In the Dog House

Dr Stephanie Howard-Smith writes about her research on furniture for dogs in eighteenth-century France and Britain.

The lapdog and its (generally female) owner were popular subjects for criticism throughout the eighteenth century.

Of particular concern was what we might now identify as the stirring of a nascent pet industry. A few lapdogs belonging to particularly wealthy families had access to a wide range of material luxuries — snuff, tea, porcelain, and imported textiles for cushions, collars and clothes — and their consumption of these commodities caused some disquiet in the flexible period historians describe as the ‘long’ eighteenth century (roughly 1688-1815 or 1832).

Lapdogs were both ‘things’ and owners of things themselves. Thorstein Veblen identified dogs as ‘items of conspicuous consumption’ in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), writing that since the dog is ‘an item of expense, and commonly serves no industrial purpose, he holds a well-assured place in men’s regard as a thing of good repute’. Veblen also argued that the value dogs give to their owners as items of conspicuous consumption is not limited to the initial cost of purchase, but is multiplied by the affection and resources lavished on them throughout their lifetimes, ‘since any attention bestowed upon these animals is in no sense gainful or useful, it is also reputable’. (1)

Among the rarer objects of dog-paraphernalia an exceptionally fortunate French or British eighteenth-century lapdog might own was specially-made furniture. Lot 225 in Sotheby’s Arts of Europe 15 May 2014 sale was a Louis XV style gilded wood sedan chair made around 1765 for a small dog, auctioned off at £6,250. The exterior is covered in crimson velvet, and the interior features a cushion made of the same luxurious material. The chair is ornamented with a plume of white ostrich feathers and brass nailhead trim forming a heart design. The gilt base is decorated with engravings of little dogs. The condition report helpfully notes the sedan chair is in ‘good overall condition. Re-gilded and newly upholstered and ready for dog. Interior re-painted. Dog in catalogue illustration not included’. (2)

What does this unusual object tell us of the eighteenth-century society that devised it, or their attitudes towards toy dogs? What use could any dog have for a sedan chair?

Some initial observations are rather revealing. The sedan chair was clearly expensive; the cost of gilding and crimson-dyed velvet alone would have been significant. It is obviously intended to invoke the exotic, both in its imitation-pagoda structure and its ostrich feather ornamentation. The brass nail head trim heart pattern suggests the occupant had some emotional significance for the commissioner or purchaser of the chair.

It is immediately evident this unusual and lavishly decorated object was meant for ostentatious display and, upon closer inspection, the sedan chair’s impracticality becomes clear. While human sedan chairs feature doors or curtains, the dog sedan chair is open and obviously unsuitable for canine passengers, who would be at risk of escaping en route.

It seems the chair was some sort of self-aware amusement-object, perhaps only ‘used’ in the home or garden, and deliberately exhibited elsewhere in the house (possibly appropriated as a dog bed). Regardless of the uncertainty of its use, the sedan chair invites its viewer to envision a world in which it is a ‘real’ object with a ‘real’ use. We might imagine the dog has an active social life outside the home, perhaps accompanying his mistress on morning engagements, or even paying visits to friends of his or her own. Naturally, we would assume any dog enjoying such transportation would not be expected to sully its paws outside, but must be carried by human servants.

The sedan chair, therefore, introduces us to some of the key concerns of eighteenth-century lapdog critics: the ostentatious showering of luxury goods on dogs, the privileging of animals above humans (in this case, the servants—real or imaginary—responsible for carrying the sedan chair) and the emotional and physical intimacy between mistress and dog, supposedly to the detriment of human relationships. Although the chair was apparently made in France, this state of affairs disturbed many both in Britain and France in the second half of the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century.

