MAKING A MARK: Portraits of Dogs: From Gainsborough to Hockney

MAKING A MARK: Portraits of Dogs: From Gainsborough to Hockney

Last week, I went to see the new exhibition of Portraits of Dogs: From Gainsborough to Hockney at the Wallace Collection in Marylebone.

Crop of Landseer’s Laying down the Law (or Trial by Jury)

Whether you are a dog fan or not, it’s a very interesting exhibition for a variety of reasons. Here are some of them:

  • the paintings in the show are exclusively portraits of dogs – no humans allowed!
  • some of the portraits are extremely impressive – on any level
  • artists included in the show include some very well known names – including some you may find surprising
  • the exhibition has an excellent narrative in terms of themes which tell the story of dog portraits over time
  • it’s very well presented with good labelling
  • you get to see a well known artist trying to draw a dog – who isn’t always co-operating!

Oddly, this is an exhibition which had been planned for some time – and then had to be postponed due to the Pandemic. What happened next is 

  • the Wallace Collection decided to publish the catalogue anyway (see below)
  • a huge number of people became very new owners of dogs! 

I fully expect this exhibition to be very popular and attract a lot of visitors from both old and new fans of dogs – particularly during the school holidays. I recommend all those who specialise in dog portraits to see an upsurge in interest – and they’d better go and see it to see what has prompted a commission!

General consensus seems to be it’s well worth a visit which I would endorse

  • ★★★★★ ‘A treat for art-lovers and dog-lovers alike‘ – The Telegraph
  • ★★★★ ‘Charming‘ – The Evening Standard

About the Artists

I’d heard of most of the artists. They include:

Famous painters of animals 

  • George Stubbs (1724 – 1806) – he’s best known as a painter of horses – but he’s a brilliant painter of dogs too and demonstrates an excellent understanding of their anatomy. He’s also a painter of dogs renowned for their bloodline.

Stubbs’s animal portraits were family records intended for personal consumption and not for great public rooms.

George Stubbs (1724-1806) Ringwood, a Brocklesby Foxhound (1792)
Oil on canvas, 100 x 126 cm
Private Collection
  • Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-1873) – a very well known painter of animals – about whom I learned something new – his use of allegory in his paintings of groups of dogs. For example, Landseer’s painting Laying Down The Law (1840) satirises the legal profession through anthropomorphism. It shows a group of dogs, with a poodle symbolising the Lord ChancellorThis is one of the most celebrated dog paintings of the 19th century. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1840

Edwin Landseer Laying Down the Law or Trial by Jury
one of the most popular paintings of the 19th century

In the picture Landseer uses the individual characters of the breeds of dogs to satirise various members of the legal profession. The white poodle, with the similarity of its long ears to a legal wig, parodies the pomposity of a judge.

The painting was recognised at the time as a satire on the Court of Chancery, set up to deal with common law problems such as contested wills. The endless delays in the court exhausted the finances of the litigants while enriching its lawyers, an issue memorably taken up by Charles Dickens in Bleak House.


His appeal crossed class boundaries: reproductions of his works were common in middle-class homes, while he was also popular with the aristocracy. Queen Victoria commissioned numerous pictures from the artist. Initially asked to paint various royal pets,

Edwin Landseer, Hector, Nero and Dash with the Parrot Lory, 1838
a portrait of Queen Victoria’s favourite pets
Royal Collection Trust / copyright King Charles III 2023 
  • Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899) – another extremely well known painter of animals. The domestic scale of the portrait below – compared to some of her known works which are ‘ginormous’, makes one think this was a portrait of a much loved friend
Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899) Brizo, A Shepherd’s Dog, 1864
Oil on canvas, 46.1 x 38.4 cm
The Trustees of the Wallace Collection

Following her usual practice, Bonheur has inscribed the name ‘Brizo’ on the top right of the canvas. The dog can be identified as a French otterhound, a breed well known for its rough double coat and prowess as a swimmer. Brizo’s namesake was the ancient Greek goddess who protected sailors, mariners and fishermen and was worshipped by the women of Delos. The dog’s beady eyes peer at us from behind the shaggy hair, a benign intelligence shining through. Its long drooping ears hang low as the wet muzzle pushes forwards into our space. The rough and thick brushwork provides a tactile quality, almost encouraging us to reach out and stroke the dog’s head. Given the choice of name and the obvious feminine connections, it is more than likely that Brizo was Bonheur’s own dog.

Portrait painters

  • Sir Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) – one of the most important British artists of the second half of the 18th century and a very popular portrait painter in fashionable society. One wonders whether he painted their dogs too….
  • Lucian Freud (2022 – 2011) – of a sleeping Pluto, one his two faithful whippets. He drew animals a lot when he was a child
  • David Hockney – and his dachshunds Stanley and Boogie. There’s a great short video of Hockney being filmed while down on the floor attempting to draw his dachshunds on their large dog bed. One was very interested in what he was doing and not in the least bit interested in cooperating! Those of us who have tried drawing our pets will know the feeling! Most of the portraits are of the two dogs asleep – which as we all know is the only way to guarantee they won’t get more interested in what you’re up to than staying still. Which makes one wonder what the rest of the artists in this show did!
Paintings of Stanley and Boogie by David Hockney


The exhibition includes drawings, paintings and prints by 

  • Queen Victoria and 
  • Prince Albert

About Themes in the Exhibition

The themes of the exhibition are as follows….

The Aristocratic Dog

Three paintings by George Stubbs plus a Roman sculpture of Greyhounds

Allegorical Dogs

I discovered that Landseer used dogs to paint paintings which were actually social commentaries.

Two allegorical portraits of multiple dogs by Edwin Landseer

Toy Dogs 

Apparently Caninomania was responsible for a big increase in lapdogs in the 18th Century – hence why there are a number of portraits of small / toy dogs in the show!

Jean-Jacques Bachelier, Dog of the Hanava Breed, 1768,
oil on canvas, French School,
© The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle

Artists Dogs
David Hockney’s Dogs
Royal Dogs; and
After Death

(Left) Drawings, paintings and prints of dogs by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert
(Right) Portrait of Queen Victoria’s favourite pets

About the Exhibition

The exhibition is on until 15 October 2023. Tickets can be booked online

If you visit and want to post online about it 

  • the hashtag is #WallaceWoofs and 
  • the favourite selfie seems to involve standing next to the life size photo of Hockney with his dog paintings

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