The Evening mists, with ceaseless change,
Now clothed the mountains' lofty range,
Now left their foreheads bare,
And round the skirts their mantle furl'd,
Or on the sable waters curl'd,
Or, on the eddying breezes whirl'd,
Dispersed in middle air.
And oft, condensed, at once they lowers.
When, brief and fierce, the mountain shower
Pours like a torrent down,
And when return the sun's glad beams,
Whiten'd with foam a thousand streams
Leap from the mountain's crown.
Sir Walter Scott - Lord of the Isles, Canto III, verse 15. (Quoted from the catalogue of The Royal Manchester Institution, 1856).
The vogue for animal painting in the nineteenth century reached new heights and artists such as Richard Ansdell found great fame painting the nobility of the wild beast in the wilderness and the tamed animal in service to Man. Ansdell’s images of dogs and stags recall the majesty of Sir Edwin Landseer’s canvases, which had so stirred the sentiments of the British, well-known for their love of animals and of heart-rending emotion played out before the eyes in every agonised detail. Unlike Landseer, Ansdell’s images were largely harmonic and pastoral idylls of the life of the shepherd or after his visits to Spain, the amorous troubadour, predominate. Mr J. Dafforne, in the Art Journal of 1860, wrote of Ansdell’s talents thus, ‘That Mr Ansdell has closely studied animal life, that he represents it faithfully, vigorously, and picturesquely, and that his productions are among the best of their kind which our school -, and, indeed, any other – has brought forward, is to pay him and them no higher compliment than is merited. If there had been no Landseer, Ansdell would unquestionably occupy a foremost place in the department of Art; but there are some of his pictures that may stand in favourable juxtaposition with those of Sir Edwin: the later is unequalled in delineating the intelligent qualities of the animal tribes, the former may claim the pre-eminence in delineating their fiercer natures’ (Art Journal, 1860, p. 235).
The wilderness and beauty of the Scottish landscape, combined with his animated study of animals and human figures, make Ansdell's work so immediately engaging. The hardy Scottish shepherd and his loyal border collie, herding the flock to new pasture, was a particularly favoured subject for Ansdell. Unlike other artists, such as Joseph Farquharson and Louis Bosworth Hurt, Ansdell often chose to paint the everyday events and labours of the shepherd, such as sheep dipping and rescuing sheep from floods, rather than simply painting pastorals of shepherds surrounded by sleeping flocks. Particularly dramatic amongst Ansdell’s paintings of sheep is ‘Lytham Sand Hills, Lanarkshire’, ‘Sheep Gathering in Glen Sligchan, Isle of Skye’ and ‘Sheep Washing on the Isle of Skye’, which depict animated dramas and show that the shepherd’s life was a harsh one.
The subject of the shepherd and his sheep greatly appealed to Ansdell, who painted several variants on the same theme of the flock crossing a swollen stream. From the mid 1850s onwards, he painted a dramatic series of paintings depicting the strenuous life of the shepherd and it was upon these pictures that his reputation was established. The first of this series of pictures Turning the Drove, Aviemore and the Grampians in the Distance (private collection) was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1851 and the International Exhibition in Paris in 1855 where it was awarded a gold medal. The present work, The Isle of Skye, was the second in the series of paintings, painted in 1856 and exhibited at the Manchester Institution that year. A third painting Crossing the Moor (Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery, Ashton bequest) was painted in 1863 and exhibited that year at the British Institution, where it was described by the Art Journal as 'sheep, heather, dogs and Scotch shepherd, all vigorous even to violence' (ibid. p. 223).
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