A Closer Look

July 31, 2020

A Closer Look

A Closer Look at an English Naïve School Dog Portrait depicting a Large Shaggy Dog.

Both agricultural and domestic animals play a significant role, as subjects, in the narrative of British Folk and Naïve Art. Agricultural animals, particularly breeding stock, were considered status symbols and their portraits could be viewed as a form of “advertising” for their proud breeders and owners. Primitive, often itinerant painters would travel to agricultural shows to earn commissions to depict the prize-winning beasts. These portraits frequently exaggerated the scale and stature of the animals, under instruction from the commissioning owners. This has resulted in some wonderfully quirky and whimsical animal portraits, with impossibly fat pigs standing on pencil thin legs and trotters, likewise huge square-bottomed cattle with broad shoulders and tiny heads. It is these qualities that tend to define the more exciting and engaging examples

More has been written about the nineteenth century British livestock painting tradition than of domestic animal portraits, which are harder to find and commensurately more sought after.

This engaging portrait depicting what is believed to be a Swedish Lapphund, an ancient breed of Spitz-type hunting dog, has direct provenance to a fine Private Collection of English Naïve School domestic animal portraits and is a spectacular example.

I was immediately struck by the way that the subject commands the canvas. Its massive size, exaggerated by how tightly the dog has been squeezed into the frame, to the extent that its bottom has had to be “squared off” to ensure it fits, accentuating its scale and lending it a particularly unique quality. In common with the tradition of agricultural animal portraits, it is depicted standing four square and in a completely static pose. There is no evidence of any anatomical understanding in the execution and yet there is some feeling of life, possibly due to the slightly tilted head and a little sparkle to the eyes. Simple devices like these, together with the alert ears and upright tail, suggest a sense of character and create a relationship with the animal.

The Dog is depicted standing in a stylised landscape, with a sense of perspective achieved through the softening tones of the palette as it recedes into the background. The Landscape only fills the bottom third of the composition, allowing the subject to be powerfully silhouetted against a massive bright sky, with the warm tones of an evening sunset creating a sense of drama and enabling the artist to define the shaggy nature of the outline of the coat in more detail. Considering the composition further, one notices that the large white furry paws are balanced by white clouds in the sky above and the pinkness of the sunset lends a warmth to the otherwise dark dog.

Domestic animals were often painted in memory of beloved pets, and whilst the more mainstream examples have a tendency to be sentimental and romanticised, primitive works tend to exaggerate their strength and stature, reflecting their health and the fact they are well fed, cared for and fit. The naïve works therefore became showpieces and status symbols, similar to that of primitive livestock portraits.

This is one of the most commanding and engaging examples we have handled, and champions the genre of British Naïve School domestic animal portraiture. There is something  static, timeless and sculptural about it that makes us smile, a quality common to many of the best examples of historic folk art……………………….and you  thought it was just a big portrait of a large shaggy dog!

         






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