This work brings together the work of two of the foremost Victorian painters who were both Royal Academicians and proficient masters in their fields. Frith's masterful study of character and human form perfectly compliments Ansdell's technical ability to convey the spirit of animal life.
Frith attended the Royal Academy Schools where he joined a group of fellow-students who called themselves The Clique; they included Dadd, O'Neil, Egg, Phillip and E.M. Ward, all of whom were to achieve distinction as artists. In 1840 he made his debut at the Royal Academy with two scenes from Shakespeare. This set the pattern for the next few years when he continued to paint subjects from literature, treating them with a light-hearted and picturesque manner that proved highly popular. In 1845 he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy, and in 1853 was promoted to full membership.
Ansdell was born in Liverpool and educated at the Blue Coat School. He studied under W.C. Smith, a portrait painter, and then worked for an art dealer in Liverpool, before entering the Liverpool Academy in 1836. He first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1840.
In 1845 and 1846, Ansdell was elected President of the Liverpool Academy. He moved permanently to London in 1847. It was there that he began to work with Thomas Creswick and William Powell Frith on several collaborations and established his long-lasting reputation.
Ansdell's work is immediately engaging, combining the wilderness and beauty of the Scottish landscape with his animated study of animals and human figures. He turned to Scottish subjects in response to the great fashion of paintings of the Highlands in the mid-19th century. This was encouraged by the writing of Sir Walter Scott, who for decades after his death in 1832 retained a great popular readership throughout the English-speaking world and many of his novels and plays were set in the Highlands. The many visits made by members of the English royal family from the early 19th century onwards also encouraged enthusiasm for the Highlands and Scottish culture.
The hardy Scottish shepherds and gamekeepers with their loyal dogs was a particularly favored subject for Ansdell. He shared his concept of highlanders with Sir Walter Scott, robust people in close communion with the Highlands themselves whose lives were perceived as noble and romantic. They were contrasted with the corruptions of the increasingly industrialised world. In 1855 Ansdell painted The English Gamekeeper and The Scotch Gamekeeper which were exhibited at the Royal Academy and engraved by Henry Graves & Co. in 1858. Through the engravings these works became some of Ansdell's most celebrated and well-known paintings. The present work was also originally accompanied by a pendant work. The subject was popular since in 1860, Ansdell and Frith had painted a smaller version of this subject with a different model holding a bowl of steaming food above a group of hounds.
Ansdell's images of dogs and stags recall the majesty of Sir Edwin Landseer's canvases. Unlike Landseer, Ansdell's images were largely harmonic and pastoral idylls of the life of the shepherd and gamekeeper. Mr. J. Dafforne wrote of Ansdell's talents in the Art Journal of 1860, '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...' (Art Journal, 1860, p. 235).