SHARE
FacebookEmailShare

The Great British Dog Fetish


Portraits of Dogs and The Queen and Her Corgis

For those of us who grew up on the island that is the United Kingdom, there were places that represented for us lovers of Europe a deeper connection with the longed-for-continent.

Queen Elizabeth II with one of her corgis. Balmoral Castle, 1952.

Places that transported us away from the deep fat smell of fish and chips, the misery of light entertainment on the BBC, the pomp of Trooping the Colour and those bad-tempered pearly kings and queens that were still to be seen on the streets of 1970s London.

One of those hallowed places was the Wallace Collection in Manchester Square. Just behind Selfridges, which in the 1970s was a down-at-heel department store used by parents to get state school uniforms and cheap gym kits rather than the preserve of oligarchs and footballers’ wives it is today—more aertex than cashmere, more Speedo than Dolce & Gabbana.

Ironically there is currently a huge display of the star-spangled stage costumes of Elton John from the 1970s in its windows. The young Reg Dwight would not have been caught dead there in the ‘70s. He might, however, have gone to the Wallace.

The Wallace Collection was imbued with a sense of romance and had such an ambiance of old Paris that one could almost believe it was in Paris.

It was a living monument to the French origins of Sir Richard Wallace, the illegitimate son of the Marquess of Hertford and Julie Amelie Charlotte Castelnau, his dressmaker wife.

They had lived there since 1870, but she had never bothered to learn English and was frowned on by British society, who condemned her as being unworthy of the name of Wallace.

Castelnau was isolated in Hertford House, which was close to the kind of shops she would have worked in rather than shopped at in Paris.

She was surrounded by fabulous works of art that held no interest for her – mainly French 18th century but also masterpieces by Franz Hals, Gainsborough, Rembrandt and Canaletto. With elegant spindly golden gesso chairs covered in Aubusson tapestries that were far too fragile to sit on and elaborate hand-painted Sevres porcelain that was far too precious to ever use.

On the ground floor was a collection of armour that would have added lustre to any of the Loire chateaux, but it was pure Paris upstairs. It was like a relic from a novel by Joris-Karl Huysmans in central London.

In À Rebours or Against Nature, the hero Jean des Esseintes, like Wallace, is the last survivor of an aristocratic family who is a victim of his own aesthetic sensibilities. After reading Charles Dickens, he decides he must visit London and, in preparation, dines at an English restaurant in Paris.

He treats himself to overcooked roast beef, haddock, Stilton, and rhubarb tart washed down with dark porter ale.

So satisfied with this excursion into the gastronomic delights of the UK, he immediately renounces his desire to visit the real thing as it would only be a disappointment.

The Wallace Collection fulfilled this fantasy for generations of Londoners – the ability to spend a few hours in France but to go home on the Central Line or the number 88 bus. It was indeed French without tears, and in these post-Brexit times is a much-loved refuge where one can still believe that we are all Europeans.

But no more – perfidious Albion has struck the Wallace in the guise of its latest offering.

Away from the splendour of the main house is the new exhibition space at the Wallace carved out of the former coal holes and wine cellars.

Following the success of its previous exhibition Inspiring Walt Disney, it has delivered the Full English and then some.

Inspiring Walt Disney was a very clever show that compared the early preparatory drawings of Disney animated classics with the rococo gems in the Wallace. It was a superb exhibit that delighted all and was in keeping with the spirit of this much-loved London institution.

However, the new show, Portraits of Dogs: From Gainsborough to Hockney is entirely British. Equally clever and incredibly crowded, it does, however, mean that even the Wallace has become a bastion of Little England.

Xavier Bray is the director of the Wallace and the proud owner of two pugs – Bluebell and her son Winston. Bluebell is even featured in the catalogue, and Bray shares with us that his family often refer to her as Lady Wallace.

Bray put together this show during lockdown, and it is quite a slap in the face for those of us who like our Wallace to be all cambric nightshirts, pink hair ribbons and frilly petticoats. The one condition was that no human should appear in any of the paintings on display.

The show is given over entirely to canine portraiture from Leonardo da Vinci to David Hockney. There are aristocratic dogs, tog dogs, royal dogs, hero dogs, artists’ dogs and even stuffed dogs.

 

Unknown artist, Dog lying on a ledge, 1650-80. © Ashmolean Museum.

 

On the audio guide for the first room, the ubiquitous Professor Mary Beard asks whether the ancient Greeks and Romans were as crazy about dogs as the British. After all, it was his dog Argos that first recognised Odysseus upon his return after ten years away.

Not perhaps the best advertisement for dog lovers as the neglected Argos was lying on a bed of cow manure and full of fleas. Then deliberately unrecognised by Odysseus, he died of a broken heart.

