Dogs as Décor
By Karen Parr-Moody
Diana Vreeland, the grand dame of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar magazines from the '30s to '70s, was a lover of the Staffordshire ceramic dog figurine, as was the legendary interior designer Dorothy Draper, who placed them throughout the fabled halls of the Greenbrier Hotel. They are just two of many famous tastemakers who felt that a furry friend makes a house ~ even when it's not so furry.
Fortunately for canine fans, GasLamp is as full of dog motifs as the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show is of purebreds, and they can be found in an array of materials, from paint to bronze to porcelain.
I was recently searching the halls of GasLamp for a canine fix; I wanted something to offset the cat that sits at one end of my fireplace. Luckily, I found this odd incarnation of a King Charles Spaniel (photo, right), that breed so popularly depicted in Staffordshire ceramic pottery. Granted, it is not the genuine article, as evidenced by the bizarre color and the lack of the tell-tale chain that typically joins the collar. But for $16, it's a whimsical deviation. As Diana Vreeland once said, "A little bad taste is like a nice splash of paprika. We all need a splash of bad taste ~ it's hearty it's healthy, it's physical."
Genuine Staffordshire pottery dogs come from the pottery companies in the County of Staffordshire, England, and were produced from about 1720 to 1900. Staffordshire spaniels are the most popular, and now range from $200 to $300 a pair up to $1,000, depending on their age and shape; their model was the Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, named for King Charles II of England, who adored the scampering pooches. Antique Staffordshire figurines can be found from time to time at GasLamp; Brenda and Richard Pook recently featured a white pair in their booth, Days Gone By. During the reign of Queen Victoria, when the fireplace was the heart of every home, working class families put a pair of Staffordshire Dogs on both ends of the mantel. For that reason, they are also called "mantel dogs" or "comfort dogs" by collectors; they are also called "flatbacks" due to their flat backs designed for standing on shelves and against walls.
Staffordshire dog figurines have had a place in decorators' hearts ever since the Victorian era. One modern day fan is the hip Australian interior designer Anna Spiro; at right is a pair of white King Charles Spaniels in her studio (photo, left).
Other dog breeds came out of the Staffordshire kilns, including dalmatians. Like the King Charles Spaniels, dogs such as dalmatians had a childlike simplicity of both design and paint. The pair in the photo, right, is not Staffordshire, but it has some naive qualities to the hand-painted details, particularly around the eyes; overall, however, this pair is more sophisticated than those of Staffordshire (pair, $69.95; Booth B-210). Hand-painted porcelain dalmatians have also depicted by the maker Jeanne Reed and by some independent studios in Italy. These polka-dotted "chiens" are particularly chic, and are usually depicted sitting on pillows. They would be cute in a cupboard, sticking their noses around the transferware platters and majolica.
The iron doorstop, left, is a Boston Terrier done in the vein of those manufactured by Hubley of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, but it is by another manufacturer ($60; Booth W-415). As with virtually everything, the Victorians raised the doorstop to decorative heights, and during the mid-19th century manufacturers made them into tiny works of art. Many dog breeds were captured in iron (manufacturers went on to make doorstops of Mammy figures and Campbell's Soup Kids, both highly collectible). Cast iron door stops enjoyed their height of popularity from 1910 to 1940; collectors can refer to Doorstops by Jeanne Bertola, a helpful tome. This darling terrier stands ready to hold open a door, sit in a garden, or decorate a bookshelf.
Those who know anything about Queen Victoria realize that she was not only Britain’s longest reigning monarch (1819 – 1901), she was the throne's most fervent dog fancier. There are scads of art works that chronicle the lives of her beloved canines. There's the depiction of her pampered Pomeranian in "Marco on the Queen's Breakfast Table" (she had at least 35 such dogs in her lifetime, including one at her deathbed). There are at least half a dozen paintings of Dash, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel that Queen Victoria would dress in a scarlet jacket and blue trousers. She also had paintings of her greyhound, Nero, and of a huge mastiff, Hector.
It should come as absolutely no surprise that GasLamp has a painting from the 1800s of an unknown dog, right, rendered lovingly in oil by some Victorian artist, then placed in an ornate gilt frame (signed painting, $495; Booth W-101). The dog depicted is a draft type dog that would be classified in the working group; he resembles a Bernese Mountain Dog in his heavy bone structure, but with coloring more like a Border Collie. Although artwork featuring dogs goes back centuries before Queen Victoria, her influence significantly increased the popularity of dog art, especially portraits of pet dogs. This particular painting could be a portrait of a relative, such is the tender treatment of the canine subject; prior to Queen Victoria’s time, dogs in paintings had primarily been represented in sporting scenes, so the look was entirely different.
Few items exemplify the 1950s era as much as the poodle, as seen, left, on this mid-century modern ashtray with a crazed paint job (ashtray, $25; Booth B-223). The poodle skirt seems to have kicked off the craze of that decade; it was first designed in a young actress-turned-designer named Juli Lynne Charlot. Her first attempt at the circle pattern skirt actually had Christmas trees on the hem; the poodle treatment was a second rendition. But the poodle has roots that stretch back before 1947. This retriever dog is believed to have originated as far back as the 15th century in Germany, where it was known as the Pudel, from a word which means "to splash in the water." One of the earliest decorative depictions of this breed was in The Whitehall Portrait of Henry VIII. In the painting, his third wife, Jane Seymour, has a pet poodle that sits on the hem of her skirt.
These bronze-like bookends, right, seem to depict the Brittany Spaniel, due to the shape of the ears and the refinement of the head and muzzle (pair, $85; Booth B-200). Whoever the artist, he or she did a fabulous job in capturing the grace, elegance and alertness of this bird dog; the design is done in the tradition of 19th-century sporting art and dog paintings. This pair of loyal dogs would be perfect to stand guard over one's treasured books (in a walnut-paneled library, naturally).
For the true dog lover, the large, bronze dog, left, is the perfect life size model for sitting at one's feet, or at the corner of a sofa (bronze dog, $249.95; Booth B-210). This figure is definitely some sort of spaniel, most likely an Irish Red and White Spaniel, due to the shape of the ears.
The beloved mutt has roots in the decorative arts that go back as far as a purebred's bloodlines, but is a thoroughly modern object of décor. Today, one can have dogs on the floor, on the mantle, on the wall, and in the garden; it all adds up to a barking good time.