A ‘Major’ Discovery

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A few days ago the University of Manchester shared the news that UoM historians (the same responsible for the wonderful ‘Breed’ exhibition that I previously wrote about) have discovered the first ‘modern dog’, Major—who supposedly heralded in the practice of judging dog breeds by a physical standard. The article can be found here and is an interesting read.

Whilst people are already questioning whether or not this is really can be considered the first time that a breed standard based on physical traits has been seriously attempted, I’ve decided, instead, to share a few of my own thoughts about this discovery—which is an important one, whether or not it marks the first attempt of such practices—or, to be more accurate, the publication behind this discovery.

Whilst I do not own an extensive collection of ‘The Field’ journal, I did, a few months ago, chance upon a book called ‘Dogs of the British Islands’ at auction, and eagerly purchased it (the 1867 “edited collection” mentioned in the news report). This book is essentially a compilation of the breed standards set by ‘The Field’, accompanied with reader’s responses; providing a wonderful mish-mash of serious attempt to define breed standards and scathing reviews of the dogs chosen to set the standards followed by rebuffs (sometimes from the very owner of the chosen dog). So, what do I think of this compilation of ‘The Field’ and its thoughts?

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Naturally, my interest in such publications can be drawn back to my Art Historical roots.

The way that dogs were expected to be judged not only off of the measurements provided in such Journals but off of the illustrations is fascinating to me. Through such processes we see the dog in nineteenth-century British practices not only becoming more regulated and standardized but also, notably, more visual—judged as a aesthetic object in their own right. Through this transition images of dogs became used interchangeably with dogs that were present to be judged on their own merits, causing a fascinating interchangeability when it came to what a dog ‘should’ look like.

This can be observed in ‘The Field’ itself as, when considering the standard of Setters, it was noted that, in order to set a standard of “beauty and excellence” [i]:

“We have carefully criticized the portraits of every celebrated setter whose memory has been perpetuated by the painter, and we have gone as far as the year 1822.” [ii]

Going on to determine that:

 “A careful comparison of these portraits with our recollection of the best models exhibited during the last five years, leads us to the conclusion that if these engravings are faithful representations of the departed setters, we possess dogs far superior to the dogs of our forefathers” [iii]

And, whilst ‘The Field’ was eager to highlight the fallibility of portraiture, claiming that “our critique on the portraits of dogs must scarcely be looked upon as a criticism of the dogs themselves”, it still, regardless, continued to “enumerate the portraits we have seen”—going on to dedicate more than a page to the judgement of dogs in portraiture as if the dogs in the artworks were being shown in front of their very eyes—and even contributed to the propagation of the aesthetic standard of dogs through a heavy use of engravings.[iv]

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Although I have come to no solid conclusions concerning the extent to which this practice was prevalent (nor its ultimate significance) I can make one tentative assertion in this early stage of my research. The implications of this, when considering the popularity of dogs in Victorian art, are of great importance, and something I plan to keep at the front of my mind throughout the duration of my research. As such, if Major is considered as the first example of a ‘modern’ dog, through the standards by which he is judged, then ‘The Field’ can be considered as equally significant for developing early examples of the developing aesthetic existence dogs.

The first? I’m not so sure, but worthy of regard none-the-less.


[i] Dogs of the British Islands, p.3.

[ii] Dogs of the British Islands, p.3.

[iii] Dogs of the British Islands, p.3.

[iv] Dogs of the British Islands, pp. 3-4.

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