These concerns are all reflected in an anonymous French print, made at the tail end of the ‘long’ eighteenth century in 1818. La caninomanie depicts a household in the grip of so-called ‘dog-mania’: A well-dressed women eats a meal opposite her lapdog, also sitting at the table. She feeds her dog a roast chicken wing – from her own fork, rather than depositing it on the dog’s own porcelain plate. The dog has, apparently, usurped the daughter, who sits away from the table eating an obviously inferior meal of herring from her lap. (3)

La caninomanie satirises a particular type of financially and emotionally excessive pet ownership. The dog is treated to luxuries and his mistress’s undivided attention, while her human daughter is neglected. To the left of the print we see another indicator of the physical luxury the animal enjoys – a dog bed, or a niche a chien. These dog beds are occasionally referred to as kennels or chenils, but they are quite distinct from the accommodation housing sporting dogs, which tended to be separate from human living spaces. The occupants of indoor kennels shared their owners’ domestic spaces, including their bedchambers; the dogs therefore became a semi-permanent physical feature of the home environment. Other artistic representations of dog beds also suggest a connection with particularly excessive modes of pet-keeping, as in the 1768 portrait of a Havanese dog by Jean-Jacques Bachelier (not unfairly described in the Bowes Museum’s collection catalogue as ‘rococo nonsense’). In this painting (fig. 1), the lapdog inhabits a world of leisure and material excess (as evidenced by the coins, silk ribbon, books, and billiard ball). The dog has stolen and destroyed a pair of shoes and appears to be pleading with its owner; this well-treated dog takes liberties with the humans around it and expects no punishment.

Dog bed 1

Figure 1: Jean Jacques Bachelier, Dog of the Havana Breed, 1768, oil on canvas, 69.8 × 91.1 cm, Bowes Museum, Castle Barnard © The Bowes Museum

The dog bed was a relatively novel development: among the earliest records of European furniture made specifically for dogs (as opposed to being repurposed for their use) are the Crown Furniture Lists for 1697, which record chenils made by Aubertin Godron for Louis XIV’s dogs during their stays at the Chateau de Marly. The chenils took the form of banquettes with arched openings inlaid with ebony and walnut, trimmed internally and externally with crimson velvet. (4)

Of course, the majority of dogs did not sleep in this sort of luxury. There are relatively few surviving examples of dog beds themselves, perhaps reflecting their scarcity at the time — they were inherently exclusive objects. Even dogs belonging to very wealthy owners might only reasonably expect a velvet cushion. If the majority of domestic dogs were lucky enough to have a dedicated sleeping space indoors, it was most likely repurposed from household materials. The sleeping arrangements of lapdogs could be controversial, particularly the potential for bed-sharing, an activity frequently depicted in British and French media as erotic.

The exclusivity of these objects, combined with their novelty factor, has ensured their survival in private and museum collections to some extent. The Chateau de Vendeuvre in Normandy has a collection of historic pet beds (displayed with fake and real pets in and near the beds to give a sense of scale). Although made to be used by animals, such beds are imbued with an oddly personal sense of the people who owned them. There is a cultural understanding that dogs are closely connected to their owners; a dog bed allows us a glimpse into the emotional life of the pet’s owner.

Marie Antoinette’s lapdogs slept in a dog bed made by master joiner Claude I Sené (fig. 2). Currently on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the bed was crafted from gilded beech and pine and upholstered in light blue velvet, with a silk-lined interior. The domed top is detachable, possibly to facilitate cleaning.

Dog bed 2

Figure 2: Claude I Sené, Dog Kennel, c. 1775–80, gilded beech and pine, and silk and velvet, 78.1 × 54.6 × 54.6 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The narrative around the bed, which perhaps speaks to the excesses of the Ancien Regime, coupled with the personal connection to Marie Antoinette, has ensured the bed has remained on display, unlike the two niches en tabouret made around 1782 by Etienne Nauroy which have since been deaccessioned by the Met. The niche en tabouret, a dog bed with a flat, cushioned roof, effectively a dog-bed-cum-stool, was practical in its flexible inter-species usage, allowing the dog to remain in close physical proximity to the fashionable elite of French society; the 1762 inventory for Madame de Pompadour’s bed chamber in the Château de Saint-Hubert lists a niche en tabouret for two dogs. (5)

Although many dog beds resembled dog kennels, some were miniature human beds, such as this example (fig. 3) from late eighteenth-century France (which features an original mattress).

