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King Charles Spaniel

  • GBR
  • 2013-12-04
Om objektet
This beautiful picture, which only came to light in 1973, is one of Stubbs’s most touching portraits of dogs. Full of charm, it eschews the sentimentality that characterises many such paintings by later artists. Though the circumstances of the commission are unknown it is possibly the picture exhibited by Stubbs at the Royal Academy in 1776 as Portrait of a Dog, however no contemporary notices of that picture have so far been traced. Of all Stubbs’s portraits of man’s best friend it has a special resonance and a dramatic immediacy afforded by the contrast of brilliant light on the dog’s silky coat, set against a rich, dark background, which silhouettes the animal and emphasises the feathery texture of its fur. Such is the images appeal that it was selected as the basis for one of a set of five speciality postage stamps issued by the Royal Mail on 8 January 1991 with the title ‘Dogs. Paintings by George Stubbs’ (see fig. 2). The composition, and particularly the dramatic use of a flat, lustrous black background demonstrates the artist’s preoccupation with enamel painting in the mid-1770s, and shows to wonderful effect the benefits afforded by his collaboration with Josiah Wedgwood. Dominating the picture plain and strongly lit, the dog stands broadside, his head turned towards the viewer, the russety colouring in his coat reflected in the autumnal foliage behind. The composition is almost frieze like, the effect of which is to accentuate the solidity and three-dimensionality of the dog itself, projecting him out of the picture towards the viewer. Close comparison can be drawn, both in the frieze like arrangement and the contrast between a flat, dark background and a strongly lit foreground subject, with Stubbs’s small enamel on copper of a Lion attacking a Horse (Tate Gallery), painted in 1769, a second version of which he painted circa 1768-9 (Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven), and in another enamel on copper of a Lion and Lioness painted in 1770 (Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven).  However it is a format that he adopts in very few of his portraits of dogs, the majority of which are set in natural landscapes and have none of the emotional of physical power of this pictures. Rather it is usually a style he adopts for his depictions of exotic animals, and can be seen to similarly positive effect in, among others, his Portrait of a Monkey from 1774 (Private Collection),and Lion attacking a Stag, painted circa 1765 for the Marquess of Rockingham (Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven), of which there is even an enamel version,  as well as in A den of Lions (Goodwood House) and Tygers at Play, Version III (Private Collection), both of which were painted in the same year as this spaniel. The small number of examples where he does adopt something of this technique include his portrait of a Water Spaniel of 1769 (Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven), and his Portrait of a Spaniel painted in 1772 (British Sporting Art Trust, Newmarket). The use of this arrangement here, particularly to such strong effect, may suggest that this picture is not in fact a commissioned portrait in the true sense of the word. Like many of his arrangements of exotic animals previously mentioned it is possible that it was a picture which Stubbs worked on for its own compositional and pictorial merit, with the intention of exhibiting it at the Royal Academy, an idea that lends weight to the possibility that it was indeed the painting he showed in 1776.
The King Charles spaniel, or toy spaniel as it was often called, was a popular breed among the nobility and gentry in eighteenth century Britain. The history of the breed in England, however, dates back to the reign of Mary I (1516-1558), who was depicted with her husband, King Philip of Spain, and a toy spaniel by Hans Eworth in 1558 (Woburn Abbey), and Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587) was also fond of the dogs. By the seventeenth century their popularity had spread and Charles I is recorded as having kept a small spaniel named Rogue during his captivity at Carisbrooke Castle. Nevertheless it is with his son, Charles II, that the breed is most closely associated, of whom it is said that ‘His Majesty was seldom seen without his little dogs’. Samuel Pepys, in his diary, noted how the King’s spaniels were allowed to roam anywhere they wished in Whitehall Palace, even during state occasions, and complained of ‘the King, playing with his dogs all the while and not minding the business’,1 during council meetings. Indeed the breed has had a long association with royalty, and notable owners have included Henry III of France (1551-1589), who owned a number of small spaniels called Damarets, Queen Victoria (1819-1901), who’s first dog Dash was a King Charles spaniel, and the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia (1901-1918), youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II. The history of spaniels in Russia dates back to the nineteenth century, when the hunting enthusiast Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich (1856-1929) imported a small cocker spaniel called from England, which he showed at the Neva Hunt Club in 1885, and they have been popular there ever since.
In the eighteenth century King Charles spaniels experienced a particular vogue as aristocratic ladies’ dogs, featuring frequently both in literature and art. Both George Romney’s Portrait of Lady Hamilton as Nature of 1782 (Frick Collection, New York), and Thomas Gainsborough’s Portrait of Queen Charlotte of 1781 (Royal Collection, Buckingham Palace), for example, depict their mistresses accompanied by similar small liver and white spaniels. Before the formalisation of breed standards in the late nineteenth century however, others were being selected and bred for more active roles, evolving eventually into the more energetic Cocker spaniel. Unlike other King Charles spaniels depicted by Stubbs, with their thick bodies and short muzzles, the active little dog in the present painting, with sharp features and intelligent eyes, his lustrous white and liver coat silhouetted against the darkness of the wood, would surely have been a sporting dog, used for flushing woodcock from thick cover.
