Fri, 07/28/2023 - 8:14pm

Dogs in Disguise

Nick Waters shares some anthropomorphic canine art

The practice of anthropomorphizing animals, in particular dogs, dates back to at least the early Egyptian period.

From that period, the best known is the god Anubis, usually depicted as a canine or a man with a canine head. He was the god of funerary rites, protector of graves and guide to the underworld in ancient Egyptian religion. He was always depicted in black, a color that symbolized regeneration, life, the soil of the River Nile and the discoloration of the corpse after embalming.

One of the oldest sports with dogs is coursing, in which Greyhounds and other Sighthounds chase the hare and other quarry by sight and not scent. It dates as far back as the 2nd Century A.D. and was traditionally limited to the wealthy. The sport was informally made to test the speed and agility of Sighthounds, of which the kill was secondary.



The 14th-Century illumination is a play on the sport in which the man is the quarry and the hares act out the role of both dogs and man. Titled “The hunter’s doom or the world turned upside down,” a giant hare is stretching the crossbow; a boy hides in a tree, under which sits a rabbit playing out the role of Greyhound that has marked the quarry, and a hare walks off carrying a trussed-up youth, hung upside down from a stick over his shoulder. It was created circa 1338 by Jehan de Grise, a Flemish miniature painter and illuminator active in Bruges.



The late-19th-Century colored engraving “The Dogs Banquet” is a tour-de-force of breeds acting out the role of humans. Among the recognizable breeds are the Greyhound, Toy Spaniel, Irish Water Spaniel, Deerhound, Bulldog and Black and Tan Terrier. A hound stands at the head of the table about to say grace, and behind him two cats are waiting to serve at table. On the wall hang anthropomorphized family portraits. The banquet is being given by someone of standing in society, for on the table is a pineapple, which only the very wealthy and landed families with their heated greenhouses and hothouses could afford to grow.



The lithograph “The Great Exhibition of the Pugs of all Nations and Fete given by William Davenport Bromley, Esq. Thursday May 30th 1850” is from a sketch by C. Derby. The setting is Bromley’s house in London’s fashionable Belgrave Square, and his Pugs, Smut and Juba, host the occasion. Those visiting include Mops and Nell, owned by Lady Willoughby de Eresby; Nina, owned by her son the Hon. Alberic Willoughby; Desdemona, owned by Viscountess Villiers; Mungo, owned by Lord Elphinstone, and Othello, owned by Sir Robert Brownrigg — a very distinguished gathering.

On the walls of the room hang pictures of Pugs, and to complete the Pug theme there is a Pug clock on the mantelpiece.

“Judging in an Art Gallery” is from the days when the Pekingese was the quintessential aristocratic ladies’ companion. The lady of the house would retire to the sitting room to take tea with her friends, holding court with her Pekingese on her lap, while the husband departed to his gentlemen’s club.

Much of this attitude is evident in the print. The pompous Pekingese, fur stole over her shoulder, all puffed up to give her an air of authority, interprets a picture to her long-suffering husband, whose mind is obviously elsewhere. This picture is an example of how, at the time, the sexes were perceived in some upper-class societies. The only genuine judge in the art gallery is the Setter in the background.



Admirers and collectors of Royal Doulton dogs will be familiar with the sitting Bulldog with the Union Jack flag draped over its back, a patriotic piece introduced in 1941 during World War II. Not so well known and for collectors difficult to find is the Scottish soldier wearing a tam o’shanter and carrying a haversack on his back. It was introduced in 1918, when World War I was still raging, and compared to many Doulton dogs it had a comparatively short run, being withdrawn circa 1925.

Black Forest carvings date back to the 1800s and were first made in the town of Brienz in Switzerland. By the end of the century, carving had become a major industry for the town. Soon the world knew all about woodcarvers from Switzerland. This skilled group of people soon became a constant feature in a lot of international exhibitions. For example, the Black Forest carvings featured in exhibitions in London, Paris, Philadelphia and Chicago.

The rare and finely carved tobacco jar in the form of a mountain walker wearing a traditional hat, carrying a stick and with a bag on his back had a detachable head and appeared in a Hanson Auctioneers sale. 

The first “aristochiens,” as Belgian artist Thierry Poncelet calls his portraits, came about when he was restoring an antique portrait for an art dealer. Tired of restoring and bored with the human face, he substituted his own dog’s head, a Cocker Spaniel, for the lady’s head in the portrait. When the dealer saw it, instead of being outraged, he commissioned more — ancestry with a difference.

Poncelet bought old family portraits in flea markets and from antiques shops, overpainting the head with the head of a dog, choosing with his obvious unique humor the head of a breed he considered appropriate to the sitter’s clothes and situation. The aristocratic Bulldog duchess, with an air of superiority, is one of many examples, for Poncelet was quite prolific in his work.

“Aristochiens” have now appeared in exhibitions in Milan, Paris, London and New York, been featured in fine-art sale by auction house Christie’s and were the subject of the book “Sit!” by Bruce McCall.



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