The Toy Spaniel in Art
The Toy Spaniel – which by selective breeding has evolved into what we know today as the King Charles Spaniel and Cavalier King Charles Spaniel in the UK, and the English Toy Spaniel and Cavalier King Charles Spaniel in the States – is one of the oldest “breeds,” its ancestors being the tiny spaniels of old that one sees in art going back centuries. Their inclusion, in particular in human portraiture, often was to convey fidelity and loyalty on the part of the sitter while offering comfort.
With the advent of shows, giving the breed a name over time was challenging, particularly in the U.K. When “official” shows started in the 1860s, Toy Spaniels were included in the classification. As the century progressed, breeders bred away from the pretty little face with a pointed nose toward the truncated muzzle of today’s King Charles/English Toy Spaniel. To complicate matters, these dogs with truncated muzzles became split into four breeds: Ruby, whole color red; Blenheim, red and white particolor; King Charles, black and tan, and Prince Charles, tricolor. To further complicate matters, up until the early years of the 20th Century there were classes for Marlborough Blenheim Spaniels, which resembled the Toy Spaniel of half a century earlier.
When dog shows restarted after the first World War, numbers being registered of the four breeds defined by color were so low that the Kennel Club lumped them together under the banner of the original name, Toy Spaniel. The Royal Family objected to this, as the name did not show the breed’s long connection with royalty, and in 1923 the name was changed to King Charles Spaniel.
The story continues with the wealthy American Roswell Eldridge, who wanted a pair of Toy Spaniels that looked like the ones in pictures painted before the middle of the 19th Century, but was unable to find any. Undaunted, in 1926 he sponsored a class at Crufts for “Blenheim Spaniels of the old type as shown in pictures of Charles II’s time.” There was £20 on offer, a considerable sum in those days. Breeders with faulty King Charles with longer muzzles took up the challenge, and the rest, as they say, is history – the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel was born, one of the most popular of all toy dog breeds worldwide.
The late Clarice Waud, toy-dog specialist and bibliophile who co-compiled with Mark Hutchings “A Bibliography of Toy Dogs” (1994), always got incensed when she saw in auction-house catalogs or in books written by those who should know better, paintings described as “Cavalier King Charles Spaniel” when they had been painted prior to 1926.
Richard Ansdell (1815-1885) is best known for his sporting and genre scenes, but his painting of a Toy Spaniel on a red chair has all the craftsmanship and realism one sees in his more dramatic subjects. The pretty little dog is of a type that was portrayed in art over more than three centuries.
The alert, expectant expression and pointed nose endured the centuries, and this is also clearly seen in the small head-study sold by Tennants. It was catalogued as “Manner of Pier Francesco Cittadini (1616-1681),” an artist active mainly in Bologna noted for his naturalistic depiction of reality. Modestly estimated at £80-120, it appealed to several bidders who pursued it into five figures, the hammer falling at £15,000 to an undisclosed buyer.
The dog has the much-prized “lozenge” or “thumbprint” on top of its head. The story of the marking goes that the Duchess of Marlborough’s much-loved Toy Spaniel kept her company while her husband was at war. At anxious times she would press her thumb on her little dog’s head while awaiting news of her husband. When the Spaniel had a litter, the head of each puppy was marked with the duchess’s thumbprint.
This “thumbprint” is clearly visible on the Blenheim in the engraving of Princess Victoire de Nemours, Queen Victoria’s Coburg cousin, as she reclines on a chaise surrounded by her pet Toy Spaniels. The breed has a long association with royalty, most notably with Queen Victoria, whose dog Dash inspired artists and potters in the late 19th Century, and King Charles II. When the King died in 1685, allegedly 12 dogs mourned at his bedside.
The history of the Blenheim Toy Spaniel is often intertwined with that of the early small sporting Spaniels. This rural connection is depicted in the picture attributed to Henry Bernard Chalon (1770-1849) with the four Blenheim Spaniels placed in a landscape with a flintlock rifle resting against a tree. It was sold by Thomson Roddick for £7,400 against expectations of £1,500-2,000.
Pictures of the breed have a strong following with interior designers; it often appears that the more naïve, the better. The rabbit in the early 19th-Century engraving “The Rabbit Fancier” shows total disdain for the dog looking over the fence as it munches on its cabbage leaf.
The Grand Tour was the 17th and 18th Century custom of a traditional trip throughout Europe undertaken by upper-class young men of sufficient means and social rank, and considered part of their education. They would bring back souvenirs of which the exquisitely detailed Italian micro-mosaic of a Toy Spaniel in an extensive landscape is an excellent example.
Sworders Auctioneers sold a small selection of paintings by Neville Stephen Bulwer-Lytton, 3rd Earl of Lytton. As well as being an artist, Lytton was also a noted athlete, winning a bronze at the 1908 Olympics in the real tennis competition. His first wife, The Hon. Mrs. Neville-Lytton, later Baroness Wentworth, inherited the Crabbet Arabian Stud from her mother Lady Ann Blunt and went on to have a huge influence on horse breeding. Over 90 percent of Arabian horses today can trace their pedigree through Crabbet lines.
She was also a noted breeder King Charles Spaniels and author of one of the most prestigious books on toy dogs, “Toy Dogs and their Ancestors” (1911), quite fitting for the great-granddaughter of Lord Byron. The paintings offered by Sworders included a head study of Ch. Windfall, Crufts CC winner for Best Blenheim in 1907 and 1908, which sold for £2,000, and a group of four dogs that realized £1,600. This painting is illustrated in color in her book and are, top left to right, Orange Frills, described as “modern variant of early King Charles” and Bunthorne, described as “modern example of the old Curly King Charles”; and bottom left to right described as “Old Type Tricolour and Best Modern Type Marlborough.”