Category Archives: Posts

In Pictures: Dogs Through the Centuries

If you’re as fascinated by dog-related art as I am then pop over to the Tate Blogs right now where you can find a collection of dog portraiture on display as a slide show.

The blog entry can be found here and features brilliant artworks such as William Hogarth’s The Painter and his Pug, Thomas Gainsborough’s Tristram and Fox, and Sir Edwin Henry Landseer’s Dignity and Impudence.

A particular favourite of mine (besides the obvious Landseer pieces) is William Blake’s Cerberus, depicted in a style that is typically Blake. it is the facial expressions on this hound of hell that has me looking at the artwork with fascination.

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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.

2011 Poster Exhibition

When I was still doing my undergraduate degree I was lucky enough to have an opportunity to be part of a poster exhibition arranged by Plymouth University. This poster exhibition was part of a showcase of undergraduate research, and aimed to demonstrate the elements that went into a research project.

My poster in situ.

My poster in situ.

For my poster I chose to highlight the sources which an undergrad might consult as part of their research. The idea of the posters was to keep them short and simple, so my sources took the form of a list.

The final drafts and design of my poster was undertaken by a design student and I was blown away when I saw the final version. I truly am grateful to have been given such an opportunity and to have been able to show how much hard work goes into research (even at undergraduate level).

Sir Joshua Reynolds: The Acquisition of Genius

Below are some images from my time working as a Young Explainer with the Plymouth City Museum & Art Gallery  back in 2009. The work revolved around the ‘Sir Joshua Reynolds: The Acquisition of Genius‘ exhibition.

Enjoying the exhibition opening.

Enjoying the exhibition opening.

A glimpse of the 'Big Screen' banner, the art for which was selected with the help of the Young Explainers.

A glimpse of the ‘Big Screen’ banner, the art for which was selected with the help of the Young Explainers.

Another view of Reynold's self-portrait on the 'Big Screen'.

Another view of Reynold’s self-portrait on the ‘Big Screen’.

A photograph of the presentation myself an my colleague, Manuela Husemann, conceptualized for the 'Big Screen'.

A photograph of the presentation myself an my colleague, Manuela Husemann, conceptualized for the ‘Big Screen’.

More shots from the presentation.

More shots from the presentation.

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My time as a Young Explainer included-

Being part of the group deciding which image would be placed on the back of Plymouth’s Big Screen TV as part of ‘The Big Blueprint‘ project.

Collaborating on a talk to the public concerning Reynolds as a Collector of art (titled ‘Reynolds the Collector‘) with one of my colleagues.

Collaborating on a small slideshow to be featured on Plymouth’s Big Screen TV with a colleague. Creating the initial design concept independently and working on the texts, images and sequence with a colleague.

Talking on the local BBC radio with a colleague.

Playing a part behind-the-scenes in a live-performance of some of Reynold’s most popular works for primary school children, titled ‘Living Reynolds’.

The experience was very rewarding and gave me valuable insights into many facets of Museum work and public engagement.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the exhibition (and the contribution of the Young Explainers) then check out the article here.

For the full Big Screen TV slideshow just click on the Vimeo video below.

Young Explainers – Reynolds Animation from PCMAG on Vimeo.

My First Publication

My first publication–a article in The Arts and Popular Culture in History–has recently been published.

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The article is a polished version of my talk given at a conference of the same name and is titled ‘Canine Contexts: The Potential of Dogs in British Victorian Art’.

Adapted from the 20 minute talk, the article is mainly a teaser for the potential that reading and understanding the context of dogs in British Victorian art can provide. Working from this base the article provides a case study of Ford Madox Brown’s painting Work, looking at the dogs in the painting and providing previously unasserted insights into the fifth dog in the artwork.

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The book also includes many other interesting fields of research; including a look a typography and its significance in pamphlet literature during the late-sixteenth century, an interesting article on the role of Tommy Atkins, and an article looking at the Berlin Bronzes in the context of newspapers and journals of the nineteenth-century.

If you are interested in my article, or any of the others, then you can purchase the book here.

All the best!

Amy Robson.

