We British “love our dogs”, said Rachel Campbell-Johnston in The Times. And since at least the 17th century, British artists have shown equal enthusiasm for depicting man’s best friend. Thomas Gainsborough painted his beloved mutts and put their portrait in “pride of place” above the mantelpiece in his London house (following marital rows, he would also write to his wife in the guise of his dog Fox). Queen Victoria commissioned “dozens” of canine portraits from her favoured artists; and even the notoriously unsentimental Lucian Freud made many etchings of his whippet, Pluto.
These are just three of the artists represented in the Wallace Collection’s new exhibition exploring our “obsession” with dogs. Consisting of more than 50 works – “paintings, sculptures, drawings, objets d’art and even taxidermy”– it explores how artists have depicted “our four-legged friends” over the centuries – and perhaps more pertinently, what our taste for dog pictures says about us.
Dog portraiture is “just as radically varying, in purpose and quality, as the portrayal of humans”, said Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. It’s a “valid subject” (as well as an undeniably crowd-pleasing one) and, occasionally, the exhibition does it justice: one of the first things we see here is Leonardo da Vinci’s “superb” study of a dog’s paw from different viewpoints. Nearby is a “life-sized” ancient Roman sculpture depicting two “skinny dogs licking each other”, effigies “so lifelike they could almost be guard dogs preserved in the ash of Pompeii”. Best of all is a 1787 painting of a Maltese terrier by that magnificent animal artist George Stubbs, a work which “absolutely takes you into the soul of a dog”. What a shame, then, that the rest of the show is such a “sickly cocktail” of sentimental dross, largely dominated by the “awful” Victorian artist Sir Edwin Landseer. There are a dozen of his dog pictures scattered throughout the exhibition, every one of them as “trite”, “nauseous” and “overglossed” as the next.
It’s tempting to be a bit cynical about the decision to stage an exhibition like this, said Francesca Peacock in The Daily Telegraph. But the show is “well-curated and executed” – and sometimes revelatory. Who knew, for instance, that Landseer taught Queen Victoria and Prince Albert how to paint – and indeed that they produced some “surprisingly lifelike” watercolours under his tutelage? Other highlights include a portrait of Lord Byron’s dog, Lyon, by Clifton Tomson; an “intimate chalk sketch of a puppy” by the 17th century French court painter Simon Vouet; and, perhaps most endearingly, six of David Hockney’s paintings of his dachshunds Stanley and Boodgie. Dog lovers will adore this “heartfelt and entertaining” show, but it holds “real value for art lovers”, too.
The Wallace Collection, London W1 (020-7563 9500, wallacecollection.org). Until 15 October