If you’ve ever seen Blake’s illustrated plate of Tyger, you might wonder whether Blake had ever seen a real tiger in his life. The creature standing beneath the tree has more in common with poor Hobbes than with the scourge of Bengali villagers. But the more I see lions in London, the more it seems that the English make their lions look like nothing more than dogs.
Your monumental lion in London, whether it’s helpfully holding a ring in its jaws, sleeping watch over the dead, atop a grand country pile or just resting is positively canine in appearance. It’s not so much their anatomy as their attitude, the subservient, position they take, guardians rather than hunters, teeth never bared. Entirely missing are either the inscrutability or the fierceness you see in the face of any actual lion.
Landseer’s pack of four guarding Nelson’s column are typical. No lone predators here, their heads are alert, their paws forward and they wait for the order to stand just as if Barbara Woodhouse herself were waving a tasty treat at them.