Portraits of Dogs: London's Wallace Collection explores canine character and charm
A new exhibition at London's Wallace Collection pays tribute to our centuries-old relationship with dogs (sorry cats)
Dogs are not only man’s best friend, they’re also man’s best muse.
For centuries, artists have drawn inspiration from their four-legged family members, crafting their portraits in various mediums to express emotion and memorialise moments.
A new exhibition at the Wallace Collection in London, UK, pays tribute to this long-standing canine love affair by unleashing a carefully curated selection of dog portraiture.
From Leonardo da Vinci’s detailed deerhound’s paw to David Hockney’s slumbersome sausage dogs, there are over 50 woofs of art on display, including paintings, drawings, sculptures and taxidermy.
Previously delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, ‘Portraits of Dogs: From Gainsborough to Hockney’ also comes at a time when dog ownership has risen exponentially - a total of 3.2 million households in the UK acquired a pet after the pandemic began, according to a 2021 study by the Pet Food Manufacturers' Association.
Britain is a nation of dog lovers, and what that means - or has meant - for both humans and dogs is up for reflection.
Hopelessly devoted to dogs
For as long as people could draw, they have drawn their dogs. The timelessness of this obsession is highlighted by the Wallace Collection’s large selection of works, the oldest being a late first-century Roman marble sculpture of 'The Townley Greyhounds', two dogs entwined lovingly.
Another early piece is a series of scientific drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, which focuses on a dog’s left forepaw, intimately outlining its soft paw pads - or ‘toe beans’ as they have become affectionately known.
Despite no people being present in any of the portraits, there’s still a human story to be told behind every painted pooch - sometimes superficial, sometimes sad.
In ‘Portrait of Fanny, A Favourite Dog’, we see Fanny, the little Manchester terrier of architect John Sloane, sitting at the centre of a fantasy archaeological landscape; forever enshrined in the fragments of his mind. Sloane had bonded with the dog following the loss of his wife, and commissioned this painting after Fanny sadly died too.
While much less sentimental (and emotionally devastating), 'Brizo, a Shepherd's Dog' is made more interesting through the context of its artist, French animal painter Rosa Bonheur.
Bonheur lived openly as a lesbian and dressed in men's clothing throughout the 1800s - a truly groundbreaking thing for the time.
Some of the pieces also standalone as a subtle glimpse into a dog's inner world, equally as complex and profound as our own yet distances away from our understanding.
Our relationship with dogs can sometimes be a selfish one, where we expect a service of loyalty and love without fully accepting who these creatures are. In Lucien Freud's portrait of his beloved whippet Pluto sleeping, there's a sense of recognition at the space between human and dog, and a desire to feel a lived experience so very different from our own.
A royal connection
The exhibition traces Britain’s love of dogs back to Queen Victoria in particular, who was so fond of her spaniels that she regularly commissioned paintings of them, as well as creating her own pencil and watercolour sketches.
Victoria also heavily shaped the way society grieved the loss of their pets, having mourned her husband Prince Albert expressively, through dress and jewellery. This inspired the creation of customised brooches and cravat-pins that featured delicate dog portraits and sometimes a lock of fur to commemorate them.
This subject of death weighs heavily in some of the portraiture, including ‘The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner’, a heavy-handed and heartbreaking oil painting by Edwin Landseer that depicts the sorrow of loss and unwavering loyalty of dogs, as a collie rests its head on its owner’s coffin.
But it's not all walkies and woe.
The focus of 'Portraits of Dogs' remains very much on uplifting, helping us to remember just how much dogs have meant to people, these devoted animals always by our side and often a great form of comic relief.
The ‘Dog of the Hanava Breed’, by Jean-Jacques Bachelier, is one example of this, showing a pampered pup on its hind legs wearing a pretty pink bow and surrounded by items. Even in the absence of dog bakeries and spas, good boys and girls have been getting spoilt for centuries.
The finale is a suite of 1995 vignettes of David Hockney’s dachshunds, Stanley and Boodgie, who he adopted in 1987. The vivid colours capture not only the silliness of dogs, but also their softness; the snuggle of sleep and the moment they hear a sound, still drowsy but alert and ready with anticipation.
“These two dear little creatures are my friends,” wrote Hockney in his ‘Dog Days notebook’.
“They are intelligent, loving, comical and often bored. They watch me work; I notice the warm shapes they make together, their sadness and their delights.”
It’s these gentle moments amidst the mundanity and madness of life that form our connection with dogs, their love that’s selfless and difficult to explain, but lasts forever - sometimes through portraits.
Modern day pet portraiture
While The Wallace Collection explores the history of pet portraiture, it's worth noting that it's an area of art more popular than ever today.
From felting their faces in minute detail, to embroidering their shapes - heck, one lady even knits jumpers from pet fur - dogs (and cats) have become an endless source of creative inspiration.
During the first lockdown, UK-based Phil Heckels drew a silly picture of an animal for his son and shared it to Facebook. Little did he know it would change his life forever.
Now known online as Hercule Van Wolfwinkle, Heckels' child-like minimalist drawings of pets soon went viral, with people commissioning him to create 'bad pet portraits' and the money going towards Turning Tides, a charity for the homeless, for which he's raised over £100,000 (approx. €113,000).
Humour is at the heart of his creations, and despite never anticipating a career as a full time pet portrait artist, Heckels is motivated by the joy his drawings bring people: "The only thing I hope is that it just makes someone smile."
Dave Ede is another UK-based pet portrait artist that got his start during the pandemic.
"As we all had lots of spare time on our hands, I rekindled my love for creating art. This then led to friends asking me to paint their pets," says Ede.
All of his portraits are created digitally using a 22" touch screen with a stylus, but have the appearance of a traditional oil or gouache painting, blending the ease of technology with traditional aesthetic.
"Paintings have the ability to capture something in a subject that photos just can't," says Ede.
"Animals and pets mean so much in people's lives and it's always nice being able to create a piece that means so much to them too."
‘Portraits of Dogs: From Gainsborough to Hockney’ will be on display at The Wallace Collection from 29 March to 15 October 2023