The Pre-Raphaelites at Tate Britain

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I am glad to say that, despite my busy research schedule, I (just about) managed to find my way to London for a viewing of Tate Britain’s wonderful exhibition ‘Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde’ before it met its end on the 13th of this month. I am sure the exhibition enjoyed a very popular existence as even my attendance near the end was met with a 2-3hr waiting period after ticket purchase before you could even queue up to get into the exhibition itself! After this period of queuing I, personally, was met with rooms so crowded that it was hard to even get near to the artworks, let alone appreciate them. Despite this, however, the exhibition truly a fantastic, well thought out, and incredibly enjoyable event (If only there were a few less crowds!).

For those interested in the exhibition I recommend the publication that accompanied it, by the same name of ‘Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde’—whilst not the same as actually having seen the exhibition, and the artworks up close, it afford the viewer a generous amount of vivid illustrations, intelligent discourse and space within which to absorb its contents. But, for those who just want the quick-version, I’ll try to summarise. ‘Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde’ sets out to redefine the Pre-Raphaelites in our modern eyes as a radical and self-aware avant-garde movement, as opposed to typical painters of a ‘repressed’ age or mere imitators of the early masters that their namesake alludes to.

In order to achieve this agenda the exhibition guides the viewer through seven themed rooms; titled Origins and manifesto, History, Nature, Salvation, Beauty, Paradise and Mythologies. Each of these rooms demonstrates the main aim of the exhibition through their designated theme and hopes to present the Pre-Raphaelites in a way which the audience had not previously considered. This theme, one can assume, is partially influenced by Victorian stereotypes as they exist within our modern society—as the retail section attached to the exhibition carries books such as ‘Inventing the Victorians’ by Matthew Sweet. Art and other forms of Pre-Raphaelite visual culture merge within this exhibition and everything shown seems perfectly rich, vivid and provocative. If attendance rates and newspaper reviews are of any merit, it seems that the general public have received the exhibitions message fondly.

By far the best exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite art I have seen
Jonathan Jones, Guardian

The Pre-Raphaelites are revealed as the cutting edge of art
Rachel Campbell-Johnston, Times

Not wanting to go too in-depth into an already well structured and reviewed exhibition I shall, instead, just highlight a few of my personal favourites from the art shown.

 ‘Isabella’ by Sir John Everett Millais[ii]

Elaborated upon in this video clip by the exhibition’s Co-curator Dr. Jason Rosenfeld in a far greater manner than I could articulate, Millais ‘Isabella’ is a true Pre-Raphaelite painting through-and-through, and definitely one of my personal favourites. In particular my mind is (as to be expected) drawn to the dogs within this image. I can’t quite, at this time, puzzle out whether it is the case that, whilst Isabella is “playing it very cool”, the dog that she tries to pet into sedation is a representation of her inner anxieties and the wide-eyed fear that she is trying to repress or whether it is the case that both dogs provide the viewer with further insights into Lornezo—with the dog leaning into her lap being representative of the obsessive, frantic passion that he feels for Isabella and that she is trying to conceal, shown by her attempts to calm the dog, whilst the dog under the chair of Isabella’s brothers represents his coming fate, veiled in shadow as it lays limp and lifeless in the otherwise active scene. Considering the emerging multivalence of the dog within this period I’m inclined to perceive both as valid interpretations for the time being, and these possibilities for the dog’s meaning leave me feeling a similar dynamism to that of the brother’s vigorously thrust-up leg.

This imagery is also another reason why I remember this iconic painting with admiration and humour as, far from the supposed ‘new discovery’ that the media has been proposing, I remember the brother’s ‘shadowy member’ being anecdotally alluded to when I was still an under-grad. Memories such as this, and the brilliance of the work overall, mean that in my eyes this fantastic artwork certainly does rise to the occasion (in more ways than one!).

‘The Order of Release 1746’ by Sir John Everett Millais

Another picture from Millais with a ‘dogged’ presence makes me jokingly wonder whether or not Millais’ artworks may have inspired his son, Everett Millais’, endeavours—as he became a dog breeder, and champion of the Basset hound breed in England from 1874 onwards. The scene depicted is of the release of a Jacobite rebel from prison, subsequent to the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie by the English at Culloden. But, as usual, I place this painting as one of my personal highlights due to its four-legged foregrounder.

