One of the most enduring and iconic images of Scotland is at risk of going overseas within weeks after being suddenly put up for sale.
The Monarch of the Glen will be coming onto the open market for the first time in 100 years after whisky giants Diageo decided to sell it on.
Sir Edwin Landseer’s 1851 masterpiece of a stag set against a remote Highland backdrop is expected to generate global interest and a sale of more than £10 million at auction in London.
It has been on public display in Edinburgh for almost 20 years after a long-term loan was agreed between Diageo and the National Museum of Scotland. However Diageo has now declared it surplus to requirements as the painting does not have a direct link to any of its brands.
Last night the Sottish Government said it it was hopeful public access to The Monarch of the Glen - which it described as “iconic of its time” - would continue under its new owners because of its “strong associations with Scotland.”
The National Galleries of Scotland declined to comment on the prospect of a purchase of The Monarch of the Glen. However a spokesman pointed out that it “always carefully considers any paintings with a strong Scottish dimension that come on to the market.”
Although born in London, the artist - who created work for Sir Walter Scott and Queen Victoria - had been visiting the Highlands regularly for more than 25 years when he created the Monarch of the Glen.
Commissioned for the House of Lords, it never went on display and was instead sold to a private collector. It changed hands several times before being snapped up by whisky firm John Dewar and Sons in 1916 and has been in the hands of the industry ever since.
A Diageo spokesman said: “Our ownership of The Monarch of the Glen is an historical legacy which has no direct link to our business or brands.
“We’ve made a major contribution by loaning the work for the past 17 years, but we believe the time is right to pass on the ownership of the painting. The priority for Diageo is to ensure all our assets are focused on growing our business and delivering value for our employees, shareholders and the communities where we operate.”
The Monarch of the Glen is being sold via Christie’s months after the painting had a starring role in an exhibition celebrating 250 years of the auction house. Hailed as “one of the most celebrated of all 19th century British paitings” by Christie’s, it will go on display in Hong Kong and New York before next month’s sale.
Diageo has, however, agreed to donate another famous painting - The Thin Red Line, which depicts the 93rd Highlanders halting a Russian cavalry charge at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War in 1854 - to the Scottish National War Museum, where it is currently on loan.
A spokesman for the National Galleries said: “The Monarch of the Glen is a well-known painting which has been on public view for many years.
“The familiar image of the stag is an important Victorian picture that has taken on various layers of meaning, which include its use in advertising and as a romantic emblem of the Highlands. This painting will undoubtedly draw attention now that it is up for sale.
“The National Galleries of Scotland always carefully considers any paintings with a strong Scottish dimension that come on to the market but for obvious reasons we never comment on our potential interest ahead of a sale.”
A spokeswoman for the museum said: “We were delighted to have The Monarch of the Glen on long-term loan from Diageo and to display it in our Scottish galleries.
“Landseer’s superb vision of the nobility of the Highland stag, and of the Highlands as a wilderness, was a hugely powerful image, and one which still resonates in perceptions of Scotland today.
“As a national museum, our collecting policy is firstly to acquire 3D material culture, and our collecting of fine art is exceptional and concerned with subject, closely aligned to interpretation of our existing history collections.
“An example is our collection of Scottish military paintings, to which The Thin Red Line is such a tremendous addition. Robert Gibb’s celebrated painting is one of the best-known of all Scottish historical paintings and is the classic representation of Highland military heroism as an icon of Scotland.”
Christie’s catalogue for the sale of the painting next month states that The Monarch of the Glen, which was first seen at the Royal Academy in London shortly after it was completed in 1851, went on to “resound across contemporary visual culture.”
It adds: “Even as its status as a romantic icon of the Highlands has verged on the ubiquitous – adorning everything from whisky labels and biscuit tins to countless prints and advertisements – the mastery of Landseer’s painting remains clear.
“The artist’s most famous work, it has become an iconic image of the Scottish Highlands: an animal of sublime power and beauty is posed before a misty mountain landscape, monarch of all he surveys.”
John Stainton. deputy chair of old masters paintings at Christie’s, said: “The Monarch of the Glen is a great icon of European 19th century painting, so we are anticipating international interest it as well as from British buyers.
“The picture has been used over the years in several whisky advertisements, but its appeal is universal and these days there is a very global marketplace for the greatest works of art.”
A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said: “The Monarch of the Glen is iconic of its time and typifies the painting movement of the mid-1800s.
“The painting has strong associations with Scotland and has long attracted international visitors while on show at the National Museum of Scotland.
“As well as a long history of public interest, The Monarch of the Glen has inspired the branding of some of our most globally recognised food and drink produce. The future of the painting will hopefully allow public access to continue.”