THE RURAL HISTORY CENTRE includes the Museum of English Rural Life
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Livestock in Art

The following text was written by Andrew Jewell for the Museum of English Rural Life's major exhibition on livestock painting, Portraits of Animals in 1964.

In 1932 an 'Exhibition of old prints and paintings of prize cattle, sheep, etc.' was held at Walker's Galleries in New Bond Street, it must have been the first of its kind in London, if not in this country since when the opportunities for the general public to look at the early portraits of improved farm animals have been rare.

Mr. Augustas Walker's purpose, in showing a collection of more than 200 paintings and prints as records of the progress of livestock improvement was to encourage a more lively appreciation of their historical value. But the early 1930's, unlike the period in which most of the pictures were executed, was not a time when there was much enthusiasm for farming or its history.

Today there are still only a few collections of portraits of prize animals. A notable one is the Rothamsted Collection of nearly a thousand prints and paintings which has been fully catalogued by Mr. D.H. Boalch. Another, assembled by the late C.S. Orwin, and held by the Agricultural Economics Research Institute at Oxford, was exhibited at the Museum of English Rural Life in 1957. Whether one looks at these portraits for illustrations of the course of animal husbandry which Mr. Robert Trow-Smith has so well described, or for examples of vernacular painting or the print makers craft, they reflect many facets of rural life in the last century. For all these reasons it seemed proper that the Museum should have its own collection. The opportunity to acquire more than 60 paintings and prints came earlier this year [1964] with the offer of prompt and generous help from The Royal Smithfield Club and a Grant-in-aid from the Victoria & Albert Museum.

The passion for rural pursuits in the 18th and early 19tn centuries may be seen in the contemporary wealth of paintings and prints of rustic scenes. Portraits of prize animals, both romantic and stylized, appeared as an offshoot of that tradition between 1750 and 1880. Often the painters were itinerant craftsmen who worked under the close and critical scrutiny of their patrons. The breeder and owner who commissioned an animal painter paid for exactly what he held in his eye as the most desirable features of the outline and distribution of flesh on his cattle or sheep. Bewick would have none of this.

'Many of the animals were . . . fed up to as great a weight and bulk as it was possible for feeding to make them; but this is not enough; they were to be figured monstrously fat before the owners of them could be pleased. Painters were found quite subserviant in this guidance and nothing else would satisfy.'

All the same, some of the portraits which look so improbable were drawn to scale and agree with the dimensions so carefully recorded on the prints. Moreover, oxen fattened to enormous weights at seven or more years of age are only to be imagined today. The more remarkable beasts were transported all over the country for popular exhibition as profitable wonders. The print publisher, too, must sometimes have made more money than his subject was worth at Smithfield. The owner and publisher of "The Durham Ox" which weighed 2400lb. and stood 5 ft. 6 in. at the shoulder, appeared to have sold more than 2000 copies within a year; and mezzotints were three guineas plain and four coloured. Etchings were cheaper. Those of George Garrard sold for five shillings or less.

Books on livestock husbandry with good illustrations began to appear in the early years of the 19th century but few farmers would have read them and not all could read. So the animal portrait was an important means of advertising. It marked for all to see the contrast between the innumerable local varieties of heavy shouldered cattle, long legged sheep and fat hogs, suitable for draught, wool and lard, with the utility of the improved animals, designed for the dinner plate of a growing urban population.

By the middle of the century, farmers everywhere had become familiar with the new breeds which the pioneers of livestock improvement had fixed fifty years or so before. Fewer portraits were needed as testimonials when the virtues of an animal came to be sought by reference to its pedigree in a herd book of the number of prizes it had won. There was still scope, however, for a lithographer such as A M. Gauci whose subjects reached a peak of perfection by being fed on food seasoned with Joseph Thorley's condiment. Gauci's pictures are typical of an early form of graphic sales promotion by the manufacturer of animal foods. The tradition still continues.

Pen of Theaves by R. Whitford


by Michael L. Twyman

Although it had long been the custom to illustrate handbooks on livestock husbandry, the making of prints of prize animals to be hung as pictures on walls seems to have been an entirely new venture at the end of the 18th century. Those who turned to it were not limited in any way by the convention of an established process, and it can be seen that they made use of most of the existing methods of print-making. There are examples of etching, stipple, aquatint, mezzotint steel engraving and lithography in the collection, and the transition from colouring prints by hand to full colour printing can also be followed here.

