Dogs at the National

Fiona Reid, creator of @theworldaccordingtoharris, takes a look at the wonderful world of dogs in art for us. 

I recently bought Angus Hyland and Kendra Wilson’s The Book Of The Dog, a thoughtfully collated little book about dogs in art. Some of the works featured have dogs painted with human companions, others solo, while some are historical and others are by contemporary artists. The running theme, as Hyland and Wilson write in the introduction, is: ‘We need dogs because they help us to open up channels of emotion.’ 

As a dog parent to two wirehaired dachshunds, I’m the first to acknowledge a profound emotional connection with dogs. Whenever I look at dog photography, (and I spend longer than I care to admit scrolling through the dogs of Instagram and photographing my duo for their account) it’s that connection that makes those Instagram profiles stand out.

Sir Henry Raeburn William Stuart Forbes, elder son of Sir William Forbes of Pitsligo, 1802 - 1826 About 1809 - 1813
Sir Henry Raeburn John Stuart Hepburn Forbes, later 8th Baronet of Monymusk, and of Fettercairn and Pitsligo, 1804 - 1866 About 1809 - 1813

Looking at some of the paintings hanging at the National, that bond is still evident. The medium might be different, but in these artworks the dogs seem familiar – more familiar than the people they accompany. When I look at Sir Henry Raeburn’s portrait of a young William Stuart Forbes, his hungry Bernese Mountain dog companion grounds this painting with an all too familiar scene. The same is true for Raeburn’s portrait of William’s younger brother, John. He's also painted with his dog, thought to be a Dalmatian Pointer cross, and it feels like a casual snapshot, like any young lad (wardrobe aside) with his best canine pal.

Sir David Wilkie The Letter of Introduction 1813
Sir William Allan Sir Walter Scott, 1771 - 1832. Novelist and poet About 1844

In The Letter of Introduction by Sir David Wilkie, the dog is sniffing enquiringly at the visitor, paw raised, as if assessing whether or not this stranger is a friend. When considering this painting, my gaze is drawn first to the dog as I recognise that tentative consideration of someone new. It doesn’t matter which period of art history you’re looking at: man’s best friend hasn’t changed. Yes, these days they may have an Instagram feed instead of a painting, but they want the same things: adventures, companionship, a home and human of their own. We can read their body language regardless of the setting or context. They reach out from a painting, across the decades or centuries, and draw us in.

In Sir William Allan’s portrait of Sir Walter Scott, Scott’s two terriers react naturally, playfully, as Scott gazes into the distance. Would this painting feel the same without his dogs? No. You’re waiting for Scott to stoop down and ruffle the head of the terrier that’s jumping up towards him. Scott’s stance may reflect his position and influence, but his terriers remind us of the man behind the painting. Of real life beyond the canvas.

By Fiona Reid, creator of @theworldaccordingtoharris, 11 September 2019