University of Plymouth Conference, The ‘Arts’ in History 2012

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Theme: How the ‘arts’, and the way they have been studied over time, offers an insight to societies of the past and present.

Talk Time: 20 Minutes

Title: Canine Contexts: Understanding the Role of the Dog in British Victorian art.

Location: Plymouth University, Roland Levinsky Building.

Date: 15th June

Abstract: Once one asserts the notion that art reflects the time within which it was made, it can be proposed that every element within visual culture comes with its own notable history; influenced by the society and culture within which it was produced.

This paper aims to explore one seemingly unassuming, element within Victorian visual culture; that of the dog.

Using the painting Work (1852-65) by Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893) as a case study, this paper will demonstrate the significance that social and cultural contexts played within the placing of the dog in both fine art works and other visual mediums of the Victorian era. Looking at a multitude of issues; from pet keeping and dog shows to dog thieves and ‘mad dogs’; each dog within Work shall be explored and elaborated upon within this paper, including the widely unmentioned or unnoticed ‘fifth dog’ in the artwork.

Through this, visual representations of dogs within Victorian visual culture shall be argued as adding a canine context to artworks of the time; reflecting wider issues such as those of class, human identity and the crossing of public and domestic spheres, and contributing to a more profound understanding of the artworks they occupy.

The eventual realisation that viewers should gain by the end of the talk is that not only are representations of dogs within Victorian art significant, but they are also dependant on an in-depth understanding of the historical, social and cultural contexts within which they were produced.

Force of Habit in Punch, or the London Charivari , London, England, October 22, 1864, New Readerships, p. 168.

Force of Habit in Punch, or the London Charivari , London, England, October 22, 1864, New Readerships, p. 168.

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AAH New Voices Conference 2011

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Theme: Madness & Revolt

Talk Time: 20 Minutes

Title: The Dog Days: Canine Class Contagions and Political Parodies in Victorian Visual Culture

Abstract:
 “The pattern of public response to rabies outbreaks demonstrated the extent to which the disease existed in the realm of rhetoric. The first alert was ordinarily sounded by the press, rather than by medical authorities or government officials, and it was often couched in terms that seemed calculated to inspire and exasperate fear”

Ritvo, Harriet, The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age, Cambridge, U.K.; Harvard University Press, 1987, Pg. 171.

In Victorian Britain rabies and hydrophobia, its then human counterpart, provoked a myriad of reactions in both academic fields and the public sphere.

Amidst these reactions grew a sense of magnitude to the disease which vastly surpassed the objective realities- a growth constructed and propagated through representations of dogs parodied in the popular media of the time, as highlighted in the above quote.

This paper aims to explore this sensation of Victorian visual parodies of canine madness through an exploration of the press’s representations of mad dogs- Proposing that the conceptual construction of the rabid dog became used as a conduit for social and political commentary.

This shall include a heavy focus on class anxieties; exploring middle class fears that rabies had the ability to infect and corrupt, not only the body, but also the integrity and class of society, demonstrating representations of this in visual media.

The paper shall then progress to look at the mad dog’s representation, and prompting of, criticisms of the legal system- through the visual analysis of encounters between dogs and mockingly inept and overwhelmed Police Officers turned Dog Catchers.

The paper will end on the exploration of why rabies and the madness of dogs prompted such swift interaction and embellishment from the Press, and such a public unrest, proposing media parody as a form of revolt.

Cave Canem, Or Dog(berry) Law, Punch (London, England), Saturday, September 14, 1867; pg. 106.

Cave Canem, Or Dog(berry) Law, Punch (London, England), Saturday, September 14, 1867; pg. 106.

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.

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.