ART MARKET / Animal magnetism: Queen Victoria's favourite painter, Edwin Landseer, whose stags adorned every stately hall, has long been out of favour. But the sale of 'Scene at Braemar' could herald a new popularity, says Geraldine Norman

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WHAT price Queen Victoria's favourite painter? A spectacular picture, about 9ft by 9ft, of deer in the Highlands by Sir Edwin Landseer, Scene in Braemar, is to be offered for sale at Christie's on 25 March and the auctioneers are forecasting a price somewhere between pounds 800,000 and pounds 1.2 million.

It's quite a gamble on Christie's part to set its forecast so high. No work by Landseer, the great 19th- century animal painter, has got anywhere near that figure in the past; the current record is pounds 330,189, paid in New York in 1989 for a portrait, 5ft by 6ft, of a black-and-white Newfoundland dog on the sea shore. This one had belonged to a friend of Landseer's and was called Neptune; the picture's frame was made from beams taken from the Temeraire, a warship that fought at the battle of Trafalgar and was broken up in 1838.

Christie's price forecast for Braemar owes a lot to drink, specifically to Guinness and Dewar's whisky. The painting has belonged to the Guinness family since 1888 when Sir Edward Cecil Guinness, later first Earl of Iveagh, bought it at Christie's for pounds 5,197 10s. Iveagh was a great collector; he bought Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath and turned it into a museum. For the past 10 years his heirs, the three children of his son Walter, the first Lord Moyne, have loaned the painting to the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin.

The whisky connection is because Sir Thomas Dewar spent pounds 5,250 at Christie's in 1916 on Landseer's Monarch of the Glen, a single noble stag with 12-point antlers, perched on a promontory in the Scottish Highlands. Popularised by steel engravings, it became one of the most famous paintings of the 19th century; but when Victorian painting went out of fashion - from roughly 1920 to 1970 - the Monarch was seen as an amusing symbol of the aberrant taste of the period. Dewar's rounded off the image's fame by reproducing the stag on its whisky labels.

Christie's is keen to underline the parallels between the Monarch and Braemar, which it describes as 'one of the greatest of the deer subjects on which Landseer's legendary reputation in his day was chiefly based'. It claims that no Landseer painting of this importance has been seen at auction since the Monarch in 1916.

Landseer prices were already falling when Dewar bought the Monarch. His Otter Hunt changed hands for pounds 10,000 in 1873, the highest price recorded in the 19th century. Prices reached a nadir in 1960 when a major historical picture, Scene of the Olden Time at Bolton Abbey, which had made pounds 400 in 1834, was auctioned at Christie's for a mere pounds 63. Since then, prices have been climbing steadily, but the cognoscenti still find it hard to take Landseer seriously.

There is something about the way he liked to imbue animals with human emotions that makes his work sentimental and 'Victorian'. That goes for both the Monarch and Braemar - the stags that dominate the two pictures are almost identical though facing in opposite directions. In Braemar, the noble stag is roaring to announce some perceived danger, theatrically underlined by the storm clouds behind; his doe, seated below, is beginning to rise while two further deer in the background watch an eagle carrying off its prey. The foreground is the making of the picture; a cuddly mountain hare emerges from a hole in the rocks to stare up at the stag, quite unimpressed by his grandeur. The contrast of stag and hare is reminiscent of another famous Landseer picture: Dignity and Impudence, which shows a large dog and a small one sharing a kennel.

Landseer was a child prodigy, making his debut as a exhibitor at the

Royal Academy at the age of 12 in 1815. His father, John, a moderately successful engraver, brought up all his seven children as artists - though none matched Edwin's fame. Brother Tom made engravings after Edwin's pictures while sister Jesse, who painted miniatures, became his housekeeper; he never married.

Edwin was an animal painter from the start; his 1815 exhibits at the RA were drawings of a mule and dogs' heads. In the following years he started dissecting animals and made some excellent anatomical drawings. It is clear that he had a natural sympathy with the animal kingdom, but also understood his subjects scientifically.

The British aristocracy was devoted to country sports at this period and much appreciated paintings of both domestic animals and the wild ones they hunted. Before he was 21, Landseer had sold paintings to Sir George Beaumont, the Marquess of Lansdowne, Sir John Grey Egerton and many others. In 1824, in his 21st year, Landseer paid his first visit to Scotland, where he stayed with the Duke of Atholl and Sir Walter Scott, the novelist. Scotland was a revelation to him; he was to return there every autumn for the rest of his life.

The young Landseer was handsome and charming and became the intimate of numerous dukes and earls whose dogs, horses, game birds and stags he painted - his critics suggest that he was a dreadful social climber and name-dropper. The Duke of Bedford was his first major patron and Georgiana, the young duchess, is said to have been Landseer's mistress.

In 1836, the Duchess of Kent asked him to paint the pet spaniel that belonged to her daughter, Princess Victoria, as a birthday present. And Victoria, when she came to the throne the following year, commissioned him to paint a group portrait of her three favourite dogs and her parrot. From there on, he painted all the royal pets, the children, Prince Albert and even, in 1866, an equestrian portrait of Victoria and John Brown entitled Sorrow. He taught the Queen etching, helped her with her watercolours and was a frequent visitor at Balmoral.

Such success was not achieved without severe trials. In 1840, he had a nervous breakdown and for the rest of his life he suffered acute nervous depressions, accentuated by a natural tendency to hypochondria. Queen Victoria described his death on 1 October 1873 as a merciful release, 'as for the last three years he had been in the most distressing state, half out of his mind, yet not entirely so'.

Landseer was also popular with newly rich industrialists and Braemar was commissioned in 1857 by a railway tycoon, Edward Ladd Betts. He had rebuilt Preston Hall in Kent in the fashionable 'Jacobethan' style - Betts's architect, John Thomas, had overseen all the stone-carving for the new Houses of Parliament. Braemar, flanked by panels of dead game carved by Thomas, dominated the end wall of the baronial dining room.

A recently recovered photograph of the room shows that Braemar was hung 10ft to 12ft from the ground, meaning that it was intended to be viewed at a distance. This helps explain why Landseer used a loose and impressionistic brushwork.

But however loose his finish, however mad or sane, Landseer always had an extraordinary facility with the brush. The examples of his work most often on the market are landscape sketches in oil on board, made mainly in Scotland, which can bear comparison with the Impressionists. The Tate hangs them along with Constable and Turner - where they hold their own. If Christie's sells Braemar at around the million mark, the landscapes are likely to go up in price.