The main processes not represented are copper engraving and the relief methods of woodcut and wood-engraving. The first was probably too slow and expensive to compete with etching, and later, with lithography while woodcuts were too crude and wood-engravings usually too small to be very suitable for this type of work. From the technical point of view the period covered by the collection is one of the most interesting and varied in the history of print-making, for a number of new processes were developed around the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Copper engraving and etching date back to the fifteenth century, but in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries their related tonal processes of mezzotint and aquatint were perfected, and by 1800 these were both particularly fashionable in this country. The former was largely used for the reproduction of oil paintings, and in portraiture especially English mezzotinters became so skilled that the process was known in France as the 'maniere anglaise'. Aquatint, which was first used in France, also became a branch of print-making in which English artists excelled, and from about 1775 to 1830 it was the most usual process for reproducing sets of watercolour views for publication. Lithography the only entirely new method of printing to be developed since the fifteenth century, soon became popular in this country after 1816 when the first printer capable of satisfying commercial requirements set up a press in London. Together with etching, these three processes account for the majority of the prints in the collection. Many of the etchings are combined with aquatint to give the tones, and most of them are coloured by hand so that the final prints look much like the original watercolour paintings from which they were almost certainly copied. Durham Bull, Favorite engraved by J.C. Stadler, one of the most prolific aquatinters of his day, and The Yorkshire Rose engraved by Charles Turner, a leading translator of his more famous namesake's drawings, are both fine examples of the use of this technique.

Some of the etchings and aquatints also show the use of stipple, a method of producing dots on the copper to give gradations of tone. There are some mezzotints by William Ward, one of the most successful engravers in this style during the first quarter of the nineteenth century; but as such plates gave only a very limited number of good impressions it is hardly surprising that some of those in this collection are a little worn. Three of the mezzotints by Ward are after paintings by Thomas Weaver and one after Garrard. Ward's brother, James, who was himself a distinguished animal painter, also engraved in mezzotint one of the prints, The Spottiswoode Ox. After about 1830 lithography began to replace etching, aquatint and mezzotint as the most common process for reproducing prints of this kind. The reason must largely have been economic. It was much easier, and therefore cheaper, to draw on stone than engrave on copper; and the artist could if he wished make the drawing directly instead of resorting to professional translators working for the other media. The portrait of A Short Horned Ox is a remarkably well preserved monochrome chalk lithograph, and there are a number of prints in the tinted style of lithography where a second parchment coloured printing is used to bring out the highlights. This style was particularly popular from about 1835 to 1870, and the advertisements for Thorley's condiment by A. M. Gauci are late examples of it. An extension of this process, anticipating full colour printing, is the lithograph Bakewell Leicester Sheep printed with two additional tints by M & N Hanhart. None of the leading lithographic draughtsmen is represented here, but there are lithographs printed by Hullmandel, Day & Son, and M & N Hanhart, probably the three most important printing firms of their kind in England.

Traditionally, prints were coloured by hand in imitation of paintings, and this technique continued, to be used. throughout the period covered by the collection. There had been a number of earlier attempts to produce images printed entirely in colour, but it was not until the middle of the eighteenth century that this became anything like common. Examples of colour printing by inking up a single plate with different hues can be seen, very crudely in the etching The Prize Ox, and more subtly in some of the mezzotints by William Ward and others. Colour printing really came into its own with the Great Exhibition of 1851, and after this it became increasingly more economical than hand colouring where large editions were required. Lithography and relief printing from either wood or metal were the most popular processes for producing colour prints in the second half of the nineteenth century. Short Horned Ox printed by Day & Son in about six colours, is an example of chromolithography in its early stage, but later in the century as many as 12 or even 20 different printings were used in order to imitate the range of a painting. In the chromolithograph Breeds of Cattle the paper has also been varnished and given a texture to imitate oil on canvas. Very little is known about the method of publishing these portraits of animals, and many prints may not have been published through the normal channels. Among the well known print publishers in this country only the firms of Ackermann and Colnaghi are represented, in the collection, and an unusually large number of such prints seem to have been published in the provinces.


The Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading, UK.
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