This dark and dramatic, yet beautiful study is an illustration for a scene in Walter Scott's The Talisman, a novel set during the Third Crusade. One of the famous series of Waverley novels, the principal character of the book is a poor Scottish knight named Sir Kenneth of the Couchant Leopard. During the course of the tale Sir Kenneth is entrusted by the commander of the Crusader forces, King Richard the Lion Heart, to safeguard the banner of England against corrupt forces from within the Christian camp. One night, however, Sir Kenneth is lured away from his post by a messenger who brings word from his beloved, Lady Edith Plantagenet, a kinswoman of the King to whom he has sworn both his heart and his sword. During his absence the English flag is torn down and his faithful hound severely wounded in attempting to defend it, as depicted in this sketch. Dishonoured, Sir Kenneth narrowly escapes execution and is banished from camp. As the tale unfolds he eventually returns disguised as a mute Nubian slave, and his honour is finally restored when he intervenes to save King Richard's life during an attempted assassination. In recognition of his service Richard awards Sir Kenneth the opportunity to uncover the traitor. A procession is arranged in celebration of the King's survival. As the large body of knights march past the newly erected English Standard, Sir Kenneth's hound leaps upon King Richard's rival, Conrade, Marquis of Montserrat, dragging him from his horse. Thus identified as the conspirator Conrade is held to a trial by combat. Sir Kenneth is selected as the King's champion and emerges victorious from the ensuing duel. It is at this cathartic moment of the novel that Richard, who has uncovered this poor Scottish knight's true identity, reveals Sir Kenneth to be in fact Prince David of Scotland, Earl of Huntingdon in disguise. His Royal status proclaimed, the hero is accordingly at liberty to pursue his love for the fair Edith Plantagenet, and as the story concludes the couple are married.
Walter Scott was a close friend of the artist and a huge admirer of Landseer's work. A particular fan of his animal paintings, Scott once commented in a letter of 1826 that 'Landseer's dogs were the most magnificent things I ever saw'. As Ormond has previously documented, when Scott was putting together the first 48 volume edition of the Waverley series, published between 1829 and 1833, he selected Landseer as one of the artists to illustrate it. The present painting is one of two oil sketches of Scott subjects by Landseer, which may have been intended for this edition, but do not appear as an illustration in the printed volume. The other is a scene from The Antiquary, originally published in 1816, illustrating The Death of Elspeth Mucklebackit (Private Collection). Landseer's published contribution to the Waverley edition consists of two frontispieces and vignette designs for five of the title pages, the majority of which are along similar lines to the present work, being scenes with animals and dramatic in character. One further work illustrating a subject from Scott's work exists in the form of print, after a portrait of Catherine Seyton from The Abbot, engraved by C.G. Lewis in 1833 for a series of Scott's heroines.
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