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.