by Brooke Chilvers
Thank goodness so many 18th century portraits of beloved thoroughbreds and hunting dogs are adequately labeled, allowing us to identify their subjects and their masters.
Sawrey Gilpin named his 1780 painting simply Two Greyhounds and a Mastiff belonging to the Duke of Hamilton, referring to the reputedly handsome and dissipated Scottish peer, Douglas Hamilton, 8th Duke of Hamilton. When the rare, generationally owned, sporting-art treasure comes on the market (this painting was sold by Sotheby’s), its circumstance and provenance become part of art history.
Behind every good painting, there’s a good story. But it’s not always easily known who originally commissioned or owned paintings such as Gilpin’s charming A Portrait of the Black and White Water Spaniel ‘Tim,’ once attributed to George Stubbs. It was sold in 2016 by Christie’s from “an important New York Collection,” along with the sweet-eyed A Black and White English Springer Spaniel in a Landscape, but no history earlier than 2007 is provided. To go further back, you have to go to the James Harvey British Art catalog for the reference to Crichel House, Dorset. And then what?
Dogs in 18th century London pulled fishmongers’ and butchers’ carts through Covent Garden, which is where Gilpin probably first started painting them, while apprenticed to artist Samuel Scott (https://www.grayssportingjournal.com/sawrey-gilpin/). There were guard dogs and dogs for the blood sport of baiting. Old dogs turned up as skin for gloves. And the turnspit dog turned the meat in rural kitchens, also serving as foot warmers during chilly church services.
Dog portraits without titles from this period can lead to confusion. In the endless quest to achieve ever-better field performance, centuries of canine experimentation have led to infinite crossbreeding, especially between pointers and spaniels. Adding to the confusion, spaniels and setters were often named according to their behavior. A game-setting spaniel was called a setter; and setters were sometimes called “rough spaniels” and pointers “smooth spaniels.” Harriers were bred from mixing southern hounds, beagles, and dwarf hounds; and foxhounds from interbreeding the greyhound, fox terrier, and bulldog. Breed standards weren’t laid down until 1873, when the Kennel Club was established.
To England’s 18th century country gentleman and landed gentry, dogs were second only to horses in their owner’s image of himself. Hence dog portraits. As a result, in addition to their more familiar equestrian subjects, both Sawrey Gilpin (1733–1807) and George Stubbs (1724–1806) also painted their patrons’ favored hunting dogs.
Stubbs’s origins lay in the family-owned leather-working business near Liverpool’s stinking docks. Despite his early talent, George struggled to be allowed to apprentice to portrait artist and engraver Hamlet Wainstanley. But Stubbs disliked his method of teaching his students to learn by copying other artists’ works, and quit. Considered completely self-taught, Stubbs professed that nature alone would be his teacher. He also taught himself—and everybody else—animal anatomy, through his thoroughly researched illustrated oeuvre, Anatomy of the Horse (1766).
For reasons unknown, in 1760, Stubbs started painting only haymaking, horses, and dogs, plus the occasional caged feline, and Great Britain’s first zebra, belonging to Queen Charlotte. For more than 45 years, he immortalized the aristocracy’s favored gundogs, hounds, water dogs, and pets. Of the 126 paintings Stubbs exhibited at the Royal Academy, 39 featured dogs; 15 were portraits. It’s estimated he painted 50 dog portraits, of which 15 are considered lost.
In the last half of the 18th century, pointers began replacing setters, or were crossed with them. Pointers were so popular that the Count Palatine of the Rhine, Maximilian Joseph, later King of Bavaria, acquired Stubbs’s The Spanish Pointer (1766). Stubbs painted several versions of it, making clear the elegant connection between skeleton, motion, and muscles. A popular print, it was also engraved several times.
Shooting flying birds required spaniels to flush game birds from the planted hawthorn hedges. Toy spaniels wearing bells could penetrate thickets, putting up eight to ten woodcock in a morning’s shoot. Stubbs probably painted more individual spaniels than any other breed, including his 1778 Brown and White Norfolk (or Water Spaniel) on display at Yale Center for British Art. They are all engrossing, with the dogs’ physical attributes and personalities naturally filling the space. They have character, but are free of Edwin Landseer’s Victorian sentimentality.
Both Gilpin and Stubbs paid attention to the landscapes—peaked mountains and craggy foliage—in which they set their hunting dogs, but perhaps with more spirit than their forerunner, James Seymour (1702–1752), whose rather impersonal dogs merely decorate his landscapes. Even Gilpin’s English Springer Spaniel On A Cushion includes an almost Renaissance landscape through the casement. Stubbs also painted individual dogs, dramatically framing them against a flat dark background, as in Portrait of a Dark Brown and White Newfoundland Spaniel, also sold by Sotheby’s.
Stubbs and Gilipin’s other predecessors include sporting artists John Wootton (1682–1764) (https://www.grayssportingjournal.com/john-wootton/), and Flemish-born Peter Tillemans (1684–1734), whose dogs served as static objects in his still lifes.
Unfortunately, too many of the best dog portraits by Stubbs and Gilpin are not on display in the institutions that own them but—thank goodness—many can be found on the internet.
Perhaps during some dead time in the dead of winter, it would be worthwhile to trace these dogs to their owners. Even better would be to unearth the great dog portraits, in private collections, whose owners and images still elude us.
Brooke Chilvers is noticing the increasing number of dogs replacing spouses and children on social media.