I recently sold a collection of copperplates etched by Sir Edwin Landseer when he was between 8 and 10 years old to the Graphic Arts Collection a Princeton University. The curator, Julie Melby has posted an announcement the department’s blog as ‘Edwin Landseer aged 8’. My description with a gallery of images follows.
The Landseer etchings
Among the minor works of the painter, none have so much interest as example of the etchings which were produced when he was little more than an infant. … As some of these juvenile productions are very rare, and consequently little studied, our readers will not be sorry to have an account of a collection of them, including works duly annotated with the age of the artist at the time they were executed.Frederick G. Stephens, Sir Edwin Landseer, 1880, p. 21.
Landseer’s juvenile works are remarkable for showing at an early age his uncanny ability to capture the characteristic expressions – too human for his critics – of his animal subjects, his hallmark in later years. No less astonishing is his fine draughtsmanship and assured handling of the etching needle. Etchings is an autographic process, so these plates must be considered as the earliest works from the artist’s own hand. One of the six, a charming study of two rams’ heads with whiskered chins and white eyebrows (a clever use of negative space) seems never to have been published. It is larger than the others but clearly from the same series and is an important addition to the early work of the greatest nineteenth-century animal painter.
The young Edwin Landseer began drawing sheep on walks with his father on Hampstead Heath when he was six or seven years old. These accomplished etchings were done when he was between eight and ten, presumably having been taught by his father, the engraver John Landseer (1769–1852). It was only a few years later, at the age of 13, in 1815 that Edwin first exhibited at the Royal Academy. He went on to become the nineteenth century’s favourite animal painter and master of Victorian sentimentality.
Algernon Graves’ catalogue of Landseer’s works lists only two earlier etchings, ‘Heads of a Lion and Tiger’ and ‘A Cat Asleep’, both dated 1809 (aged 7) and both etched by his brother Thomas Landseer. Hence the ‘Heads of a Boar, Sheep, and Donkey’ is his first etching.
The Heads of Boar, Sheep, and Donkey, is described by his biographer Frederick Stephens as ‘ … full of truth in the rendering of texture and expression … one eye is turned towards us in a very asinine fashion, steadfastly watching, while the other is directed downwards as the animal’s wrenching nibble goes on’ and of the sheep’s head in profile, … the exact expression of nature in its ever mobile and quivering lips; the eye is that of the timid creature, yet seems to meditate’.
Publication, restrikes and provenance. The plates were probably not have been published in Landseer’s youth. By 1852 they were in the possession of Peter and Dominic Colnaghi who published restrikes of five of them with new lettering identifying the artist and adding their imprint. These prints are very rare so the edition was probably small. Predictably there are impressions in the Royal Collection. The British Museum holds rather messy unlettered proofs of four of the plates, probably the artist’s proofs with pencil lettering which is evidently the source of the lettering added by Colnaghi, who sold the proofs to the Museum in 1853. The sixth plate is not lettered, though it has Landseer’s name scratched on the back, and there no proof in the BM.
In the 1970s (or before) the plates came into the hands of the publisher, printing historian and Bewick scholar Iain Bain (1934-2018). Bain printed an edition of 80 copies (75 for sale) of the five etchings issued by Colnaghi and these were offered to subscribers in a portfolio with a brief introduction at £80 plus VAT. Pre-publication subscribers received a bonus of ‘an additional print taken from the back of one of the plates which carries three experimental studies never before published’. A copy of the publication, including the bonus print and the prospectus, is offered here with the plates. The sixth plate, which as noted above is unknown from contemporary or later impressions, is accompanied by a recent impression.
Stephens, Frederick G. Sir Edwin Landseer, third edition, London: 1880, pp. 21–24.
Graves, Algernon, Catalogue of the works of the late Sir Edwin Landseer, R. A., London: Messers. Henry Graves & Co., .
The Landseer juvenile etching plates
The original copper plates for six of Edwin Landseer’s juvenile etchings made between the ages of 8 and 10, including his first etching and a previously unpublished and unrecorded plate.
LANDSEER, Edwin Henry (1802–1873). SIX ETCHED COPPERPLATES, 1810–1812, legends and imprint lines were added to five plates in 1852. Offered with 1974 re-strikes of five of the plates and a new impression of the unrecorded sixth plate.
1 Heads of Sheep and Cattle, 1810
Lettering: Edwin Landseer, del & sculp. in his 8th year. London: Published Nov.r 8.th 1852 by P.& D. Colnaghi &Co. 13 & 14 Pall Mall, East.
180 x 116 x 1.19mm rounded corners, makers name ‘I. Shafe Shoe-Lane London’ stamped on the back. Scratched number 18 and circular scoring on the back.
Graves 3; BM 1853,0409.27 (an unlettered proof inscribed ‘EL delt & sculp in his 8th year’); RCIN 815000.
2 Heads of a Boar, Sheep, and Donkey, 1810
Lettering: Edwin Landseer, del. & Sculp. his 1st Etching executed in his 8th year.
