Portraits of Dogs: From Gainsborough to Hockney at the Wallace Collection
There are, the Wallace Collection tell us, 907 dogs among their displayed artwork – undoubtedly, the intern who counted them must have had an enjoyable day. It’s hardly unexpected, then, that the gallery has curated an exhibition devoted exclusively to dog portraiture. Portraits of Dogs is a highly anticipated show that offers a delightful experience to viewers: an investigation into the unique bond between humans and their beloved dogs, featuring an array of paintings, sculptures, drawings, artistic creations and even taxidermy. From gundogs and working dogs to preposterously fluffy lapdogs and corpulent regal companions, there is a canine here to suit everyone’s preference.
Dog portraiture, though often overlooked in the annals of art, developed as a recognised genre contemporaneously with its human counterpart – in fact, dogs are portrayed alongside humans as far back as in cave paintings. This category flourished from the 17th century onwards, achieving particular prominence in Britain which, perhaps more than any other nation, has commissioned and amassed an esteemed collection of dog portraits.
The exhibition certainly delivers what it promises: not a human to be seen, but canines of various breeds, forms and statures. Some are perched regally upon crimson velvet stools, others survey Italianate gardens. The most ancient example is a late 1st century Roman marble sculpture, The Townley Greyhounds, depicting two dogs tenderly entwined. This remarkable piece is the earliest portrayal of the Vertagus dog, a Celtic breed considered to be the greyhound’s ancestor, and highly valued by the Romans for its exceptional hunting prowess. Another standout work is a metalpoint sketch from 1490-95 by Leonardo da Vinci, which meticulously examines a left forepaw, possibly that of a deerhound. The piece exquisitely captures the intricate tendons, sharp front claws and smooth, hairless pads with an elegance and warmth that inspires an irresistible desire to cradle the paw.
Visitors are not simply graced with visions of pugs and poodles; they are educated about the (perhaps unexpectedly) rich and varied history of dogs in art. Certain examples feature as allegories, symbolising a variety of virtues or vices, among them Landseer’s stunning Dignity and Impudence (1839), which shows a dignified bloodhound next to a playful terrier. Others are linked to royalty, such as Queen Victoria’s Sussex spaniel, Tilco, immortalised by Landseer in 1838 and displayed here alongside an assortment of her own sketches of various dogs. Visitors can also discover professional artists’ portraits of their own loyal companions, ranging from Thomas Gainsborough’s The Fox (1775-85) and James Ward’s Portrait of Fanny, a Favourite Dog (1822) to a 1995 series of tender vignettes of David Hockney’s dachshunds, Stanley and Boodgie.
With its medley of expressive whiskers, watchful eyes, damp noses and cocked ears, this show is a must-see for dog lovers. Kudos to the Wallace Collection. Might we anticipate a complementary feline exhibition in the near future?
Portraits of Dogs: From Gainsborough to Hockney is at the Wallace Collection from 29th March until 15th October 2023. For further information visit the exhibition’s website here.