With the advance of shooting in the eighteenth century, and particularly with the development of the shotgun which enabled the sportsman to shoot game on the wing, the spaniel became increasingly popular in Britain. The varying demands of this new sport also led to increasing specialisation within the breed. While the larger type of spaniel developing into what we would call today the Springer Spaniel, bred to flush game from the newly planted crops and hedges that were being planted with increasing rapidity by mid-century as a result of the Enclosure Act, the smaller toy spaniels were being developed for use as what we would now recognise as the cocker spaniel. The ‘cocker’, a term used in the eighteenth century to refer less to a recognised breed of spaniel, and more to the dog’s speciality at hunting woodcock, was trained to give tongue as soon as it smelt game. To this was often added the noise of bells hung around the dog’s neck, making them extremely effective at flushing game from the thickest of undergrowth. It is indicative of their continuing popularity among his patrons that, of all the breeds of dog Stubbs painted, spaniels appear most frequently in his work. There are no fewer than ten portraits of spaniels, the first recorded of which is dated 1771, whilst the last is dated 1803. A heterogeneous group, together they bear witness to thirty years of sustained affection for these dogs among the English gentry and aristocracy. Of all these portraits none, however, comes close to the compositional excellence, or rich tonal quality of this picture.
George Stubbs’s position as the greatest animal painter of the eighteenth century was confirmed in 1766 by his publication of The Anatomy of the Horse, a project he had worked on in Lincolnshire for most of the late 1750s and early 1760s. This revolutionary study cast Stubbs at the forefront of both science and art in his understanding and knowledge of equine anatomy and propelled him into the limelight as the leading authority in the depiction of horses in painting. This quick caught the attention of a close knit group of noblemen and members of the Jockey Club, including Lord Rockingham, Lord Grosvenor, and the Dukes of Grafton and Portland, and Stubbs’s work for the next decade would be dominated by their patronage, and consequently consist mainly of depictions of the horse in its various guises. Racing or the racehorse, as illustrated by the great Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath of circa 1765 (Private Collection) and Racehorses in Training at Goodwood (Goodwood House), hunting, as demonstrated in his two great paintings of The Charlton Hunt, commissioned by the Duke of Richmond (Goodwood House), as well as his group of pictures painted for Lord Rockingham, and The Grosvenor Hunt (Private Collection), commissioned by the 1st Earl Grosvenor, and breeding, best espoused by his series of Mares and Foals which span the period, are the dominant themes and concerns of his work in in the 1760s. By the 1770s however his patrons were becoming increasingly diversified, and consequently, so to was his subject matter. The 4th Duke of Rutland, who appears to have been introduced to Stubbs by Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Lord Petre, neither of whom were great enthusiasts of the Turf, started commissioning work from the artist at about this time, and after a decade in practise the diffusion of his work was beginning to attract a new group of patrons among the landed gentry.
The proliferation of Members of Parliament and Lord Lieutenants of the shires among Stubbs’s clientele from the early 1770s onwards is indicative of this shift in patronage, and the effect on his range of subject matter is noticeable. While many, especially those confident of looking at home in the saddle, still commissioned equestrian portraits, these later horse paintings are mostly quite different in tone from his earlier work, with their  preoccupation with high aristocratic pastimes, and rather depict a detached rural tranquillity, reflecting the image of their subjects as dependable country squires.  To the squire, his ability to ride to hounds and uphold traditional values confirmed his ability to uphold the moral and physical health of the nation. As Egerton2 has argued, the order and decorum inherent in Stubbs’s paintings, with their distinctly English scenes, testified to the stability and right to govern of those who hung his pictures on their walls. Many of these squires, however, had other concerns as well and it is with them that we start to see a significant range of domestic animals appearing in Stubbs’s painting, most notable dogs.
A fine example of this new emphasis in Stubbs’s work can be seen in the series of seven pictures he painted for John Musters of Colwick Hall, Nottinghamshire, circa 1777. Among this group, as well as the usual equestrian portraits of Musters and his wife Sophia, are two portraits of Mrs Musters spaniels (both Private Collection), both of which are lovingly commissioned portraits of adored family pets. A great beauty, Mrs Musters, like many women of her day, was particularly fond of small brown and white spaniels, and in the portrait of her by Sir Joshua Reynolds at Petworth, she is depicted with one. Though dogs, particularly hounds, had featured in Stubbs’s work since the mid-1760, and his skill for rendering the distinctive features of individual hounds in paint had been demonstrated in his paintings of The Charlton Hunt and The Grosvenor Hunt, as well as in his painting of Five of Lord Rockingham’s hounds in a landscape (Private Collection) painted in 1762, it was not until the mid-1770s that portraits of single dogs begin to feature with any regularity within his repertoire.
Dog portraiture began in France at the court of Louis XIV, who commissioned portraits of his favourite hounds from Jean-Baptiste Oudry, and the genre has its origins in the art of venery, particulalry the hunting scenes of Frans Snyders. In England, where the emphasis in hunting was increasingly being placed upon the performance of individual hounds, leading to intense rivalry among the landed elite, this was reflected in the paintings of John Wootton and Peter Tillemans, the former of whom in particular started to produce portraits of dogs in the mid eighteenth century. Fine exapmles of Wootton's work in this manner include the mock heroic portrait of Horace Walpole’s favourite dog Patapan, painted in 1743. However it was Stubbs, a generation later, who really developed the genre, working, as he was, at a time when dogs were becoming increasingly valued not only as sporting trophies, but as objects of interest in themselves, and gaining a new status as prized possessions within English households which they had not formerly enjoyed. His highly sensitive paintings of these animals are executed with infinite attention to detail and are possessed with boundless character and charm. Whilst they are seldom uninteresting as paintings, at their best they are small masterpieces.
1. N. Lytton, Toy Dogs and their Ancestors, New York 1911, p. 52;
2. J. Egerton, George Stubbs. Painter, New Haven and London 2007, p. 56.
Signed and dated lower right: Geo: Stubbs / pinxit 1776

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