The Staffordshire Bull Terrier
The American Staffordshire Terrier received official recognition with the American Kennel Club in 1935, the same year that the Staffordshire Bull Terrier received official recognition with the Kennel Club in Britain. Another similarity is that both breeds share common ancestry way back in their genes.
Dogs of a type that would evolve into the Stafford and AmStaff had existed long before the breeds received official recognition. John F. Gordon writes of the Stafford’s “hard living, gladiatorial past,” referring to centuries of hard-bitten, determined dogs for which no challenge or combat was too great. It is throughout this period of history that one must look when studying the Stafford in all types of art.
Gordon writes about the confusion surrounding the creation of the breed. Two main theories about the Stafford’s origins were presented in his book “The Staffordshire Bull Terrier Handbook.” The first suggests that the Stafford is a direct descendant of the Bulldog of 200-plus years ago. The second claims the breed’s principal ancestors are the Bulldog and a small terrier, probably the Old English Terrier (the latter being closely associated with the Bull Terrier and other terrier breeds).
One must remember that the Bulldog and Bull Terrier of today look very different from their ancestors. Therefore, art showing the development of the Bulldog, Bull Terrier and the extinct White English Terrier is closely associated with art chronicling the development of the Stafford. Indeed it is possible to argue that art claimed to depict some of those other breeds does, in fact, more closely resemble the Stafford.
While Staffords evolved from baiting and fighting breeds of the 18th and 19th centuries, many of which proliferated around the industrial Midlands of Britain at that time – hence the name “Staffordshire” – it should not be forgotten that whatever breeds were used, each has its own history of evolution stretching back into antiquity.
By the 12th Century, bear- and bull-baiting were recognized as legitimate sports in the U.K. By the 16th Century, these pastimes were commonplace, and any fair of any note would have its bear- and bull-baiting arenas. In some villages today in Britain, a metal ring set into the ground can still be found, to which was tethered a bull to be baited.
We will never know if baiting and fighting dogs were similar throughout Europe, or if artists repeated a standard formula in their work, but one can assume a certain amount of similarity. Any dog used in such pastimes would need to be muscular and agile, points that are included in the present-day Staffordshire Bull Terrier breed standard and the American Staffordshire Terrier standard.
By the 18th Century, artists were depicting fighting dogs in a different style from previous eras. Finer points of type and differences in size are obvious.
Although the history of the Stafford is associated with baiting of all types of animals, from rats upward, it is as a fighting breed that its reputation became established. Credit for this is reputed to belong to the Duke of Hamilton. In the last quarter of the 18th Century, it is claimed he developed a breed specifically for fighting. An engraving from circa 1790 shows His Grace restraining a dark-colored dog in the “make ready” position.
A vivid depiction of two dogs fighting would do little to enhance a contemporary artist’s or sculptor’s reputation, but this was not the case in the early 19th Century. At the age of 16, Sir Edwin Landseer, who would become one of England’s finest animal painters, produced a painting he exhibited at the Society of Painters in Oil and Water Colours Exhibition. This picture, painted in 1818, shows two fighting dogs getting wind – that is, catching their breath before carrying on.
Before anti-cruelty laws were introduced in Britain, the early decades of the 19th Century were among the most brutal as far as pitting one animal against another was concerned. Dogs fought animals of all sizes, from ducks to donkeys.
When using bronzes as points of reference for research, one does not usually have the luxury of color. When I was writing the art chapter for “The Ultimate Staffordshire Bull Terrier,” I reproduced bronzes of dogs that were either fighting, ratting or rabbiting, and all were smallish dogs that displayed strength and agility.
One exception was a French desk-set, mounted with a dog similar to the illustrations of Jock of the Bushveld, a dog that Stafford enthusiasts claim as an ancestor of the Stafford.
The two images of dogs in combat are both 19th-Century French animalier bronzes. The oval bronze with a plank nailed to a post on a naturalistic base, and although unsigned, is similar to the work of Prosper Lecourtier, who exhibited work at the Paris Salon between 1879 and 1902 and who was still working at a time when type in what would become the Staffordshire Bull Terrier was being established.
The second bronze of dogs in combat was sculpted by Joseph-Victor Chemin, whose studies of dogs appear on the market quite frequently.
The gilded bronze of a dog watching over a rabbit was sculpted by Clovis-Edmond Masson, whose work is often playful and inventive, as is the case with this bronze.
Enthusiasts of a few breeds, including the Stafford, claim Billy the famous rat-pit dog as an ancestor of their breed. He appears in more than a score of contemporary engravings, but the model of Billy surrounded by rats and holding one in his mouth is a particularly rare representation. It was sculpted by animalier Arthur-Marie-Gabriel, Comte du Passage, who, as well as being a sculptor, had a long, distinguished military career. The model was also produced in terracotta.
The final two unsigned bronzes of dogs having killed rats repeat very much a popular theme. Although 19th Century, they show muscular, agile dogs with head proportions similar to a Stafford and wearing collars that the early dogs would have worn.