You can visit Bashaw in the British Galleries of the V&A. The Newfoundland dog, a life-size portrait atop a black marble base, is one of the centrepieces in Gallery 120. Bashaw is standing on top of a wide marble cushion, ornate with gilt bronze tassels. In the process of moving his hind leg forward, the animal appears to be stopping. The dog’s tail is frozen in excited movement and his gaze is directed slightly upward. He stands calm and collected, and it is only after acknowledging the mass of the whole sculpture that one notices what is coiling underneath the Newfoundland. Winding in agony is a bronze snake, trapped under Bashaw’s right front paw. The ruby eyes of the struggling animal and its angrily opened mouth are directed upwards towards the dog, who appears unfazed by the scramble beneath. This absence of attention paid to the dangerous animal below might be explained by thinking about the positioning of the viewer in relation to the sculpture. When standing directly in front of the piece, the viewer becomes the animal’s focus, and in that sense takes the place of John William Ward, 1st Earl of Dudley – Bashaw’s proud owner.
Before beginning a discussion about this portrait of Bashaw, one might ask: why? Why discuss a portrait of someone’s dog? Apart from wanting a portrait of his Newfoundland, Lord Dudley had also wanted the sculptor Matthew Cotes Wyatt to create a piece of art, and dogs have featured in art and material culture for centuries. In the portrayal of dogs, the variety of breeds represented has almost been matched by the same variety in materials. Dogs have been painted in oil, sculpted in marble, bronze and wood, created in porcelain, and embroidered onto fabric; and although many objects simply portray a dog, there are plenty of others that are in fact dog-portraits. These include William Hogarth’s pug Trump, and Jupiter, a pet dog belonging to Mary Queen of Scots. However, Bashaw might just be one of the most impressive of these kinds of portraits, and not only due to his size.
Lord Dudley commissioned this portrait of Bashaw from Wyatt in 1832 with the intention of having the sculpture stand in his London residence in Park Lane. The dog was taken to Wyatt’s London studio a number of times and work on the portrait was finished in 1834. This, however, was one year after the passing of Lord Dudley, who consequently never saw the finished piece, nor paid for it – a payment that remains outstanding to this day. Hence, Wyatt kept the marble dog and exhibited it in his studio where it received a lot of praise from his contemporaries. It was so well received that it was even displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851, where it appears to have obtained the title, “The Faithful Friend of Man Trampling under Foot his most Insidious Enemy.”
In 1870 Bashaw first came to the V&A – which was then known as the South Kensington Museum – on loan from the sculptor’s son, who had since gained possession of the piece. Against all the praise the work had received in Wyatt’s lifetime, art critic John Ruskin was all but amused and expressed his opinion in 1871 with the words:
“It showed that the persons who produced it had seen everything, and practised everything; and misunderstood everything they saw, and misapplied everything they did … and misunderstanding of everything had passed through them as the mud does through earthworms, and here at last was their worm-cast of a Production“.
This concurred with a statement the Art Journal published in January 1870, saying that at least one could be glad that the work was only on loan to the museum.
However, in 1960 the V&A finally acquired the dog portrait, and hence Bashaw stands proud and calm in the British Galleries. The sculpture is displayed without a case, which makes it easy to examine its materials and construction. The Newfoundland’s slightly curly fur is carved in great detail and efficiently conceals the edges of the sculptures’ separate pieces. Nevertheless, on closer observation it becomes obvious that pieces of white and black marble are stacked into each other. The white marble appears to be the support for this stacked construction, as the dog’s legs are white, onto which several black spots appear to have been painted.
Bashaw’s head is just as detailed as the rest of his body, with fine lines carved into the black marble suggesting the smooth hairs. Especially fascinating, however, are the animal’s incredibly animated eyes. They are made from topaz, sardonyx and black lava; the precious stones having been – as an article about this sculpture on the V&A website suggests – hand picked by Lord Dudley from his family jewels. As if the commissioning of a portrait of his dog was not a large enough declaration of love for the animal, the choice of these stones truly shows how connected Lord Dudley must have felt to Bashaw and how much this animal meant to him.
In choosing materials like marble, bronze, and precious stones from family jewels, this sculpture participates in a variety of contexts and associations. When thinking about marble, the mind almost immediately wanders to the marble representations of classical Greek and Roman gods and goddesses, then to their appreciation and imitation in the Renaissance, and finally to marble portrait busts. Bashaw is located somewhere in between these associations. The odd combination of a pose that is more reminiscent of equestrian sculpture, the fact that it is a portrait – a portrait of a dog at that – and its size make it an intriguing object.
This intrigue becomes even stronger when the twisting, winding bronze of the snake is perceived as a contrast, and in tension with the calm, cool marble of the dog. While marble is shaped by taking away from the material, bronze is made by building material up, either with the help of a wax model, or by filling a mold. This tension is heightened further when thinking about the treatment of both materials. The cool quality of the stone that is shaped with human force, sits in direct contrast to bronze, which remains solid until molten to be shaped. The temperedness of the materials finds itself again in the form of each animal, the one full of fiery movement, the other full of stoic calmness.
Another aspect of this sculpture one cannot ignore is that the dog is in the process of killing a snake. Similar to Caravaggio’s Madonna dei Palafrenieri, so Bashaw steps upon the snake, and one wonders whether this is the consequence of an intentional hunt and capture, or an accidental tread. Additionally, one wonders whether the religious connotations that the aforementioned painting bears are also applicable for the dog. After all, the sculpture bears the name, “The Faithful Friend of Man Trampling under Foot his most Insidious Enemy.” Does the dog – man’s faithful companion – become something of a guardian angel protecting its owner from the devilish nature of the snake? Or is he simply, and in more secular terms, the partner that guarantees a certain degree of security?
However one looks at this portrait it remains an object that leads to many more questions, one of which definitely is: What happened to Bashaw? From the consulted sources it appears that the dog was alive and well when visiting Wyatt in his studio, and Dudley only died one year after commissioning the piece. Similar to looking at a portrait of a human being, this one ignites curiosity about the personality of the sitter and his fate. Whatever happened to Bashaw it is certain that, because of this portrait, people will be looking at him and thinking about him for a long time to come.
Have you seen any objects that intrigued you lately? Perhaps you have encountered something that piqued your curiosity in a museum or gallery (or in a shop or in the street?), or as part of your art or design practice, as part of your research, or as part of your daily life. Please don’t be shy! We welcome submissions on objects of all sorts, between 500 and 1,500 words, and we do ask that you own the rights to your images or use those belonging to the V&A. If you aren’t sure if your idea is right for our column, it certainly never hurts to ask, so please get in touch with us: firstname.lastname@example.org
Luisa Coscarelli –
Luisa did her BA in History of Art and German Literature at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Although completing it with a focus on contemporary art, she has now joined the Renaissance strand and is now interested in the relationship between smell and design. For her dissertation, Luisa is asking questions about ‘smelly objects’, and how immaterial olfactory environments were designed in the Renaissance period.