William Secord and Dogs in Art

Dog Painting (1840–1940), a social history of the dog in art.

by Brooke Chilvers

Finally, it’s happening. We are getting out of town in winter to go birdwatching in Belize. Cancelled earlier, due to my husband’s bum knee turning into surgery and a tedious recovery, there’s just Rudy and me with our driver/guide.  We set the pace and don’t hold anyone up.  OMG—the bird book for Belize weighs 2.3 pounds!

Any time is vacation time, if I don’t have to write about it; but I plunge right back in again as soon as I am home.  So it’s good to plan ahead.  And there’s never a time I don’t dawdle over the dog-in-art books written by the much admired authority and gallerist, the eponymous William Secord, whose titles bring new insight and delight with each leafing. 

I would never have been able to sustain a sporting art column without Bill Secord’s input—or his books:

Dog Painting (1840–1940), a social history of the dog in art, first published in 1992 and many times reprinted; Dog Painting, The European Breeds, first published in 2000; A Breed Apart, first published in 2001, highlighting the art collections of the American Kennel Club and Museum of The Dog, of which Secord was a founding director; and Dog Painting, A History of the Dog in Art (2009), an updated and revised edition of his classic first book.  

Secord’s extensive chapter, “The Purebred Dog in Art,” in Best in Show, The Dog in Art from the Renaissance to Today (2006) is also a great read, covering works from the French artists of royal pups Desportes (1661 – 1740) and Oudry (1686 – 1755), and all the well-known Brits.  

Dog Painting, The European Breeds.

In these titles, Secord traces the evolution of some fifty breeds of dogs, from Airedales to pointers, from hunting hounds to cushioned Cavalier King Charles Spaniels (considered our most often painted pet), all generously illustrated with the works of mostly British and American, mostly 18th and 19th century artists. 

Secord says there are basically three kinds of dog paintings: The sporting dog in the field, individual purebred dogs in standardized poses, and pet portraits.  Queen Victoria loved her up to 75-at-a-time dogs and started the fashion of pet portraiture with her many commissions to Sir Edwin Landseer.  Secord demonstrates that this trend is still well established today with his newest book, The American Dog at Home, The Dog Portraitsfeaturing artist Christine Merrill, and the dogs, owners, homes, and art of more than 30 of her clients.  

I first started walking into William Secord’s (then) cozy Manhattan Upper East Side gallery as soon as I started working for Gray’s, in 2004.  (Today, the gallery, open by appointment only, is located at 29 West 15th Street.)  

In those days, in the wintry months surrounding the holidays and the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, enthusiasts were kept busy with dog, animal, and wildlife art auctions at Bonhams and Doyle.  At Christie’s wonderful December sporting and wildlife auctions, there were walls of Wardles, Alkens, Munnings, Blinks, and Emms. Over the years, I watched the Doug and Ellen Miller Collection being acquired, and then its marvelous procession of Bob Kuhn paintings being sold again by Christie’s in 2007.  That heyday feels over.  

A Breed Apart.

So I turn instead to Secord’s books to lead me down the historical road of sporting art.  He notes that paintings of dogs pictured alone started in the Renaissance. In Britain, he begins with Francis Barlow (1626 – 1702), England’s first and only 17th century sporting artist; despite his illustrious career and incessant output, we don’t even know his birthdate.  

Among the dozens of artists Secord discusses, I’d never heard of one of the few female artists, British-born Maud Earl (1863 -1943), the only child from the first marriage of horse, dog, and sporting artist George Earl (1824 -1908); niece to a pet-portraitist uncle; with a half-brother who painted racehorses, and also emigrated to the United States. Maud famously painted Queen Victoria’s favorite collies, Sharp and Snowball; the latter was later donated to the Artists’ War Fund for auction to raise money for the Boer War’s wounded.

Secord writes that the beagle has been used to hunt hare in England since before Elizabeth I.  Of the foxhound, he writes, “No other breed is more closely associated with the eighteenth century and the popular perception of country life of the landed gentry than the Foxhound.”  And that spaniels, first described in the 1406 Master of the Hunt, were very early divided and bred into two distinct groups: Land and Water Spaniels.  

Secord says the heyday of dog art was in England, from 1840 to 1940, and attributes this to the rise of the middle class with more leisure time for activities such as horse racing, coupled with pride in its wealth. Field trials and pure-bred dog shows rapidly created a market, from breeders to dog fanciers, for portraits showing their dogs’ conformation to the standards of the breed, sometimes commissioning portraits of all generations of a prize dog.

Best in Show, The Dog in Art from the Renaissance to Today.

European Breeds discusses and illustrates everything from boxers, greyhounds and Scottish deerhounds, to the Maltese and Yorkshire terrier. Secord demonstrates how the appearance of some breeds has dramatically changed over the years, citing the fierce and tenacious 18th century boxer-like bulldog, which is now bred to cater to today’s taste for oversized heads, meaning they cannot birth their puppies without doggie doulas.

His books depict dogs in every school of art, time, and country while zooming in on all the important artists, such as Rosa Bonheur, and of course, Landseer, Queen Victoria’s all-time favorite.    

Having opened his gallery in 1990, Secord knows that dogs and art never go out of style; several thousand works have gone through his hands over the years. He’s also played an important role in keeping that current, often being interviewed and featured in dozens of articles in magazines, from Cigar Aficionado to Robb Report.  

If the dog-art market is perhaps not quite what it once was, the finest artists, such as George Stubbs, better known for his horses but who also painted dogs, have only increased in value. His nearly life-sized portrait of a Newfoundland dog fetched $3.6 million—the most ever paid for a painting of a canine subject—but still far less than a Stubbs Newmarket Heath scene, which sold for $36 million in 2011.  

When queried by prospective collectors about what to buy, Secord advises: “Buy the best you can afford. You won’t get tired of it.  And you can always trade it in.”  My best investment is in perusing these books, over and over again.

Brooke Chilvers begs pardon for any oversights or mistakes.  She is flying out the door.