On the 3rd of October The University of Manchester Museum opened its doors to launch the new exhibition, Breed: The British and Their Dogs. I anticipated a parade of different canine companions by their doting owners. However, it turned out to be an extremely fascinating exhibition on how dogs have been used to depict British pride and unity in various forms of marketing and propaganda. It explores how the culture of owning and breeding dogs has changed since the innovative Victorian age. This has often been glamorised in popular culture, an example being the Borzoi breed being an accessory in a feature in Vogue in the 1920’s.
The project has been undertaken by the University’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine and supported by the Arts & Humanities Research Council. It focused on six specific breeds that each had especially interesting relationships with our British history: the Bloodhound; Borzoi; Irish Wolfhound; Pekingese; Bulldog and Collie. I felt that the Irish wolfhound was of special importance to the researchers of the exhibition as this is the most famous example of the ‘bespoke’ or ‘designer’ aspect of dog breeding. Between 1863-1909 a Scotsman called George Augustus Graham wanted to revive the breed that had disappeared from Britain in the 1760s, at the same time as the wolf died out., He achieved this by cross-breeding a variety of dogs he bought in Ireland with ‘ancient blood’ to create the perfect end result.
The most relevant breed to our recent history that was on show was the familiar British Bulldog. It was heralded in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a national hero; a dog used by butchers tocontrol cattle at stockyards, therefore ‘supplying the country with a rich reserve of meat’. The use of the breed for bloody sports such as bull and bear baiting in the nineteenth century meant it was more often related with criminal activity than stockyards. This rapidly changed in the early twentieth century when the bulldog was a cultural icon, representing Britain for its strength and determination during the World Wars. The importance of the bulldog, though, mustn’t overshadow the other breeds represented for their ‘Britishness’ at the exhibition. The image of the Bloodhound will forever be caricatured wearing a deer-stalker and cloak in Britain for its deep-rooted links with tracking criminals. The Bloodhound is , undoubtedly the Sherlock Holmes of British breeds. The Pekingese originated and was a very important breed in China, but many of them were looted from the Emperor’s palace by British soldiers during the Second Opium War (1856-60), and one was given to Queen Victoria as a gift (appropriately named Looty).
Breed: The British & Their Dogs is open until 14th April 2013. The History Department’s Dr Julie-Marie Strange is a member of the research team for this project.