A graceful hulk

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A sketch is such a lighthearted medium. Like a feather floating freely in the air, it can appear spontaneously and disappear just as quickly. A sketch is a response to the moment. It doesn't necessarily have to have a reason for being, nor must it actually lead anywhere. It simply exists on its own merit, with none of the demands of a final drawing, none of the burdens of an oil painting. There are no preconceived expectations with which it has to contend, nor concerns for colour and composition. The sketchbook itself is a kind of nursery where new ideas are nurtured, skills are practised, and details tackled. The art of sketching can be a form of play, like doodling for personal amusement, but whatever emerges in such a sketch manages to make its statement lightly, yet with great effect.

I'm not certain whether Sir Edwin Landseer intended to cast this sketch of a hippopotamus for a role in one of his great paintings, but as far as I know, the hippo never made it onto canvas. It remained safely among his sketches, where the heavy hand of Victorian tastes and the extreme sentiments of Landseer himself could not reach it. If it had found its way into a Landseer painting, it would have been forced into a role dripping with human sentiment or salivating with animal ferocity. There weren't many parts going for an ordinary hippo to be just itself.

Getting into the private world of a Landseer sketch turned out to be a much better bet in the long run. For today, we are not as keen as the Victorians were for the grand-scale epics, flashing with telling emotions and heroic ideals; where good was unmistakably good, bad was rotten, and there were no grey areas to consider. The simple sketch of the hippo, wittily observed, marvellously drawn, now seems somehow much more preferable.

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And what a charmer this sketch is. With little apparent effort but enormous skill, Landseer has produced something utterly lovable and impish. It's without a shred of violence or a hint of mawkishness. And it's Landseer at his purest, showing the creature blissfully basking on its side, or wading with its mouth tucked teasingly in the water and its eyes playing a kind of peekaboo, or floating, as hippos do, with an expression so pleased that it might well be thinking of something pleasurable.

Presumably, this was the young hippo from the London Zoo. Considering the worldwide interest the panda has aroused today, it is not difficult to imagine the fascination the young hippo must have attracted when it first arrived from the upper reaches of the White Nile in May 1850.

Having visited this novelty twice, Queen Victoria wrote amusingly in her journal, ''It is a very sagacious animal, & so attached to its various keepers, that it screems if they leave it, & that the man is obliged to sleep next to it!'' And on her second visit, this time with her children, she wrote, ''We had an excellent sight of this truly extraordinary animal. It is only ten months old & its new teeth are only just coming through. . . . It was in the water, rolling about like a porpoise, occasionally disappearing entirely.''

Such obvious affection from the Queen may well have nudged this engaging depiction from the Queen's artist, Sir Edwin Landseer. He had an intense love for animals and the great blessing of being able to represent them most brilliantly. But as design became inundated by Victorian tastes, Landseer's images became swamped by those same influences - except for his sketches, which remain wonderfully free and extraordinarily fine. These gay squiggles of the young hippo were clearly as captivating to Landseer then as they are to us now.

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