In the exhibition catalogue it is said that “The pressure of the dog’s paw on his master’s belt adds another layer of emotion, one worthy of the work of Edwin Landseer, the foremost animal painter of the era and one of Millais’ heroes”, and this praise is certainly warranted in my eyes. Offering support to its master through the previously mentioned paw of solidarity, the Jacobite mongrel (who may owe its scruffy fur to some Scottish deerhound in its ancestry) looks up not to its master but, instead, to the Jacobite’s wife—recognising her position of strength and authority within an otherwise broken and defeated household. Representing the general sign of faithfulness—both in itself and resonating from the wife and mother of this painting—that are quintessentially associated with man’s best friend, this painting allows for an interesting window into the potential of dogs to add to the intended narrative of a Victorian ‘problem painting’.

I also can’t help but note, with interest, that in some of the original sketch works for this piece Millais did not originally envision a mongrel dog but, instead, a greyhound-type breed, as he played around with both the positioning of the dog’s paws and head.

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A Sketch for the Order of Release, 1852

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A Sketch for the Order of Release, 1852

Whilst simply musings on my part, these sketches can be seen to bring up interesting implications about bot the deliberate nature of the dog’s inclusion in the piece and its importance to the message that the painting wished to portray. Overall this painting offers a fascinating look into Millais work process, scandal aside.

‘Young Romilly’ by Alexander Munro

When I saw this wonderful marble sculpture I practically parted crowds with the enthusiasm that I approached it with! The sculpture was inspired by William Wordsworth’s ‘The Force of Prayer’ (1807) which tells of the foundation of Bolton Priory due to the tragic death of William of Egremont—who fell to his death in the River Wharfe, along with his faithful greyhound.

Following this part of the poem:

“He sprang in glee,—for what cared he

That the river was strong, and the rocks were steep?—

But the greyhound in the leash hung back,

And checked him in his leap,”

The sculpture manages to create a dynamic and almost animate rendition of the scene—where the larger-than-life greyhound snarls its warnings as an extension of the poem’s narrative and the sculpture’s desired recreation of the scene. I would recommend anyone who find the link to this image compelling to go and see it in person, as the photograph given really cannot do justice to the skill of this wonderful sculpture. It’s certainly a favourite of mine.

‘Work’ by Ford Madox Brown

I’ll allow the great Tim Barringer to explain this artwork, one of my all-time favourites, and simply say for now that, no matter how much I look at this painting, I always find something new to love about ‘Work’ when I go and view it. Barringer points out the dogs which, of course, are an interest of mine! But, I’m afraid, I will leave any analysis of these notable canines for now, as I shall (no doubt) be bringing them up in another blog post.

So those were my personal highlights. There are, of course, many other wonderful artworks that were part of this exhibition—I will always marvel at the beauty of works such as Rosetti’s ‘Lady Lilith’, or Millais’ ‘Ophelia’ or ‘Mariana’, and paintings such as Hunt’s ‘The Awakening Conscience’ and ‘Our English Coasts’ are some of the first that provoked me to think about the role of the animal in Victorian art—but those are, perhaps, best left for you to explore, my dear readers, if you are as captivated by the works of the Pre-Raphaelites as myself.

Until then I wish you all the best, and hope that you have enjoyed at least some of my ramblings!    

[i] http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/pre-raphaelites-victorian-avant-garde

[ii] http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/isabella-97167

[iii] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-news/9533688/Phallic-symbols-found-in-pre-Raphaelite-paintings.html

[iv] http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/millais-the-order-of-release-1746-n01657

[v] http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/millais-the-order-of-release-1746-n01657/text-summary

[vi] Barringer, T., Rosenfeld, J. & Smith, Alison, Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, Tate Publishing, 2012, P. 64.

[vii] With credit to George P. Landow,http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/millais/drawings/28.html

[viii] With credit to George P. Landow,http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/millais/drawings/29.html

[ix] http://www.nationalgalleries.org/collection/artists-a-z/M/3519/artist_name/Alexander%20Munro/record_id/2554

[x] Barringer, T., Rosenfeld, J. & Smith, Alison, Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, Tate Publishing, 2012, P. 112.

‘Breed’ Sets the Standard

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Thoughts on ‘Breed: The British & their Dogs’

Walking through to the main entrance of the Manchester Museum as it stands today, one could not possibly miss the recently opened exhibition ‘Breed: The British & their Dogs’, as it’s wonderful entrance wall—adorned with black & white photography of man’s best friend, welcoming dog lovers and curious passers-by alike through its inviting archway.

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