All creatures great and small

Animal art over thousands of years paints a picture of the ways we live with and study different species, from Roman hunting hounds to swarms of bees, as Lucia Marchini investigates.


Painted on the walls and ceilings of cave-art sites around the world is a vast and varied menagerie of animals – groups of bison, aurochs, wild horses, rhinoceroses, and, in an Indonesian cave, a wild pig in red ochre. At least 45,500 years old, the pig is depicted in detail with a short crest of upright hair and two horn-like warts near its eyes, a characteristic feature that means many millennia on archaeologists have identified it as a Sulawesi warty pig. Such images speak to the power of observation in prehistory: people seeing the natural world around them, and recollecting or adapting those observations in visual form. They mark an early phase in the long tradition of capturing animals in art, a tradition that can be followed in two exhibitions in London.

The first animals humans domesticated some 16,000 years ago were dogs, the focus of the first exhibition. Since their domestication, dogs have long held a special place as four-legged friends. They were buried with humans as early as 14,000 years ago. According to the Roman author Pliny the Elder, ‘Dogs are the only animals that will answer to their names, and recognise the voices of the family.’ They were mourned in antiquity: touching Greek and Roman epitaphs commemorate faithful guardians, while recent excavations at the Egyptian port city of Berenike have uncovered a large early Roman animal cemetery predominantly for cats, but also dogs and monkeys probably kept as pets.

Roman sculpture of a pair of hounds (the ‘Townley Greyhounds’), found at Monte Cagnolo (‘DogMountain’). Marble, 1st-2nd century AD. Image: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Centuries later, the year 1881 saw the opening of the first public pet cemetery in Victorian Britain. As well as burying dogs and marking their graves with heartfelt tombstones, some Victorians – continuing in the tradition of the queen and her mourning for her husband Prince Albert through dress – sported brooches and cravat pins bearing the images of their dogs, enabling them to carry their dog’s likeness wherever they went.

Portraits of Dogs at the Wallace Collection presents images of animals like these, with no depictions of humans. Yet, being highly personal objects, such brooches and pins say as much about the people who wore them as they do the dogs remembered, such as the ‘faithful & true’ German spitz, Muff. A small posthumous portrait of a Manchester terrier (popular for catching vermin in the early 19th century) by animal painter James Ward similarly reflects much about the human left behind. This is Fanny, the beloved pet of Eliza Soane, wife of the architect and collector Sir John Soane. After Eliza died in 1815, Fanny became a close companion of the architect until her death (supposedly at the age of 18) on Christmas Day 1820. She is honoured with a monument inscribed ‘Alas poor Fanny’ at Soane’s house-museum in London. Two years after Fanny’s death, Ward paints her not in some canine vision of heaven or a favourite spot from life, but nobly posed on a capital looking out over an Elysian landscape of fallen columns with what appears to be the famous caryatid porch of the Erechtheion transposed from Athens’ acropolis to the quiet green fields. It is a setting that must have appealed to Soane, with the fantasy scene of immortal ruins echoing the many architectural fragments and casts that filled his home and studio.

A faithful character has long been a trait prized in dogs. One of the many paintings in the exhibition by Edwin Landseer (the Victorian artist responsible for The Monarch of the Glen, the famous Trafalgar Square lions, and numerous allegorical scenes involving dogs) shows a collie in an otherwise deserted room, with its head resting on a coffin. It is an extremely sentimental scene, but one that conveys the close bond and loyalty that had been valued for centuries.

James Ward, Portrait of Fanny, A Favourite Dog. Oil on panel,1822. Image: courtesy of the Trustees of Sir John Soane’s Museum, London

Like this Victorian shepherd’s collie, dogs in antiquity were put to work. The famous ‘cave canem’ mosaic in Pompeii highlights their role as formidable protector of homes, but fleet, graceful hounds were highly esteemed, too, for their hunting prowess. Despite these practical applications, we also see tender depictions of hunting hounds. A marble sculpture, the so-called ‘Townley greyhounds’, depicts a pair of sighthounds (possibly the Celtic vertragus), as one nibbles the other’s ear. Discovered in 1774 by the painter Gavin Hamilton in Lazio, Italy, and restored also in the 18th century, the ancient sculpture in Portraits of Dogs was acquired by the antiquarian Charles Townley. It was found with a similar pair of dogs, now in the Vatican. Both pairs exhibit a level of detail and naturalism, showing off the dogs’ athletic forms that made them popular with hunters alongside the benevolent sociability that makes them popular pets.

Similarly sleek hounds, with long legs and long muzzles, appear in ancient Greek vase paintings, energetically chasing hares, for example, or accompanying warriors and hunters, like the goddess Artemis, as Colin M Whiting explores in the recent, slim book (a mere 40 pages or so) Dogs in the Athenian Agora. Hunting with dogs was so much a part of life that the Athenian Xenophon wrote a manual on the subject, describing the qualities of the ideal dog and recommending short names (ranging from Growler to Sunbeam) for easy recall.

