At his best, when he was not too concerned with finish, Landseer handled paint as felicitously as any artist of the English school, evoking an effect of fur or feather, or catching the transient light on a stretch of Highland landscape, with breathtaking dexterity. Seldom, however, does he treat us to such a dazzling performance as in this bravura sketch of the young Queen Victoria reviewing her Life Guards at Windsor. The painting is an object lesson in how to draw with the brush, conveying the maximum amount of information with the minimum of means. It is hard to know which excites more admiration: the treatment of the foreshortened greyhound, its raised head quivering with expectation; the highly impressionistic but brilliantly descriptive forms of the serried ranks of horses; the figures of the guardsmen, reduced to a calligraphic formula that might have delighted Wyndham Lewis; or the peasant family in the lower left corner, repoussoir figures rooted in Raphaelesque convention, but touched in with a deftness that belies the rather tired tradition from which they spring.
The picture is not only one of Landseer's most seductive pieces of painting but one of his very few military subjects. When he returned to such themes in the mid-1840s, at a time when there were fears of a renewed Anglo-French conflict, it was to make loaded comments on the futility of war in such paintings (both now in the Royal Collection) as The Shepherd's Prayer, in which a shepherd is seen kneeling before a crucifix on the fields of Waterloo, and Time of War, a scene suggestive of the Napoleonic wars in which two cavalrymen lie dead beside their horses in the ruins of a burning farm.
The present pictures shows a happier and more ceremonial occasion. The review represented took place on 1 November 1839, and, as well as anticipating the modern Trooping the Colour, would have incorporated features, such as cavalry charges and firing by 'squares' of infantry, reminiscent of the recently defunct Royal Tournament. The 2nd Life Guards, the 14th Light Dragoons, and the 2nd Battalion of the Rifle Brigade, all took part, but only the 2nd Life Guards, distinguished by their black plumes, black sheepskin shabracques, and the black horses which are peculiar to the regiment, are shown in the picture. They are drawn up at the castle end of the Long Walk in Windsor Great Park, which stretches far into the distance. The Queen, who had ascended the throne only two years earlier and turned twenty the previous May, is seen mounted on Comus, her grey charger, while the Duke of Wellington, displaying his unmistakable profile and wearing the full dress of a Field-Marshall, appears on a bay horse to her left.
There is in fact some doubt as to whether the Duke was present on this occasion. He is not mentioned in a long account of the review which appeared the following day in the Windsor and Eton Express, and it has been suggested that Landseer originally intended to represent Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, whom the Queen was to marry three months later. The Prince was staying at Windsor at the time, and certainly attended the review. If this is the case, then the dog in the foreground may be his pet greyhound, Eos, of which Landseer was to make more formal studies in 1841 (Royal Collection).
Wellington's presence in the picture is all the more surprising in that the Queen was furious with him at this time. In common with other leading Tories, he had taken what she regarded as a pusillanimous attitude to the Prince's rank and annuity, and she did not want him to be present at her wedding.
Whatever the reason for this anomaly, the picture seems to be a sketch for a more finished work that was never executed. During the early years of the Queen's reign, Landseer was preoccupied with the problem of representing her on horseback. Indeed the first major commission she gave him was for a full-blown equestrian portrait. Sittings took place in the summer of 1838, the Queen posing on her favourite horse, the elderly Leopold, who was blind in the right eye. Several paintings resulted, different in detail and background but all showing the sitter in a dark riding habit and mounted on a grey horse. Our picture is by far the most ambitious and elaborate in conception. The others, probably inspired by Van Dyck's equestrian portraits of Charles I, showed the Queen alone or accompanied by a single retainer. One, presented to Queen Victoria by the artist's family after his death in 1873, is still in the Royal Collection; another belongs to Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother; a third is in the Wolverhampton Art Gallery (Fig. 2). But the main outcome of these endeavours was a full-scale equestrian portrait (Lord Fairhaven, on loan to Ashridge Management College, Hertfordshire), an intensely romantic image in which the Queen is seen riding with two dogs through open countryside under a lowering sky. Unfortunately the picture was never completed, although the unfinished canvas was exhibited at the Royal Academy the year of Landseer's death. It fell to Sir Francis Grant, later President of the R.A., to carry out equestrian likenesses of the young Queen for public consumption. His painting of her riding with Lord Melbourne, her prime minister, and members of her Household in Windsor Great Park (Royal Collection), was exhibited at the R.A. in 1840, and further equestrian portraits were subsequently executed for Christ's Hospital, Horsham, and the Army and Navy Club.
The present picture remained in Landseer's possession, and can be seen in a photograph of the studio at his house in St John's Wood (Fig. 3). It was sold at his studio sale at Christie's in May 1874, and entered the collection of Henry William Eaton, a wealthy silk broker who, having been the conservative member of parliament for Coventry for over twenty years, was raised to the peerage as first Baron Cheylesmore at the Queen's jubilee in 1887. Eaton was a notable connoisseur. His posthumous sale at Christie's in 1892 comprised 86 lots, including paintings by many leading Victorian artists and sculpture by Canova, John Thomas, and Hiram Powers. Perhaps his most remarkable picture, and certainly not the most comfortable to live with, was Paul Delaroche's enormous Execution of Lady Jane Grey, exhibited at the Salon of 1834 and now in the National Gallery, London. But Eaton's great love was Landseer. He had a total of thirty-two examples, some bought direct from the artist, no fewer than thirteen acquired at his studio sale. In addition to our picture, he had the unfinished life-size portrait of the Queen on horseback, which, the sitter having declined to purchase it, had ended up in the studio sale, together with such well-known works as Flood in the Highlands (Aberdeen) and Lady Godiva's Prayer, a subject with an obvious relevance to the member for Coventry, and indeed now in the art gallery of that city. Above all, Eaton owned The Monarch of the Glen (John Dewar & Sons, Ltd.), probably Landseer's most famous work and the one that does most to establish the distinction of this provenance.