15 APRIL 2000, Page 24


Queen Victoria and 'those four-footed friends no bribe can buy'


Ark account of the recent excavations of the royal zoo at the Tower of London suggests that English monarchs took delight in baiting wild animals. I rather doubt it. Fondness of English royalty for animals goes back a long way, though it did not arouse comment before the early 19th century. Queen Victoria set the tone. She formed passionate attachments to animals when a child, and the vehemence with which she fought for their rights persisted to the end. At her various jubilees prison- ers were released all over the empire pro- vided that she personally signed their remission. There was only one category she refused: those convicted of cruelty to ani- mals, which she called 'one of the worst traits in human nature'.

I have just been going through the sump- tuous two-volume catalogue of Victorian pictures in the royal collection, edited by Oliver Millar. I had to pay a hefty sum for it, but it is now out of stock and will never be reprinted. It is full of interest, containing all Victoria's own purchases, with annota- tions on when and how and why they were made, and what she paid. Pictures of her dogs form a distinct and appealing group. She employed various minor artists, such as George Morley, T.M. Joy and F.W. Keyl, who might receive as little as £10 for what she called a 'doggie picture'. The best of them is Charles Burton Barber's brilliant portrait of Marco, a favourite spitz, who was actually allowed to jump on the Queen's breakfast table, where Barber shows him disporting. But the Queen's favourite dog painter was, naturally, Land- seer, who was paid 50 to 150 guineas, some- times more. When she first employed him he was, she recorded, 'an unassuming, pleasing and very young-looking man, with fair hair', and she saw him through all his vicissitudes until he died insane in 1873. If Victoria liked someone, she tolerated all their faults, in Landseer's case intemper- ance, swearing, dilatoriness and flagrant adultery with the Duchess of Bedford in idyllic Glen Feshie.

In return Landseer gave his best. He first won her heart with a beautiful picture of her King Charles spaniel, Dash. It was given to her, as a young teenager in 1833, by Sir John Conroy, the eminence grise of her awful mother. He hoped thereby to appease her feelings of hatred towards him, of which he was aware. The ploy did not work, but dog and princess became inseparable, Dash spending his little life' in her room. She dressed him in scarlet jacket and blue trousers, and at Christmas she gave him three india-rubber balls and two bits of gingerbread decorated with holly and candles. Victoria had him paint- ed half a dozen times at least, sometimes with other dogs such as the greyhound Nero and the huge mastiff Hector. When Dash died in 1840, three years after she became Queen, she buried him herself at Adelaide Cottage, and had inscribed on his tombstone: 'Profit by the example of Dash, whose attachment was without selfishness, his playfulness without malice, and his fidelity without deceit.'

Actually, Dash was not without faults. He was said to have become jealous of Nero, whom the Queen got to love because he was 'gentle as a lamb' and particularly kind to her first baby. But Nero was soon eclipsed by the spectacular greyhound bitch Eos, one of the most beautiful dogs of which we have a pictorial record. Eos was given, as a puppy, to Prince Albert, and he brought her with him to England in 1840 when he came to marry the Queen. Landseer did full justice to her elegant lines and magical postures. The Queen fell in love with this enchanting creature and gave her a sumptuous silver collar. She was furious when one of Albert's clumsy German uncles accidently shot Eos in 1842. The bitch survived but was never the same again and died two years later; 'such a beautiful and sweet creature, and used to play with the children', as Victoria wrote. She erected a monument to Eos on the Slopes at Windsor.

Then there was a Skye terrier called Islay, the little dog Victoria came to love most of all. She taught him to beg for tit- bits, a posture he worked up into an accom- plished act in which his supplicatory paws were excelled only by the piteous expres- sion in his soulful eyes. That was exactly what Landseer liked, of course, and he put his whole heart into pictures of Islay cadg- ing and thieving. Islay gave him the idea for 'Dignity and Impudence', probably his most successful picture of all, then and now. Islay also features prominently in an ingenious composition Landseer devised to amuse the Queen at Balmoral. It shows the terrier doing his begging act before a majestic long-tailed macaw, sitting on his perch holding a large biscuit, with which he is feeding two lovebirds, also on the perch. At the bottom of the painting lies a Sussex spaniel, Tilco, with a ferocious expression on his face. Having made a more direct approach to the biscuits, he has been worsted by the macaw's beak but has con- trived to snatch one of the long tail-feath- ers. Landseer had just unveiled this superb painting to the Queen in the Balmoral drawing-room, when Lord Melbourne hap- pened to come in and stood transfixed: 'Good God! How like!' When I used to stay for walking holidays at Beaufort Castle a fine print of this composition hung in the bathroom across the corridor from my bed- room. As I soaked gratefully in the scented suds after a 30-mile tramp up and down Glen Strathferrar, I reflected on old Islay and his begging tactics. Did he get the bis- cuit in the end? Or was the macaw as stony- hearted as he looked? If so, then why did he feed the lovebirds? — and so on. The great merit of good Victorian paintings is that they make you think.

Victoria made Islay a fine scarlet collar. The little dog grew to look like her, or she like the dog — as often happens — but Islay did not survive very long. He got involved in a dispute with a self-righteous cat, and 'the dog it was that died'. Victoria sorrowfully recorded: 'My faithful little companion of more than five years, always with me'. But in due course there was another Skye terrier, Cairnach, and yet a third, black this time, called Dandie Din- mont in memory of Sir Walter Scott. This creature, who also looked like the Queen in a funny way, lived to be 19, and was record- ed by Landseer guarding a sleeping princess, with a wonderful watchful expres- sion in his eyes. No one tugs the heart- strings more skilfully than that old paint- bespattered monster, and the Queen liked the picture so much she kept it in her dress- ing-room. Well, it's all 150 years ago now, but the stories of these and other pets can be found in Oliver Millar's volumes. And of course the same kind of thing goes on today. The present Queen's love for 'those four-footed friends whom no bribe can buy', as Victoria put it, is just as strong. A grizzled old courtier once told me that when his wife died the Queen sent him 'a sweet letter', a whole page, typed but sub- scribed in her own hand. However, when his dog died he got four whole pages, all in her own handwriting.