Fri, 05/31/2024 - 10:14pm

The Sporting Greyhound

Artists depict this veddy British Sighthound racing and reposing

Before the advent of the sporting gun, the pursuit of game was dependent on the horse, hawk and hound. The Romans introduced “long dogs” to Britain, and long after their withdrawal, sport with Greyhounds became part of the Saxon way of life.

Coursing remained largely centered around the various divisions of the court, with Queen Elizabeth I enjoying nothing more than the coursing that was put on for her entertainment. It was under her direction to the Duke of Norfolk in 1596 that many of the practices and conventions were formulated into a set of rules that remained fairly constant through the following centuries.

The next 200 years saw the growth of towns and ports, the discovery of lands overseas, and the emergence of families who owed little or nothing to traditional landlords or hereditary wealth; a new commercial stratum was emerging. Henceforth, no longer was coursing the exclusive sporting pastime of the landed aristocracy. It is against such a background that coursing became even more popular, and in 1776 the first club in England was formed at Swaffham by Lord Orford. The first coursing club in America, the National Coursing Club, was formed in 1858.

Orford took a lot of trouble over breeding his Greyhounds. He tried every sort of cross to improve both speed and stamina, including Italian Greyhound, lurcher, even a Bulldog cross. Finally, after seven generations of breeding, he got what was acknowledged to be the best Greyhounds of the time.



Of all the Greyhounds he bred, Czarina (in the foreground of the engraving of the scene at Swaffham of two in pursuit of a hare from a painting by Sawrey Gilpin), was considered his best. She won 47 matches without ever having been beaten. In the old man’s final year, he managed for the last time to get on his horse, galloping across the heath at Newmarket to watch Czarina run her trial. She won. Lord Orford raised his cocked hat to her, swayed in his saddle, toppled on his back and died.

Colonel Thornton was the most flamboyant and eccentric sportsman of his day, who, together with his friend, Major Topham, bred Greyhounds, producing a string of successful dogs. (Whether being flamboyant and eccentric was a prerequisite for coursing and other sporting men, I do not know, but many certainly were.) At Lord Orford’s dispersal sale following his death, Thornton bought Czarina. Allegedly she was 13 before Thornton bred from her, and her litter of eight included the dog Claret, who in turn was the sire of Major.



Major became Thornton’s most famous dog, said to have been unbeaten. Among his wins was the 1000 Guineas Challenge on Epsom Downs. The engraving of Major beside a hare at the end of a course was one of the engravings in William Taplin’s “The Sportsman’s Cabinet” (1803-04), the third dog book in the English language. It is from a painting by Philip Reinagle exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1805. It was for his pictures reproduced in Taplin’s work that Reinagle established his reputation as a dog painter.



It was the practice for the great Greyhound breeders and kennel owners of the day to restrict the use of their stud dogs to their own bitches. The thinking behind this was if they allowed their dogs to be used at public stud, those who used them might produce something that would beat them at their own game. As the 19th Century progressed, advertisements began appearing offering dogs at stud. Allegedly, the first successful stud dog available to the public (for a price) was King Cob, a beautiful lemon-and-white coursing dog born in 1838 and owned by Captain Daintree. He sired a number of successful winners, including Sir St. G. Gore’s Magician, who won the Waterloo Cup in 1849. Virtually all coursing and racing Greyhounds can trace their lineage back to King Cob, who carried the Bulldog blood from the earlier crosses of Lord Orford.

The Waterloo Cup, named after the Waterloo Hotel in Liverpool, and which became the “Blue Ribbon” of the coursing world, was first run in 1836, and up until coursing was banned in the U.K. in 2004 was one of the longest continuous sporting events in the world. In America the National Coursing Club’s first Waterloo Cup was run in 1895 in South Dakota.



The Open Door, painted in 1916 by Briton Riviere, is one of the most admired of all the pictures in the Royal Kennel Club’s collection. It shows Sir R. Buchanan Jardine’s Long Span, winner of the Waterloo Cup in 1907. Riviere, a member of a large family of artists and artisans of Huguenot descent, painted this tender portrait when both he and Long Span were coming to the end of their lives. The dog is shown in a quiet, reflective mood, which may also have been the mood of the artist, whose life had not been all he would have wished for. When invited to become president of the Royal Academy, he had to turn it down, as his wife was adamant that it would be too much for his health, even though he never suffered illness.



Waterloo Cup winners were a popular subject, and another fine painting of a winner is Thomas Blinks’ portrait of the Dennis brothers’ Dendrapsis beside a coursed hare, winner of the Cup in 1909. The brothers certainly did things in style. Following the dog’s win, they gave a dinner for all 600 of their employees at their engineering works. After the dinner there was a firework display, with the main attraction a set piece of Dendrapsis himself going fizzing up in rockets and Roman candles.

Owen Patrick Smith (O.P.) demonstrated dog racing in 1919 at Emeryville, California, and the first Greyhound track opened that year. Smith’s aim was to see an alternative to killing jack rabbits. Smith had earlier invented the mechanical or artificial hare. The sport was introduced to England in 1926 and became more popular than in America. The “Blue Ribbon” of the sport is the Greyhound Derby, first run in 1927.



The fawn-and-white bitch standing on the edge of a wood with a slip by her side and inscribed “1935” is Greta Ranee. The year 1935 is significant, for that was the year she won the Greyhound Derby, the first ever bitch to do so, doing it in front of a record crowd of 88,700. She was owned by Surgeon John Percy Lockhart-Mummery.



Distillers Buchanan’s used many breeds to promote their Black and White Scotch whisky brand worldwide, before finally settling on the West Highland White Terrier and Scottish Terrier. Cashing in on the popularity of Greyhound racing, included among the early breeds was the racing Greyhound, four heads with the black-and-white dog in a checkered coat in the lead. The message was “This is the brand that’s the world leader.”



How naive paintings perform at auction can, in a few cases, be as unpredictable as the British weather. To most of us there is no obvious reason why one would suddenly take off, but obviously there are those who spot potential. Where paintings of dogs are involved, the subject is most likely to be a Toy Spaniel or Greyhound, and so it was with a Greyhound at Bellmans recent sale. It was indistinctly signed and dated and inscribed, “Calico died by poison administered by some malicious person.”

Given its quality and condition, the specialist had given it what most would have considered a realistic estimate of £100-150, but it was finally knocked down to the London trade for £3,500.

Perhaps because of its compact size, coursing and racing with Greyhounds has been more popular in the U.K. than in any other country.


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