114 x 178 x 1.38mm, bevelled edges, rounded corners, makers name ‘G. Harris No 31 Shoe Lane London’ stamped on the back. Three etched figures, described below, scratched number 16 and oblique scoring on the back.
Graves 4; BM 1853,0409.30 (unlettered proof inscribed ‘Edwin Landseer delt & sculp – his first etching in his 8th year’); RCIN 815001.
2b A Cow and two Lambs’ Heads. [on the back of plate 2]
This must always have been intended as a trial because the image is close to the stamped name of the plate maker and would be difficult to print without taking an impression of the stamp. There are a few scratches as can be seen in 1974 re-strike.
Unknown to Graves.
3 A Horse, Goat and Bull, 1811
Lettering: Edwin Landseer, del & sculp. London: Published Nov.r 8.th
198 x 121 x 1.5mm, bevelled edges, rounded corners, makers name ‘G. Harris No 31 Shoe Lane London’ stamped on the back. Scratched number 17 on the back.
Graves 5; BM 1853,0409.25 (unlettered proof inscribed ‘E. Landseer delt & sculp’); RCIN 815002.
4 Donkeys and a Foal, 1811
Lettering: Edwin Landseer, del. in his 9th year. T. Landseer, sculp. London: Published Nov.r 8.th 1852 by P.& D. Colnaghi &Co. 13 & 14 Pall Mall, East.
129 x 115 x 1.43mm, rounded corners, makers name ‘G. Harris No 31 Shoe Lane London’ stamped on the back. Scratched number 11[?] and oblique scoring on the back.
Graves 6; BM 1853,049.26 (unlettered proof inscribed at left beside top donkey ‘EL, Delt & Sculp’ and blow image ‘EL’ at left and ‘TL’ at right); RCIN 815002.
The legend on the plate ascribes the etching to Thomas Landseer (1795–1880), Edwin’s the elder brother but Graves ascribes it to Edwin Landseer. In fact they both had a hand, the pencilled inscription on the BM impression indicating that the etching of the donkey at the top was done by Edwin and the donkey and foal below by Thomas Landseer.
5 A Cow and Calf, 1812
Lettering: Edwin Landseer, del & sculp. in his 10th year. London: Published Nov.r 8.th 1852 by P.& D. Colnaghi &Co. 13 & 14 Pall Mall, East.
127 x 179 x 1.5mm, bevelled edges, rounded corners, makers name ‘G. Harris No 31 Shoe Lane London’ stamped on the back. Scratched number 6 on the back.Graves 9; not in BM. RCIN 815003 (an early state); RCIN 815004 (published by Colnaghi 1852).
6 Two Rams’ Heads, no imprint, c. 1810-12
204 x 167 x 1.31mm, edges bevelled on the back, rounded corners. ‘Landseer’ and ‘15’ scratched on the back. Maker’s name ‘G. Harris No 31 Shoe Lane London’. Punched on the back half way down on the right hand side, perhaps for an erasure as there is no etching on the face at this point.
Unknown to Graves; no impressions located.
Although unsigned, the style of the plate, its survival with Landseer’s other juvenile etchings and the scratched name on the back leave little doubt that this is his work and thus a new addition to his oeuvre.
Bain, Iain, The childhood etchings of Sir Edwin Landseer, R.A. Five prints taken from his still surviving copper plates: etched between his 8th and 10th years c. 1810–1812. Produced for The Heritage Collection by Iain Bain at the John Boydell Press MCMLXXIV. (Bristol: The Heritage collection, 1974.)
4to, 4 pages of letterpress, 6 prints and 5 mounts, in the original buckram portfolio. Together with the prospectus, also dated 1974, 4to, pp.  with reduced size reproductions of two plates.
The corpus of Landseer’s early etchings
The first ten etchings in Graves catalogue, for the years 1809–1812 (etched by Edwin Landseer except where noted) are
Heads of a Lion and Tiger (etched by Thomas Landseer)
A Cat Asleep (etched by Mrs T. Landseer)
Heads of Sheep and Cattle
Heads of a Boar, Sheep, and Donkey
A Horse, Goat, and Bull
Donkeys and a Foal
A Bull, marked T W (etched by Thomas Landseer)
A Cow and Calf
Cows and bulls
Not described by Graves
Two Greyhounds, BM 1853,0409.84
Crossing the See, BM 1878,0713.1505
both the above are dated in the BM catalogue 1809–1853.
A Cow and two Lambs’ Heads, etched by Edwin Landseer? on the back of the plate for Graves 3, no. 1 above.
Two Rams’ heads, no. 6 above.
Unlettered states: Graves 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10 and two plates undescribed by Graves (see above); none of the 1852 re-strikes.
Early state: Graves 1.
Early state: Graves 9.
1852 restrikes: Graves 1 and 3 on one sheet; 4 and Old Brutus and a Retriever (1817) on one sheet; 5 and 6 on one sheet; 7 and 9 on one sheet; 8
Yale Centre for British Art. None.