There are studies of paws by Leonardo and a Spanish street dog, possibly by Velazquez or Zurbaran. A few aristocratic hunting dogs by Stubbs, including the Brocklesby foxhound Ringwood, which sounds more like a canine disease than a champion hunting dog, but all well and good.

I sniggered at the statue of William Hogarth’s dog, who was called Trump, and was a little perturbed that Gainsborough would try and patch up his fractious marriage by writing to his wife in the guise of their dog Fox, named after the Tory politician. Then things take a decided turn for the worse.

Sir Edwin Landseer was a fine painter who taught Queen Victoria and Prince Albert how to properly draw their 700 dogs. Before even ascending the throne in 1837, a portrait was commissioned of Victoria’s beloved spaniel Dash followed by Waldmann, Cairnach, Nero, Hector, Eos, Tilco, Walden, Podge, Swan, Minna, and so it goes.

There are drawings and photographs of the royal canines which were on show in the sitting room that the Queen had built for herself to admire her dogs in the Royal Kennels.

This royal obsession continues with a Fabergé sculpture of Queen Alexandra’s borzoi and a tiny sculpture of  Edward V11’s Norfolk terrier Caesar who walked behind his coffin, head hung low, and thereafter spent the rest of his days wandering about the corridors of Buckingham Palace looking for his master.

Caesar became a national symbol of grief and loss in the bestseller of his life, Where’s Master? He appears at his master’s feet on his tomb in St George’s Chapel.

Landseer was not exclusively the preserve of the royal family but also of the aristocracy, who got him to paint allegorical scenes of dogs as judges, beggars, philosophers and slaves. These are perhaps the weirdest of all the paintings in the show, with dogs smoking, wearing mob caps and reading. Very unsettling indeed.

Landseer painted Uncle Tom in 1857 after he had read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He was deeply affected by the novel and represented the African slaves in the book as two black pugs about to be sold to the highest bidder.

 

Edwin Landseer, Hector, Nero and Dash with the Parrot Lory, 1838 Royal Collection Trust. © His Majesty King Charles III, 2023.

 

The dogs know they are about to be separated and roll their eyes in horror at the knotted whip hanging from the wall beside them. Dredged up from the basement store at Tate Britain, it will go on display there once it leaves the Wallace as an example of Victorian society dealing with racism.

It is a problematic work of art that maybe undermines Landseer’s genuine horror at the fate of American slaves by showing them as dogs. One can just about accept the Court of Chancery from Dickens’ Jarndyce vs Jarndyce in Bleak House as dogs, but when the story is real and a true injustice, it does not sit easy.

Sir Edwin Landseer battled with mental illness in later life and was declared insane the year before he died.

And then we come to the stuffed dogs. Dogs so loved by their owners – nay parents – that they could not bear to part with them even after death. This is where the whole man’s best friend relationship takes a turn into David Lynch territory.

There is the oddly named Ah Cum, who was an important patriarch of the Pekinese breed in the UK.

Smuggled out of Imperial China in a crate in 1896. When Ah Cum died in 1905, his distraught owner gave his preserved body to the Natural History Museum.

There is also Minnie the Lulu Terrier, who was stuffed in 1883 and is lying like Zsa Zsa Gabor on a magnificent silken bed inside a marquetry cabinet. Like all good portraits, Minnie’s and Ah Cum’s eyes follow you around the room. Most unnerving…

The dog portrait is brought bang up to date with canine tributes by David Hockney and Lucian Freud.

Hockney’s dachshunds helped him come to terms with the deaths of various close friends and taught him how to love life again. Lucian Freud shows that dog artists are not exclusively British.

 

Queen Elizabeth II talks with members of the Manitoba Corgi Association. Winnipeg, 8 October 2002.

 

There are works by the French 19th-century artist Rosa Bonheur and her earlier compatriot Jean Jacques Bachelier, but still, this feels undeniably a British show that is selling out fast and incredibly crowded when I visited. Full of parents and excited children.

On the ground floor, there is a small exhibition, The Queen and Her Corgis. Traced back to her very first corgi Susan, the show features portraits of the many corgis and dorgis who were notorious for biting ankles and even scaring James Bond in the opening to the London Olympics.

There is an extensive family tree on one wall which could have been compiled by her ancestors, Victoria and Albert.

The last photograph is of her final two corgis, who, after her death, were sent to live with Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson. No wonder they look so bad-tempered.

Xavier Bray informs me that to the best of his knowledge, there are 907 dogs on display in the permanent collection at the Wallace. So maybe they were always there…

Portraits of Dogs runs until 15th October. The Queen and Her Corgis is on until 5th June. Photographs courtesy of the Wallace Collection. All rights reserved.