Hello, this is Nicola, and today I'm combining two of my interests in one blog – animals and Prince Rupert of the Rhine, one of my historical heroes. Okay, it's not an obvious combination but bear with me. As an animal lover I've always been interested in the role of animals in history and possess a couple of fascinating books on the subject. Then I became curious about animals in paintings – those little faces in the corner of portraits - as a result of my work at Ashdown House where, on the third landing, we have the biggest portrait in our collection. The artist is William Dobson, court painter to King Charles I, and it was painted in about 1644 during the English Civil War. It shows Prince Rupert of the Rhine and two of his comrades, Colonel Russell and Colonel Murray, and in the bottom left hand corner of the picture is a dog. The dog wears a very fine coat in bright red with a silver trim and it has Prince Rupert's initials monogrammed onto it's collar. This is a very smart-looking dog indeed. It's watching the occupants of the picture with interest as well as gazing at Rupert with devotion!
Animals have featured in paintings for centuries. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries they often carried some symbolic significance. The dog, for example, was usually a symbol of loyalty. By the eighteenth century, however, better documentation would enable the viewer to know whether an animal was included in a painting as a treasured pet, a status symbol, or for some other reason. One of my favourite paintings featuring a pet cat is in the National Portrait Gallery in London and shows a pretty grey and white tabby. Cats had been tolerated in households for centuries as the most effective form of pest control but they had undeserved associations with witchcraft, lethargy and lust! It was only in the eighteenth century that they came to be seen as suitable play companions for children and a symbol of civilised domesticity.
My absolute favourite portrait, however, was one that I came across when I was studying the cult of celebrity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is a picture of Kitty Fisher, one of the most celebrated beauties of the 1750s and also one of the most notorious courtesans in London. The artist has made a pun on her name with his painting of the mischievous black and white fishing kitten. The reflection in the goldfish bowl is also a symbol of eighteenth century celebrity and an invasion of privacy that we can identify with today. It is also thought that this might be the first European pictorial representation of goldfish as well, as these were only introduced from China at the end of the seventeenth century.
Speaking of celebrity, Lady Caroline Lamb, somewhat naughtily, used a dog in a portrait to symbolise her scandalous extra-marital affair with Sir Godfrey Webster. The dog had been a present from her lover and in the painting it is wearing a bracelet about its neck that Sir Godfrey had given to Lady Caroline! The exhibition of the picture at the Royal Academy in 1811 caused absolute outrage in the family and Lady Caroline's mother-in-law Lady Melbourne wrote her a strongly worded letter of reproach. The dog, Phyllis, went on to bite Caroline's son Augustus but not even that seems to have dented her affection for the little creature!
Anyway, back to Prince Rupert of the Rhine and his faithful dog. Rupert, the son of Elizabeth of Bohemia and nephew of King Charles I was renowned for his love of animals, a curious and rather endearing trait in a man also known for his ferocity in battle! In this he was said to take after his mother who was thought to prefer "her dogs, her hunting and her monkeys" to her children, apparently in that order! In this though, Elizabeth was thought little different from the majority of the British aristocracy and even to this day it is said the Queen prefers animals to people! Her preference for pets may, however, have explained why Elizabeth of Bohemia was estranged from all of her children at one time or another. There is a story in the archives that relates that when Elizabeth and her family were forced to flee Bohemia after the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620, the butler was going through the palace to make sure that nothing valuable had been left behind and found Rupert, three years old at the time, abandoned in the nursery. He picked the child up and hurried after Elizabeth's carriage, only to discover that she had made sure that her pet monkey Jacko was safely inside whilst leaving her son behind!
The most famous of Rupert's pet dogs (he also had a pet hare!) was a Standard Poodle called Boy who ran with his cavalry. Boy was a particular target for the Roundheads, who became obsessed with the idea that he was Rupert's familar and attributed to him various magic powers, including that he was fluent in various languages, that he was invulnerable in battle and that he could put a spell on the enemy. Boy began to feature in Roundhead propaganda. A pamphlet of 1643 "Observations upon Prince Rupert's Dogge called Boy" reported that Boy sat beside Rupert in meetings of the King's Council and that Charles I allowed him to sit on the throne! Boy attended church services and was the toast of the Royalists after various victories. The Roundheads tried both poison and prayer to destroy "this Popish, profane dog, more than halfe a divill, a kind of spirit." Although the dog was a white poodle they portrayed him as black in the pictures in order to associate him more closely with the devil.
Perhaps inevitably, Boy fell prey to a Roundhead bullet at the Battle of Marston Moor and proved not to be invulnerable after all. The Puritans claimed in another pamphlet "A Dog's Elegy or Rupert's Tears" that Boy had been killed by a valiant soldier who had skill in necromancy. The verse ran:
"Lament poor cavaliers, cry, howl and yelp, For the great losse of your malignant whelp." Poor Boy! In an age of superstition it is easy to see how men might attribute magic powers to such a creature and also why the enemy might use Boy as a symbol of the Royalist cause. In the same way it is easy to see how Boy was a talisman and mascot to the Royalists who mourned his loss very deeply. He went down in the army records as the first official British Army Dog which seems a fitting tribute to a loyal pet.
Maybe one of the reasons that I like Prince Rupert is that I can identify with his love of animals. Certainly my pet dog Monty seems to feature in countless of my photographs and if I had my portrait painted he would probably be in that too! If you had your portrait painted would you include a pet? If so, which would you choose and what would be their significance?