on the Landseers. The father and three boys sketched them in various attitudes, and engravings of Edwin’s sketch are still to be had.

And so whenever in London animals were to be found, there, too, were the Landseers with pencils and brushes, and pads and palattes.

In the back yard of the house where the Landseers lived were sundry pens of pet rabbits; in the attic were pigeons, and dogs of various breeds lay on the doorstep sleeping in the sun, or barked at you out of the windows. …


Two Studies of a Horse’s Head, 1810

From Queen Anne Street the Landseers moved to Foley Street, near Burlington House. … The Elgin Marbles were then kept at Burlington House, and these were a great source of inspiration to the Landseer boys. It gave them a true taste of the Grecian, and knowing a little about Greece, they wanted to know more. Greece became the theme — they talked it at breakfast, dinner, and supper. The father and mother told them all they knew, and guessed at a few things more, and to keep at least one lesson ahead of the children the parents “crammed for examination.”

Edwin sketched that world famous horse’s head from the Parthenon, and the figures of horses and animals in bas-relief that formed the frieze; and the boys figured out in their own minds why the horses and men were all the same height.

Gradually it dawned upon the father and the brothers that Edwin was their master so far as drawing was concerned. They could sketch a Newfoundland dog that would pass for anybody’s Newfoundland, but Edwin’s was a certain identical dog, and none other.

Edwin Landseer really discovered the dog. …


Dignity and Imprudence

Plain people who owned a dog beloved by the whole household, as household dogs always are, became interested in Landseer’s dogs. They could not buy a painting by Landseer, but they could spare a few shillings for an engraving.

And so John Landseer began to reproduce the pictures of Edwin’s dogs.

End quote


Isaac van Amburgh and His Animals


Death of the Wild Bull




A Highland Breakfast


The Monkey Who Had Seen the World




  1. Brenda@CoffeeTeaBooksandMe

    Thank you for showing that art work. They are all gorgeous.

  2. jill

    hi, i have an engraving of the death of the wild bull by lanseer. it is about 4 feet tall and on very old heavy paper. is this worth anything? thanks, jill

  3. Adam

    Lol…Very funny pictures…
    Loved them

  4. James Gorin

    Man makes me cry sometimes, so much love in his work- believe he could emulate anything with nothing- could evoke with a stick in sand or with a single hair.
    Perhaps corrupted by commerce post 1839- still the greatest, most able Englishman ever to work in 2 dimensions- and who could improve on London’s Lions? His absolute genious underated, overlooked and eclipsed by fad and fashion. I’m so glad you posted this comment and reminded us. Thanks. James Gorin


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