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Portraits of Dogs at the Wallace Collection review: canine culture will bow wow all doggie lovers

Dog of the Hanava Breed by Jean-Jacques Bachelier, 1768 (The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle)
Dog of the Hanava Breed by Jean-Jacques Bachelier, 1768 (The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle)

There’s a scene in the 1961 Disney version of 101 Dalmatians where people and their dogs (or dogs and their people) are on promenade: the joke is that both parties are strikingly similar. Do people become like their dogs, or choose dogs that look like them?

That idea of the dog as a projection of the owner comes across in this charming little exhibition at the Wallace Collection. Lord Byron’s Lyon, who he maintained was half wolf and once tried to eat him, is here, looking uncompromisingly independent, if too red to be wolfish.

George Stubbs’ painting of Lady Archer’s Maltese Terrier, shows a creature with heavily plumed tail and a remarkable hairdo, not wholly unlike the lady herself. The feathery-haired collie in Gainsborough’s depiction of his dogs, Tristram and Fox, is markedly intelligent looking. Lucian Freud’s Pluto, grey and lean, is, I’d say, a canine version of Freud.

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You get the picture: dogs are no random accessory, but an expression of their owner. Thus animal portraiture can be psychologically insightful, an extension of human portraiture. Some of the greatest artists turned their hand to dogs: often their own.

Dog Painting 41 by David Hockney, 1995 (Richard Schmidt)
Dog Painting 41 by David Hockney, 1995 (Richard Schmidt)

There’s a lovely study here by Leonardo of a dog’s paw. Stubbs, it turns out, did terrific dogs as well as horses: the selection includes a very fine foxhound. The artists are not all British, but it’s fair to say the exhibition fits here. As it happens, the most popular postcard in the Wallace giftshop is on show: Rosa Bonheur’s Brizo, a rough-haired benign otterhound.

At the outset, there’s a striking sculpture of two greyhounds from the second century AD: one nibbling the ear of the other. This, then, is a show that spans the centuries, though much of it is Victorian. The one criterion for exhibits is that they should be simply dogs and from British collections; no humans. But that includes a stuffed Pekingese, Ah Cum, the original creature smuggled out of China to become the progenitor of British Pekingese. He’s shorter haired, less fluffy and more solid than the current lot.

It’s in the section on The Allegorical Dog that we find the dumb chums pressed into the service of allegory and story, and you may not be surprised to find that they’re all by Landseer, who indeed crops up quite a bit elsewhere.

A depiction of a human story using dogs makes a point effectively, like those satirical medieval manuscript depictions of animals doing human things. There’s a dog version of the encounter of Alexander and Diogenes, with a sneery looking bull terrier as Alexander; and a remarkable painting titled Uncle Tom, which shows two pugs chained together, the female looking up beseechingly at the defiant male; hanging up nearby, there’s an ominous whip. Landseer doesn’t so much tug at the heartstrings as yank them from their moorings.

Doubtful Crumbs by Edwin Landseer, 1858-1859 (The Trustees of The Wallace Collection)
Doubtful Crumbs by Edwin Landseer, 1858-1859 (The Trustees of The Wallace Collection)

Elsewhere we find Royal Dogs and some unexpectedly good sketches by Victoria and Albert of their dogs, and the tradition carries on to our own day. There’s an entire room given over to David Hockney, with six pictures of his dachshunds Stanley and Boodgie, and a video of him trying to draw them. And then there’s Freud’s whippet Pluto and, alas, a painting of Pluto’s grave.

The poster for the exhibition features a formidable poodle by Jean-Jacques Bachelier, ostensibly sitting up to beg, but with his pink bow, dignified bearing and highly stylised top knot, plainly in charge of the situation. It’s a captivating image for a very jolly show.

Wallace Collection. from March 29 to October 15; wallacecollection.org