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December 20, 2017
 

On the 20th June 1837, the young Alexandra Victoria came to the throne of England, and there began that long and rich season of English history which would become known as the Victorian Age. The benefits of the Victorian Age influenced science, art, literature and the very life of the English people.

According to Dr. Philip Howell, from Cambridge University that period possessed, besides other things, the merit of promoting and spreading ‘the dog’ as a pet among the middle class in Europe.

On the 28th June 1859 the first canine exhibition was held in Newcastle, and on the 4th April 1873, Sewallis Evelyn Shirley founded the Kennel Club. This is how the official love for dogs began, in which the collie immediately earned a central role, thanks  to the recognition for the contribution that this breed had given, in the previous centuries, to the economy and to the social development of the country.

The return to seeing man as part of nature and of having nostalgia for the simple life of Medieval times, characterized the arts of that period, and it was, above all, art itself which was inspired by natural themes. Many artists took animals as their models, and among these the dog was one of the most popular. It is not difficult, therefore to analyse the evolution of the dog’s role, and in particular that of the collie from the representations of the paintings of that time.

From the meadows to the mountains, where for centuries it had shared solitude and shepherds’ work, the collie had gone down, even to the lowlands, where it had learnt to guide the herds from the farms to the local markets, and when this was no longer needed, because of the spread of the new methods of transport, it took possession of the farmyards and the courtyards learning the numerous trades needed for running a farm and becoming that ‘handyman’ dog of whose feats the history of its breed is full.

Finally, with the recognition of the endless qualities that dogs possessed, house doors opened wide to them, and it was the most radical of revolutions, after the domestication of the wolf, which had given rise to a world that would become, in a short time, irreplaceable in both financial and social terms.

The expansion and  the modernization of the towns played an important role in this evolution. In 1852, The English Parliament decided to transfer the cattle-markets outside the walls of the cities, which had had such a great part in the evolution of our race. The herds of all kinds of  animals which encumbered the streets disappeared and the emptiness that was created was taken up by dogs, with all the imaginable consequences that we still see today. The authorities were faced with a serious problem because of the presence of so many stray dogs wandering the streets, therefore the first dog pound was opened in the Holloway area of London, in 1860.

The dog, which had only been, up to that moment, a work tool, had the possibility to let itself be known for its fidelity, its generosity, its humbleness, its disinterested friendship and its spirit of sacrifice. It was easy, and natural therefore to be able to represent some of its ”human” behaviour in literature and several painters of that period distinguished themselves thanks to their capacity of being able to portray man’s best friend in his “moral” dimension.

Another particularity which characterized the paintings of the time, was that emotions and contents were expressed through a masterly use of tiny details, that is why these works must be observed with great attention, trying to gather the clues from the particularities which, at first may seem insignificant.

Sir Edwin Henry Landseer (1802-1873) was a master in this technique. Born into a family of artists, he soon became one of the most popular artists of his time. He was able to earn such prestige that his name was given to a variety of Newfoundland Dog, which from then on  became known as “Landseer.” In the same year as Queen Victoria’s coronation, Landseer painted one of his masterpieces, THE SHEPHERD’S CHIEF MOURNER.

The old shepherd is dead. All the poor objects he possessed are there, next to his coffin: his Bible, his pipe, his glasses, his walking stick, his hat, his blanket and his armchair. On the coffin someone has left a pitiable sprig of rose. A collie, his workmate, shows typical human emotions: pain, fidelity and affection.

The plaque which accompanies this painting in the Victoria and Albert Museum where it is kept, carries the following  epigraph:

This scene of the sentimental devotion of a dog won praise and popularity for its famous artist, Edwin Landseer. The animals he painted display human feelings and characteristics. One of the important aims of British  art of the day was to illustrate sentiment and affection in paintings.

In 1860,Landseer painted another tragic theme, FLOOD IN THE HIGHLANDS, one of his most strongest and emotionally moving paintings. It represents a village in the Highlands swept up by a flooding; catastrophe caused by heavy rain or by the  sudden melting of snow which  moves an avalanche of water down the mountain and sweeps up everything in its path. The flooding surprised a shepherd family and their animals. There are three collies in this painting, that are able to keep in the tragic event, the dignity of their breed.

This might not be Landseer’s best work, it is the last to be endowed with strong emotional intensity. Subsequently, he became prey to depression, of which he suffered, and the paintings that followed were not up to his usual standard.

Landseer was Queen Victoria’s favourite artist, the best collie artist was certainly Richard Ansdell (1815-1885) who dedicated a great number of his works to this breed of dog. His collies alive, always moving in the typical Scottish landscape, attentive to their shepherd’s command.

Ansdell was able to represent on canvas what the collie had been for centuries. In the painting GATHERING FLOCKS IN THE GRAMPIAN HILLS,

we see the collie taking care of the sheep, or guiding them across an improvised bridge in SHEEP GATHERING IN STRATHSPEY.

