Monday, September 14, 2009

"A Wonderful Dog"

The Victorians adored dogs, which were by far the most popular domestic pet of the era, and perhaps no breed was more beloved than the Newfoundland, a frequent subject of artists such as Sir Edwin Landseer, Arthur Batt, George Earl, Samuel West, John Emms, and George Stubbs. Generally depicted with great sentimentality, the breed featured in countless paintings, songs, and poems. (See my previous post on a life-size sculpture of a Newfoundland named Bashaw by Matthew Coates Wyatt here.)

The newly restored Landseer work shown above, "A Distinguished Member of the Humane Society" on loan from Tate Britain, is the centerpiece of "Pets and Prizewinners: An Exhibition Depicting the Development of Victorian and Edwardian Canine Art" on display at the Kennel Club Art Gallery in London through January 2010.

As noted in Landseer's Wiki biography, "so popular and influential were [his] paintings of dogs in the service of humanity that the name 'Landseer' came to be the official name for the variety of Newfoundland dog that . . . features a mix of both black and white; it was this variety that Landseer popularized in his paintings celebrating Newfoundlands as water rescue dogs, most notably Off to the Rescue (1827), A Distinguished Member of the Humane Society (1838), and Saved (1856), which combines Victorian constructions of childhood with the appealing idea of noble animals devoted to humankind—a devotion indicated, in Saved, by the fact the dog has rescued the child without any apparent human direction or intervention."

The valour and intelligence of the Newfoundland were regularly hailed in the press, as in this article from The Times, 1 October 1859:

"A WONDERFUL DOG. -- On Sabbath last two local preachers, belonging to the Primitive Methodists at South Shields, went to preach at Usworth, a colliery village some eight or nine miles off. They finished the labours of the day a little after 8 o'clock, and soon after set their faces homeward. The evening had passed, and night, robed in her starry stillness, had approached, giving the two preachers an opportunity of conversing on the sublimities of the stellar regions.

"They had not proceeded far in their interesting conversation when they were overtaken by a large Newfoundland dog, and some time elapsed before they took any particular notice of the animal. They pursued their way and still the dog followed, when they thought it necessary to drive him back, as he appeared to be a valuable animal, and his owner might come to some loss should he stray away from home. Notwithstanding all the means employed, the dog followed, keeping the two preachers ahead at a respectful distance.

"They continued on their way, and came through some fields which lead to the main road. When coming through one of those fields, the dog passed them, making a whining noise as he came by, which, by their interpretation, sounded like a mark of disapprobation at their driving him back. Before they came to the hedge at the bottom of the field they heard the dog growling and barking, and upon advancing a few steps further, they were terror stricken at beholding three men in the hedge ready to pounce upon them. Two leaned back in the hedge, and the other slunk down, as the dog snarled and the two preachers passed by. The preachers went on quickly, leaving the dog in front of the rascals.

"After they had got about a mile further the dog came up to them again, and appeared pleased, as if he had found his master. They determined that he should follow, and that, when they separated, the one he followed should take him home, give him his supper and a night's lodging, and take him back the next day. They went on and down the railway, and as soon as they turned off the line to come into a lane leading into the town, the dog turned round and took his departure home, leaving the two preachers in safety, and thankful for his sagacity and protection." -- first published in The Newcastle Daily Express

Above, Landseer's Saved; below, sheet music with similar imagery for a song by Henry Russell celebrating Carlo, the Newfoundland dog that saved a child who had fallen overboard from a ship on the Atlantic.

Recommended Reading

Deborah Morse and Martin Danahay, eds., Victorian Animal Dreams: Representations of Animals in Victorian Literature and Culture (London, Ashgate Press, 2007)


Anonymous said...

Hi Kristan, thanks for your interesting posts on Newfoundlands. As a Newfoundlander myself, I am of course very proud that such a marvellous and unique breed of dog is named for the rather marvellous and unique island of its origin!

Although this is not strictly-speaking a Victorian link, I am sure you must be familiar with the epitaph and poem that Lord Byron wrote for his beloved Newfoundland, Boatswain?


Anonymous said...

The dog portrayed here is called a Landseer ECT and is recognised as a breed on his own. He derives from the Island St John, which is close to Newfoundland. The dog is named after the painter Landseer.

LTD said...

Nice post about a great breed.

I have the story of Milo, the lighthouse keepers dog, from off the coast of Massachuset near the town of Nahant, who is also credited with rescuing a child. Milo was the inspiration for Landseer's painting "Saved" that you have posted above. You can read this story and see my blog about my NewfoundlandxPit Bull dog whose best friend is an ox, here:


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