When my children were small, we’d often give the Natural History Museum dinosaurs a miss in favour of the NHM’s underappreciated annex at Tring in Hertfordshire, the zoological museum established by Walter Rothschild. There are many reasons to visit this hidden shrine to Edwardian taxidermy – the extinct thylacine, the albino wallaby, the fleas dressed in national costume – but for our family, as for many others, the highlight was usually the collection of eighty or so pedigree dogs in the last gallery. Unlike most of the exhibits at Tring, the dogs were not collected by Rothschild, but were added to the museum about fifty years ago. Most were originally displayed at the NHM itself, during the first few decades of the twentieth century.
The Tring dog collection reflects the Edwardian era of its inception. By then, Darwin’s ideas were mainstream: zoology regarded the extraordinary variety of ‘fancy’ animals produced by selective breeding as a mirror of natural selection. The NHM was expanding its collections, both for research and public education, and so decided to set up a gallery of domestic livestock, including dogs. At that time, pedigree dog breeding was at a fashionable zenith. Wealthy fanciers used the networks of Empire to import exotic breeds, such as the Pekingese: old breeds and new were reshaped according to the whims of the show ring. Those who donated their dogs to the NHM mostly wanted to preserve these achievements for posterity.
The NHM sought elite show specimens of as many breeds as possible, seeking to display the dogs then considered the most perfect examples of each breed. Owners’ letters, preserved in the NHM archive, provide surprising insights into the acquisition process. Most dogs were given to the museum at the end of their natural lives. Sometimes arrangements were made in advance; other owners simply posted dead dogs to the NHM, sometimes – but not always – with an explanatory note. The correspondence reveals that it was the owners, not the museum, who determined which dogs were chosen. Some dogs were legends in the histories of their breeds, such as the fox terrier Donna Fortuna. The Pekinese Ah Cum was a canine celebrity, looted from the Chinese Imperial Palace in 1896. A ‘founding father’ of the breed in Britain, he lost an eye (replaced by the taxidermist) and, I recently discovered, had a surprising afterlife in eugenic science.
But most of the dogs were less famous: many came from owners with personal agendas. One dog was given to the museum because his owner became bankrupt, asking the NHM to pay for the taxidermy and even his euthanasia; another egocentric owner donated so many spaniels that the curator eventually turned them away, much to the owner’s rage. Several owners continued to lay claim to their dogs once they had become museum specimens, pestering the NHM about how they were displayed and even asking to groom them: in these cases, the owners’ emotional and proprietorial bonds to their pets persisted even beyond death and the transformation of taxidermy.
Some of the dogs at Tring are there because of their achievements rather than their appearance. There are several racing greyhounds, including the legendary Mick the Miller, a celebrity of the 1930s who starred in his own film: the husky Farthest North led the sled dogs of an 1890s expedition to Greenland. These canine heroes highlight the peculiar status of the Tring dogs: unlike most mounted animals, these dogs are named individuals. ‘Visitors feel differently about the dogs’, says Alice Adams, the Tring curator, ‘they unsettle them’. The dogs occupy a strange border zone between companion and specimen. Even knowing that a mounted exhibit usually only involves the skin of the original animal, it is hard to look at the dogs and not gaze into their glassy eyes; emotionally, we respond to them almost as living dogs, even though intellectually, we know they are nothing of the kind.
The Tring collection is almost unique (there’s a similar, more recent, group at Yale). My PhD, which I’m currently half way through, investigates the history of pedigree dog health and disease during the twentieth century. In part, it considers how the show ring has shaped the dog, and the changing attitudes to this process – a high-profile and controversial topic today. In this context, the Tring dogs are often portrayed as offering a remarkable insight into the appearance of dogs a hundred years ago, revealing how, in many breeds, body shapes have subsequently become more extreme. But there are problems with this depiction. During my research, I’ve found photographs of many of the Tring dogs, enabling me to compare the mounted specimen with the same dog in life. This reveals a startling variation in the quality of the taxidermy. Some of the dogs on display, like the St Bernard, have been mounted with astonishing skill, and really do look exactly as they once did.
Others, like the corgi, are travesties of their former selves, in no way accurate representations of the dog in life. So, while they certainly help us visualise dogs of the past, these specimens can be misleading.
Having said that, there’s something about the Tring dogs that no photograph can match. Taken as a group, and even allowing for some dubious taxidermy, they provide a vivid window on the past – not just giving an insight into what dogs looked like a century ago, but a glimpse of the world that produced these specimens. To look at these dogs, to think of the people who loved them and their legacy today, can’t help but provoke an emotional response in anyone interested in dogs and history. For anyone who’s enjoyed this blog post, a visit to Tring would be a day well spent.
This blog was written by Alison Skipper, a veterinary surgeon with a longstanding interest in pedigree dogs. Alison is currently working towards a PhD in history at King’s College London, funded by the Wellcome Trust. Her research explores how understandings of health and disease in pedigree dogs have changed since 1890. You can find her on Twitter – @acdalison.