The Saddest Painting

In the final quarter of the nineteenth century, Queen Victoria arrived at a location in Surrey to open a college purpose-built for women.

A flamboyant building, florid and gorgeous, you can read more about it here. Maddie and I went to see Royal Holloway College in Surrey on Saturday afternoon; yet we wandered past the room with one of the strangest and saddest stories I have heard outside a book.

It concerns the man who created the lions of Trafalgar Square.

His name was Edwin Henry Landseer. He was the son of a prominent London engraver, recognised as a prodigy at an early age and sent to study with prominent artists of the day. He exhibited at the Royal Academy at 13, and was an associate by the age of 24. Five years later he was an Academician.

But such artistic talent sometimes carries with it a cost. Landseer is thought to have had a substantial nervous breakdown in his late thirties, and the rest of his life was dogged by melancholy and depression. He turned to drugs and alcohol. And it is in his paintings that the dark places he visited are most evident.

Hanging in the gallery at Royal Holloway is a painting which has caused huge ructions since its arrival. It is called ‘Man proposes, God disposes’ and it was painted by Landseer in 1864, when the artists was in his early sixties.


It speaks for itself. It is a portrayal of the remains of an expedition which had taken place in 1845, less than 20 years previously. Sir John Franklin set out to navigate the final section of the Northwest passage, but his ship became icebound and al’ involved- 128 men and Franklin himself – perished.

The ensuing very public search uncovered relics and stories of the expedition, but it was not until 2014 that a Canadian search team located HMS Erebus.

So, with such a tale fresh and raw in the public imagination, you can imagine the impact such an imagined scene might have had.

Even today, a story persists that the picture has an uncomfortable effect on this who draw near to it.

College folklore has it that to sit near the painting is to feel despair. The gallery is used as an exam hall during assessment times and has been since the 1920s. It quickly became accepted that anyone who sat near the painting would fail their exams. One day a student point-blank refused to sit at the desk nearest the painting: and an invigilator ran to get something large to cover it up. She found a Union Jack flag. And ever since, at exam time, the painting has been covered by the flag.

Landseer was declared insane in 1872. He died in October1873; and the nation which had loved him, mourned him. There were wreaths hung on doors all over the country to mark his passing. And the lions of Trafalgar wore wreaths too.

And he has left his paintings; some layered and complex, some simple and sentimental.

They tell a story all their own.




16 thoughts on “The Saddest Painting

  1. Doubly sad both the Franklin expedition and Landseer’s illness. It’s even sadder when one knows that Erebus, Franklin’s ship, was named after a god whose name means ‘darkness’: apt for an expedition going to the far north but also symbolic of Landseer’s black bouts of depression. Bipolar, was he?

  2. I love the tales of the polar explorers. Had I been a man in the proper era, I might have gone, too. I’ll be on the lookout for more of Landseer’s work. I can see why this one would have a black effect on exams, should one have to sit by it. A cold breath of despair to frost the scholar’s bent head …

    1. Ooooh, Elizabeth, have you read Dark Matter? Michelle Paver? For you and I it is the nearest thing to perfect: a ghost story set in the arctic, with perfect timing and absolute suspense. I listened to it on an Audible version. I ended up staying up much of the night….

  3. The remains of Franklin’s doomed expedition was discovered a few years ago. The freezing conditions ensured two of the sailor’s bodies recovered were in very good condition (for corpses). Autopsies discovered that one had died from TB – a common condition back then, another died from the effect of poisoning from the lead solder used to can the preserved food on the expedition.

    It is now strongly suspected that many died following the effects of this poisoning which would have sent them insensible before proving fatal.

    The final irony is now that the fabled northwest passage which Franklin sought is now regularly open during the summer months as a result of global warming.

    1. So very interesting, Kate, and even more so with your addendum here about the remains. Art, lead poisoning, and global warming; all rolled up in an intriguingly sad point in art history, Kate, and told as only you can tell.

  4. A fascinating post, Kate, and heartbreaking. We know so many great artists have been plagued with mental illness and evidently Landseer was no exception. The painting is remarkably powerful.

  5. I like the way you’ve told us this – a story within a story. I couldn’t own such a painting and can see the torment of Landseer right in it.

  6. I think the most disturbing thing about the picture (from where I’m seeing it) is how ferocious and raw the bears look, and how ironically what is happening is not hidden. It’s a very blatant scene.

    I can’t say I don’t like it, though.

    1. Rob, I know exactly what you mean. There is an honesty about it. Perhaps we all recognise the turmoil behind it, though to a lesser degree than that in which it was painted..

  7. Ack! I was at Royal Holloway and I missed this. When I visited London in 1999, I camped on a dorm floor there with a friend who was doing a semester abroad. I can see where the painting invites despair. It’s rather grisly.

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