Research by Sarah Kellam
Acc No 72
Artist Richard Ansdell
Artist dates 1815-1885
Medium oil on canvas
Size 27 x 58.5 in
Date painted 1866
Donor Alderman and Mrs. J. H. Dawson
on the occasion of thanksgiving for
Victory, May 1945
Date donated 28 May 1945
1864 was a good year for Richard Ansdell – he was becoming a successful artist and was also part of the set of famous artists living in and around Kensington, London enjoying the high life, with a prestigious house, a large studio, a happy and burgeoning family and an endless round of high-calibre functions and events. All this would have been beyond his wildest dreams when he was growing up as an impoverished boy on Liverpool docks; his talent, only by chance, recognised by a kindly benefactor who encouraged him to paint from an early age.
Yet it was this austere beginning that focussed his entire career; in the lifelong friendships he made, and his constant awareness of the annual Royal Academy Exhibition where an artist’s respected reputation could be dashed to the ground with the choice of the wrong subject matter for an exhibited painting.
Ansdell first visited Scotland as a young man: it made a deep impression on him. But it wasn’t until 1864 that he was able to realise his dream of building his own lodge on the shores of Loch Laggan in Inverness-shire. Thereafter he and his entire family and artist friends visited Scotland annually for four months to get away from the summer oppressions of London; during these visits, he would often accompany the Highland shepherds in their harsh daily round on missions fair and foul.
Ansdell thus witnessed scenes that brought delight and dread through his brush to the canvas. A long, hard look at “The Rescue” will reveal that he adored his chosen animals, making them the focal point of the composition. It will also reveal a working knowledge of the Scottish shepherd; and the drama of rapidly changing weather amongst mountainous scenery; all contributing to engage the viewer, with an added strong dose of pathos and symbolism that was so much in vogue at the time. Above all, it will reveal the dedication and determination of the working man: a dramatic relationship of man and beast in a hostile environment which Ansdell felt necessary to record for posterity.
Here we have a rugged outcrop by the shores of an inland loch providing no shelter for the sickly or injured lamb. The lamb cannot walk to the next outcrop where the sun is shining and the rest of the flock is safe and well. It is looking to its mother for help; she is providing support and concern and is breathing gently into the lamb’s nostrils to let it know that help is at hand. She is tired and weather-beaten but has prime concern for her lamb.
Help has arrived in the shape of the shepherd and his dog, but, unbeknown to the lamb, there is a storm brewing (although it hasn’t reached them yet because the water is still calm) and there is a carrion bird waiting to pounce at any sign of abandonment. In everything there is a sense of foreboding.
The shepherd (with his traditional dress) is very young and maybe this is his first flock - he is relying heavily on the experience of his dog who is looking defiantly at the bird. The shepherd’s face is brought to life by one single highlight on his lower lip emphasising the apprehension in his face. The wonderful rich colour of the collie’s coat saves the painting from drabness and gives the feeling that the dog really existed and was one known to Ansdell. Ansdell revelled in the depiction of animal coats and the “recessive yellow” colouring of this particular dog obviously delighted him. It is a deep orange mahogany of incredible beauty – a show-stopper in any environment!
Just to complete the story, have you noticed the dead Blue Jay bird at the base of the ewe’s back legs? Blue Jays, in folk lore and legend, were never assigned a positive role. They were considered to be companions of the devil. According to ancient superstition, Blue Jays were never seen on Fridays as this was their day to meet with the devil and pass on any useful gossip about souls who might be ready to go astray.
So – the presence of the dead Blue Jay could mean bad news for the lamb: however because the bird is dead, it could also mean that the devil’s danger had passed.
You must make your own decision . . . yours and yours alone in company with the young shepherd.
(Extracted from an Article by Sarah Kellam, 2010)
Sarah Kellam © 2018
Sarah Kellam is the Great Great Grand- daughter of Richard Ansdell