Though there were many different breeds of dog, as recognised in Greek literature and in some vase paintings, ancient Athenian artists tended to depict two main types: the hunting hound and the small lapdog, known as the Maltese. The latter are shown with different body types, shorter, less slender, and all round fluffier, with longer hair, often curly and white – easily distinguished from the sporting hounds. While hounds were for men, lapdogs were for children and sometimes women. Among the finds from the Athenian agora that feature in Whiting’s charmingly illustrated book are late 5th-century BC red-figure wine jugs on which a small energetic dog plays with children or bounds into action. (One, with an over-sized bushy tail, reminds me of my own canine companion.) The connection between Maltese and children endured: terracotta rattles shaped like these dogs appeared in the Athenian agora in the 3rd century AD and were produced for centuries after that.

David Hockney, Dog Painting 41. Oil on canvas, 1995. Image: © David Hockney. Photo credit: Richard Schmidt Collection/The David Hockney Foundation

Lapdogs also feature in the Wallace Collection’s exhibition. The Havanese and the pug were particularly popular in 18th-century aristocratic circles. Jean-Jacques Bachelier paints a fashionable Havanese in a messy room. Perched on its hind legs, with fussy hair and pink bow, the dog has a hint almost of defiant smugness or faux innocence in its eyes, for it was caught red-pawed having stolen a slipper away into its luxurious kennel.

The pug was introduced to Europe from China in the late 16th century and is well-known as the dog of artist William Hogarth, who depicted himself with his pet Trump. Later, at the end of the 19th century, the Pekinese was also introduced into British high-society from China, where they were owned by royalty. The first Pekinese known in Britain was ‘Looty’, taken from Beijing’s Summer Palace in 1860 and given to Queen Victoria.

She and Prince Albert were great dog-lovers, and the breeds they kept became popular. Among them were the dachshunds Waldmann and Waldina, drawn by Victoria herself. Two more dachshunds – Stanley and Boodgie – appear over and over again in a colourful room devoted to David Hockney’s dogs in the Wallace Collection exhibition. Hockney created a series of paintings of the pair in the 1990s, capturing them quickly when they were in position, whether napping or playing, before they sauntered off again. Full of warmth, the works hint at the close relationship and familiarity between the dogs and their artist, who once said ‘They’re like little people to me.’

Animals from afar, like the Pekinese, had long been considered suitable gifts for royalty. A manuscript in the British Library’s exhibition Animals: art, science and sound, which investigates how people have studied and documented different species over the centuries, portrays an animal that was more willingly given: an African elephant. It arrived on the Kent coast in February 1255, before walking to the Tower of London menagerie. The first living elephant in England, it was a gift from Louis IX of France to his brother-in-law Henry III (possibly a regift: it has been suggested Louis was first given the elephant by the Ayyubid rulers of Egypt). Louis, in fact, gave this living gift to the English king the year before, when they met in France, leaving Henry to organise and finance the elephant’s transport to his menagerie.

Matthew Paris, Drawing and account of the elephant sent to Henry III by Louis IX of France. London, 1255. Image: British Library

Among the crowds who flocked to see the elephant was Benedictine monk Matthew Paris. In his illustrated account, we see a detailed painting of the elephant, knee joints included (there was a medieval tradition that elephants had no joints in their legs). Such details reflect a desire to recreate what he saw, not follow artistic conventions such as a trumpet-like trunk and a castle on the back. Similarly close, studious observation is seen throughout Portraits of Dogs, whether in Leonardo da Vinci’s careful studies of a dog’s paw or a 17th-century painting of a dog lying on a ledge, as well as at the British Library exhibition, whether in zoological illustrations or intriguing texts.

Bats in the Kitab na‘t al-hayawan (‘Book of the Characteristics of Animals’). Iraq, possibly Baghdad, c.1225. Image: British Library

An early and important zoological text is the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle’s Historia animalium (‘History of Animals’). In this 4th-century BC work, Aristotle recorded his own knowledge and observations, and compiled ideas from his contemporaries and historical accounts. It remained an influential text, referred to and included in compilations for many centuries. Pliny the Elder, for example, reused information from Aristotle in his Historia naturalis (‘Natural History’). Both these ancient authors were included in a Renaissance Historia animalium, which features 245 illustrations in pen and ink (for example, a swarm of bees along with a wasp for comparison) accompanying encyclopaedic texts on different animals. These texts were derived from sources such as Pliny and Aristotle (used for bees), but also Claudius Aelianus and the 13th-century polymath Albertus Magnus, among others.

