Charles Landseer was the elder brother of the much better known and more successful Edwin (see lot 13). Like his sibling, he studied under his father, the engraver John Landseer, and then with Benjamin Robert Haydon, the apostle of 'high art', before entering the Royal Academy Schools in 1816. There he was taught by one of the most brilliant preceptors in the entire history of the Schools, Henry Fuseli. In the early 1820s he travelled in Portugal and Brazil with Lord Stuart de Rothesay, who was engaged on a mission to negotiate a commercial treaty with the Don Pedro I; the drawings he made on these journeys were exhibited at the British Institution in 1828 and sold at Christie's on 9 April 1999, lot 1 (710,000)). In 1828 he also made his debut at the Royal Academy, where he was to show a total of seventy-three pictures during the next half century. Specialising in historical subjects and genre, he was elected R.A. in 1845, and in 1851 he succeeded to Fuseli's old post of Keeper, holding it until 1873. Despite his three-year seniority, he outlived Edwin, dying in 1879 at the age of eighty. He bequeathed 10,000 to the Academy to found Landseer scholarships, together with George Stubbs's drawings for The Anatomy of the Horse, which he had inherited from his brother.
The present picture is an attractive example of Charles's work, which, as the Art Journal put it in his obituary, is 'distinguished by careful execution, appropriate accessories and costumes, rather than by striking affects and grandeur of character.' The subject is taken from William Scrope's Days and Nights of Salmon Fishing in the Tweed, London (John Murray), 1843. Landseer was among the book's illustrators, and the picture is based on one of his designs (reproduced lithographically by Louis Haghe, facing p. 204). The other illustrators were Edwin Landseer, Sir David Wilkie, William Simson and E.W. Cooke, while a third Landseer brother, Tom, was among the engravers. Wilkie had died in 1841, so the book must have been in preparation for some time.
In Charles Landseer's illustration (Fig. 1) the monks are shown being spied upon by a devil on the right. This is a reference to the legend, discussed at length in Scrope's text, that the magician Michael Scott was at loggerheads with 'the holy monks of Old Melrose', and sent a devil of 'imp' to bother them. However, they too were able to draw on occult forces, having an ally in another wizard, Thomas the Rhymer of Ercildoune. Thus by 'exorcisms' and other means they 'put Michael Scott's power in some danger'.
The mood of the picture is a good deal more decorous than that of the illustration, which is entitled A Pretty Kettle of Fish. The composition is much the same, with glimpses of the River Tweed in the middle distance and the Eildon hills beyond, but the illustration's jolly roisteres have become a sober group of monks, presided over by their benign abbot, enjoying a quiet al fresco lunch with friends. The cauldron, tailored to the party's appetite, is now much smaller. The monk who formerly sprawled on the ground, perhaps overcome by drink, has become a fashionably dressed youth. Thomas the Rhymer is still present (the figure to the right of the abbot), but instead of carousing with his companions he sagely stokes his beard, as if contemplating which spell to use from the weighty tome on his lap. Above all, the 'imp' has disappeared, to be replaced by a pretty bare-footed servant girl and a young male attendant. The huntsman with hawks and hounds in the middle distance to the left is also an addition.
The picture may be seen as an 'answer' to Edwin Landseer's immensely popular Bolton Abbey in the Olden Time (Chatsworth), exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1834. Indeed certain figures occur in both pictures: the standing abbot, dressed in the white habit and black cloak of an Augustinian monk, the young girl and the boy servant (although he is more of a falconer in Bolton Abbey). Both pictures gained much of their contemporary resonance from the fact that Sir Walter Scott had treated the theme of late medieval monastic life in his novel The Monastery and its sequel The Abbot (both 1820). It was also Scott who had popularised the legend of Michael Scott and the monks of Melrose, giving a version of it in The Lay of the Last Minstrel.