Fascinating article in The Guardianabout Sir Edwin Landseer’s “The Otter Speared, Portrait of the Earl of Aberdeen’s Otter hounds” painted in 1844.
“A painting normally considered too upsetting for modern tastes – bloodthirsty hounds, triumphant hunter and speared otter,’ writes Mark Brown, “is to go on display as the centrepiece of a new exhibition examining the artistic celebration of hunting and sport.”
The painting is rarely shown to the public but will be featured in a new exhibit “examining the artistic celebration of hunting and sport” at the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, County Durham.
Art historian Diana Donald writing in her excellent book, Picturing Animals in Britain, discusses the artistic and aesthetic merit of Landseer, including this celebration of wild animal killing.
Landseer’s The Otter Speared has just the combination of archaic pageantry and brutal actuality implied by these sources. The pose of the huntsman has strong old-master echoes, and is especially close to that of one of the picture-bearers in Mantegna’s Triumph of Caesar at Hampton Court. This twisting figure forms the pivot of an elaborately contrived design; but he is twisting to keep the otter on his spear, and his situation, in the thick of the yelping hounds, expresses animality rather than the sense of human dignity embodied in the Renaissance tradition. (p.296, emphasis in original)
Daniels goes on to consider press reports at the time of Landseer’s painting when an otter hunt was staged for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The magazine Punch reported at the time
‘The otter when fairly spent, crawled up the bank near where the QUEEN was … the hounds … upon it. Her Majesty turned away her head while they were worrying the animal.’ Great, however, as is the above achievement — glorious as it is to contemplate the ardour of a PRINCE ALBERT … the tumultuous energy of Lords and Highland Chiefs, appointed and arrayed for the destruction of one otter, ‘sent in a box from Kelso’ …
Hunting otters was made illegal in England and Wales in 1978 and in Scotland in 1982 because they had been hunted to the point of extinction. Hare coursing and fox, stag and deer hunting were banned by the Hunting with Dogs Act in 2005, which the Conservative Party is pledged to repeal should it form a future government in the UK.