The scholar and librarian at Alexandria, Aristophanes of Byzantium (c.257-185 BC), made use of Aristotle too, writing a commentary Aristotelis historiae animalium epitome (‘Summary of Aristotle’s History of Animals’). Aristophanes’ Epitome is only known from two sources: excerpts commissioned by the 10th-century Byzantine emperor Constantine VII and the British Library’s small fragment of a papyrus roll from the 2nd or 3rd century AD, which contains an extract about the mating and litters of dogs, and the start of a discussion about illnesses that affect them. A litter, Aristophanes writes, can have a maximum of 12 puppies; the first born look like their father, the last, their mother.

Arabic scholars also drew from Aristotle. A handsomely illustrated 13th-century manuscript, Kitab na‘t al-hayawan (‘Book of the Characteristics of Animals’), gives an account of the characteristics of different species from the Middle East, South Asia, and north-eastern Africa (organised into quadrupeds, birds, fish, reptiles, and insects) and their uses in medicine. Much as in medieval bestiaries, mythical creatures like the unicorn appear too. The text purports to derive information from both Aristotle and Christian Syrian physician Jibrā’īl ibn Bakhtīshū‘ ibn Jurjis (d. c.1058), and includes, in its commentary on historical sources, portraits of both figures (each with a pupil) and of the manuscript’s anonymous compiler. It has been proposed, however, that rather than a direct translation of Aristotle’s Historia animalium, some of the information is drawn from a different compilation of earlier texts.

Illustration of a ‘water-lion’ in a manuscript of Baburnama (‘Memoirs of Babur’). Lahore/Agra, 1590-1593.  Image: British Library

The Kitab na‘t al-hayawan says that ‘The elephant has no joints. Its knees are formed in such a way that if it falls on its side it is unable to get up.’ And, in the bird category, modern readers will be surprised to see delightful illustrations of bats among the ostriches, vultures, mythical swan-phoenix, and even locusts. The text acknowledges that bats are the only flying creatures to give birth and suckle their young (feeding off the mother’s milk is now understood to be a mammalian trait), but treats them as birds based on Greek and Arabic tradition.

Beautiful and detailed though many of the images are, some of the most fascinating items reveal early missteps in scientific inquiry (the categorising of bats and locusts as birds, for instance) and the challenges of accurately reproducing the likeness of a creature and its behaviour based on text, thus highlighting the importance of artists’ direct observations of live species. In Conrad Gessner’s 1551-1558 Historia animalium, for example, the bird of paradise is shown, in one of the earliest printed illustrations of the bird, with neither feet nor wings. This is because dead specimens were shipped to European collectors from South-east Asia as preserved skins.

Things could get lost in translation between written word and image. A sumptuous Persian translation of the Baburnama (the memoirs of Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire) includes a colourful painting by the artist Dhanu of an attack on a water buffalo. Babur’s text (which also categorises bats as birds) describes how alligators can hunt oxen or buffaloes, but the predator in Dhanu’s illustration is not an alligator, but a lion surrounded by water. The image stems from the literal interpretation of the Persian term shīr-i ābī (‘water-lion’).

The most dramatic illustration of the pitfalls of depending on text rather than visual examination of specimens comes from Pierre Belon’s 1553 book De aquatilibus (‘Of Aquatic Species’). Most of the descriptions and images in the printed book were based on Belon’s own observations, as he and his contemporaries no longer relied on Pliny and Aristotle and sought out their own samples to study, obtaining them, for example, from harbours and fishing ports. When it came to the monkfish, however, Belon had no specimen to scrutinise, and based his work on a written account from Scandinavia in 1546. The result is a striking, fantastical image, more mer-monk than monkfish, as a tonsured human head emerges out of a scaled monk’s robe, complete with tail.

The monkfish in Pierre Belon’s De aquatilibus (‘Of Aquatic Species’). Paris, 1553. Image: British Library

The relationship explored between human and animal at the British Library is more scientific and less sentimental, but it is not without feeling. There is a sense of wonder and spirit of inquiry running throughout the exhibition, but there are also very real existential threats, perhaps most effectively conjured up by a sound recording of the mating call of the Kaua‘i ‘ō‘ō, a small Hawaiian songbird. The song recorded in 1983 is that of the last known Kaua‘i ‘ō‘ō, part of the last mating pair until his mate was lost during a hurricane the year before. Seventeen years later, in 2000, the species was declared extinct.

Portraits of Dogs: from Gainsborough to Hockney runs at the Wallace Collection in London until 15 October 2023 ( 
Animals: art, science and sound is at the British Library until 28 August 2023 ( Both exhibitions are accompanied by illustrated catalogues. 
Dogs in the Athenian Agora, by Colin M Whiting, has been published by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens as part of their Excavations of the Athenian Agora Picture Book Series (ISBN 978-0876616468; £4.50).