In owning a flock of artificial sheep, Joseph Farquharson must have been unusual among Highland lairds a century ago. His Aberdeenshire estate covered 20,000 acres — surely enough to support the modest local ovine needs. But Farquharson was a painter, the fake sheep artist’s models. For cleanliness and biddability, few grazing ewes can match a woolly dummy.
Joseph Farquharson was 27 when he scored his first hit at the Royal Academy in 1873. ‘Day’s Dying Glow’ depicts a handful of sheep negotiating a snowy incline alongside an icy burn. Leafless trees crown a mound. Behind them a sickly sun is sinking or possibly rising. It is an image of some technical proficiency, which a Victorian audience, versed in reading paintings as visual narratives, could just about imbue with meaning and sentiment.
Farquharson evidently enjoyed the experience. For the next half-century, he reworked that first glistening vignette, alternating dusk with dawn, adding or subtracting trees, incorporating a shepherd, piling his snow thicker and thicker, and pillaging Burns or Milton for suitably evocative titles. In her bestselling Scottish diary extracts, Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands, with its account of John Brown’s handiness and her own fondness for picnics, Queen Victoria had already branded Aberdeenshire a region of rugged romantic possibility. Farquharson’s paintings reimagined its winter landscape as a tingling, sheep-filled Eden.
Today, unsurprisingly, Farquharson’s work is held in high esteem by manufacturers of Christmas cards. His opalescent washes of sunlight on snow are still impressive in their painterly dexterity. His artificial sheep look appealingly real (albeit too clean); his vision is the pictorial equivalent of ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’. But blink, or stare too intently, and it’s hard not to conclude that, like much Victorian pontificating, Farquharson’s paintings — which earned him the nickname ‘Frozen Mutton’ Farquharson — say remarkably little.