We see the collie while it gathers hundreds of sheep for shearing in the painting COLLECTING SHEEP FOR CLIPPING IN THE HIGHLANDS,

or while it guards them  as they graze in the paintings,  HERDING THE FLOCK

and SHEEP AND A COLLIE.

Ansdell is always very careful at representing the Highland climate. In CROSSING THE MOORE, the collie pushes the sheep across the moor just before a storm,

and the collie saves them from drowning in the river in A SPATE IN GLEN SPEAN, INVERNESS.

In Ansdell’s painting the collie is the shepherd dog; man’s workmate who guides the cattle along the mountain paths, as in HIGHLAND CATTLE

or like the guard who keeps the herd under control during a rest, as we find in the wonderful painting THE DROVER’S HALT, ISLAND OF MULL IN THE DISTANCE.

Dante Gabriele  Rossetti, one of the  poets and painters among the most representative of the Victorian Age, wrote, ”the noblest picture is the painted poem”, and  Victorian artists always, generously painted pictures that they had taken from poetic themes. We have an example of this in the painting by Ansdell, ISLE OF SKYE. The  subject is of  that described by William Wordsworth in the poem “An Evening  Walk.” A shepherd orders his dogs, only by waving his hat,

"Waving his hat, the shepherd, from the vale,

Directs his winding dogs the cliffs to scale"

 

There is always a close relationship in Ansdell’s  paintings between the shepherd and his dog .We have two significant examples of this, the first in, THE LOST SHEEP, in which  a shepherd is depicted, who, with the help of his two dogs, is able to find a lost lamb;

and the second in THE HERD LASSIE, in which the characters represented seem to form a family group.

Regarding  the title of THE HERD LASSIE, It is to be noted that “Lassie” has nothing to do with the dog, ”Lassie” (the novel by Eric Knight would only be published in 1938) but it is the Scottish word to indicate a young girl; the little shepherd girl in the painting.

Ansdell was the last of the great painters of the time to represent the collie as a working dog. Dogs at f the end of the 19th century. had begun to attend beauty contests and had, anyway entered the houses of people, and were treated as members of the family.

From this perspective the works of Briton Riviere (1840-1920) must be observed. He was born in London but of French origins. In the painting THE LONG SLEEP, an old man has gone to sleep forever, in front of his fire, which has gone out, and his  two dogs, in vain, try to wake him up with their tenderness.

Here again there is a recall to famous lines from ‘Helvellyn’, written by Sir Walter Scott in 1805:

“How long didst thou think that his silence was slumber?”

In the painting called FIDELITY, Riviere, depicted a young man locked up in a cell with his collie. The dog seems to share and feel all his master’s desperation! Strange, however significant, is the figure of a hanged man engraved on the back wall.

Briton Riviere’s collies are similar to those of Landseer’s, rather than to those of Ansdell, however, in one way or another, the central figure is always the dog which tries to make itself useful to man and shows its attachment to him.

Even Heywood Hardy (1842-1933) followed the family tradition, but his collies were very different from all the collies seen so far. His collies have become part of the English landscape, almost on a par with a tree or a river. In the painting entitled DUTY you can see a shepherd indicating the road to a passing gentleman. Perhaps the collie depicted is still that of a shepherd, however, the theme of the painting is no longer his work. The Highlands are far away, and the collie has come downstream to become a farm dog.

At the end of the 19th century the collie could be seen strolling in the English streets. It no longer had sheep to look after and it had become a playmate, and a protector for children. A SPECIAL PLEADER is the title of this painting by Charles Burton Barber (1845-1894). Barber’s subjects are those typical of daily Victorian life in their town houses. No longer snow covered mountain tops that rise above the shining rivers and green pastures, but children and pets.

To conclude this brief review, we will mention a painter who sums up all the collie’s ‘journey’ from the Highlands to the London townhouses, Wright Barker(1864-1941). We have chosen two of his paintings, which can be considered the milestones of the beginning and end of our story, the story of collies: TWO COLLIES ABOVE A LAKE

and NO WALK TODAY.

In the first mentioned, we see the usual Scottish landscape of the Highlands in an almost surreal and fantastical dimension, and two collies looking at what is happening around them. The second, instead, depicts a sleepy and bored collie in a townhouse.

Many years have gone by and now the times of the collie working in the Scottish mountains is long gone. The 19th century, which had brought hope and progress is coming to a close. The new century will be very different and will see two World Wars, death, destruction and human suffering. Yet, the collie will be able to find, even in this crazy century, a way to make itself useful.

The Victorian Age was witness to the evolution of this dog breed. From now on it would be the cameras that would witness their gestures; the time of the great artists was over.