Book review by Simon Parsons in Dog World (UK)
Truly a feast
Most breeds have the ability to attract lifelong loyalty among their owners but some seem to have that little extra which inspires something akin to obsession. One of these is undoubtedly the Pug.
Inevitably breeds with this superabundance of charm tend to be those which are most celebrated in art, and so it proves with the Pug. Therefore, needless to say, Nick Waters’ compendium, ‘The Pug: Heritage and Art’, is truly a feast for the canine art enthusiast, being superbly produced in hardback with at least one, often more, illustrations on almost every page, the vast majority reproduced beautifully in colour.
The book starts with the breed’s royal connections which in Europe date back, arguably, to William The Silent in sixteenth century Netherlands, and continue trough Marie Antoinette and Napoleon’s Josephine.
Our own Queen’s Victoria large canine family included a number of Pugs, who live on in portraits by Charles Burton Barber, but the British royals with whom the breed is most closely associated were the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, for whom ‘the Pugs were the children they never had’.
“Their dogs were sometimes adorned with winged collars and bow ties and were frequently the guest of honour at the dog parties fashionable in Paris from the 1950s”, says Nick.
After the Duchess’ death their house and contents were bought by Mohamed Al Fayed, and some years later the contents were sold in New York, including of course all their Pug memorabilia. Indeed the sale was preceded by a Pug tea-party attended by 120 dogs!
The pieces, thanks to their unique provenance, fetched way above estimate, even when heavily restored. Ribbons won by their champion, Imp, were among the items auctioned, along with, perhaps most poignantly, the Pug pillow and printed cotton Pugs which had been in the Duchess’ bedroom right until her death.
Nick goes on to deal with Pugs portraits: from William Hogarth to Christine Merrill, the Pug with its impish charms and irresistible eyes has been a muse for skilled painters down the centuries. Hogarth’s self-portrait in Tate Britain also features his leggy and rather ugly ‘Pug’, Trump. We carry on through the Victorian age and ‘the golden age of dog portraiture’ via Landseer, Maud Earl and many others down to the present. Artists from Holland, Belgium and the USA are not ignored.
Some of the paintings feature dogs of importance in breed history such as the foundation stock of the famous Willoughby Pugs, Mrs Carrick-Buchanan’s Drumpellier dogs and various champions of their day.
No breed, surely, has as many figurines of interest to the serious collector, indeed one can be spoilt for choice. Nick describes the fascinating development of the classic Meissen Pug, intimately linked with the story of how porcelain manufacture began in the West. Other German factories followed suit and some continue producing Pugs to this day. British makes and artists from Chelsea to Beswick and Sylvac and on to Sylvia Smith have their own chapter.
Even if your means do not run to paintings or porcelain, there is still plenty of Pug memorabilia to collect and Nick deals comprehensively with Victorian photographic carte and cabinet cards, cigarette cards and postcards featuring the breed.
A pure history of any breed in art, although enjoyable for the specialist, can be a touch dry for the general reader; what is needed is the personal touch and this is supplied by the rest of the book. You can find out about Lady Brassey, Victorian pioneer of the black Pug; the Pugs and Pug objects, owned by the Christie family of Glyndebourne fame – Sir George wrote the foreword – Dutch collector Wim Jansen with an obsession for both Napoleon and Pugs; American breeder/enthusiast Charlotte Patterson; Lynne Whittaker’s hoard in London; and above all American films star Sylvia Sidney’s Pug treasures.
Not every item in these eclectic collections is an object of beauty; some are prized more for the associations or simply fill a space. As Nick writes of the Whittaker collection: “For Lynne every piece has its own individual charm, so a 19th century Austrian bronze will happily rub shoulders with a cheap hand-made pottery model bought for 75p from a charity shop.”
The final chapter, ‘Pugs and Ends’, deals with a variety of other forms of Pug art, bronzes, jewellery, glass and so on.
With interest in Pugs seldom so intense as present, this treasure trove will find a ready market among devotees worldwide.