Dog bed 3

 

Figure 3: Anon., Dog bed, c. 1790, 66 × 48 × 32 cm, private collection. <https://www.1stdibs.com/furniture/more-furniture-collectibles/bedroom-furniture/beds-frames/18th-century-french-dog-bed/id-f_1702613/&gt;

While I have so far only discussed French dog beds, they were also familiar to some British canines. In Eliza Haywood’s 1755 The Invisible Spy the titular invisible narrator comes across a funeral being held for a pug, and overhears its owner’s servants discussing being punished for failing to make another dog’s bed properly. Eventually the spy enters the dead pug’s home and sneaks into the dogs’ room, noting with astonishment the lavish lifestyle of the animals, singling their beds out for particular attention:

‘There were no fewer than fourteen beds of different sizes, the largest not exceeding three feet and a half in height and two in breadth but all of them extremely neat and fashionable, with curtains, vallens, and bases; each had a mattress, a quilted covering, a pillow and fine holland sheets.’ (6)

They are miniature versions of human beds; perhaps a ridiculous fantasy to the 1750s British reader and to Haywood, but a comfortable reality to the dog who slept on the previous example of a French pet bed. While The Invisible Spy is a satire, British pet owners also owned dog beds. As Ingrid Tague notes in Animal Companions, Lady Mary Coke’s mother pointed out ‘pug’s bed’ on the excruciating tour she gave George II’s daughters in 1766. (7)

Despite featuring on this royal tour, there are very few surviving examples of British dog beds. Admittedly, this might suggest they were never as popular here as in France. However, here is one (fig.4) made between 1810 and 1820, around the time of that depicted in La caninomanie. This regency bed is less ostentatious than those we’ve seen before.

Dog bed 4

Figure 4: Anon., Dog House, 1810–1820, wood, 79 cm, private collection. <https://www.1stdibs.com/furniture/more-furniture-collectibles/bedroom-furniture/beds-frames/english-georgian-dog-cat-house/id-f_1023028/&gt;

The micro-fashion for extravagant dog kennels exposes a trend in the treatment of companion animals in the eighteenth century. Most of the examples I have discussed were obviously intended for conspicuous consumption, representing a lavishing of material wealth – and therefore status — on dogs rather than humans which many contemporaries found distasteful, if not sinful. The eighteenth-century toy dog was the product of a consumer society increasingly obsessed by commodities and fashion. Lapdogs were treated so immoderately well because they were understood as extensions of their mistresses. However, the development of the dog bed also heralds the start of another change in the dog’s status within French and British homes and the families they lived with. As the nineteenth century progressed, the ‘pet’ became an increasingly accepted concept in bourgeois homes in Britain and in France, eventually becoming a hallmark of Victorian middle-class domesticity. These pets were neither objects nor substitute humans; they occupied their own distinct position within the family unit. The demand for pet beds, which continued to grow throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, reflects this change.

For more information about Stephanie’s work see her article – ‘Mad Dogs’, Sad Dogs and the War Against Curs in London in 1760 – in the Journal of Eighteenth-Century Studies.

Notes:

  1. Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study in the Evolution of Institutions (New York: Macmillan, 1899), pp. 139–42.
  2. A Rare Giltwood And Gesso Dog’s Sedan Chair, c. 1765, giltwood and gesso, 95 × 65 × 54 cm <http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2014/arts-europe-l14301/lot.225.html&gt; [accessed 28 November 2017]
  3. La caninomanie, 1818, hand-coloured etching, 24.1 × 29.8 cm, British Museum, London
  4. ‘La Collection de niches’, Vendeuvre, <http://www.vendeuvre.com/nw/niches.html&gt;.
  5. J. B. Watson, The Wrightsman Collection, 2 vols (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of New York, 1966), i: Furniture, p. 99; Patrick Sheehan, ‘And then there were none’, Aestheticus Rex (3 June 2010), http://aestheticusrex.blogspot.com/2010/06/and-then-there-were-none.html
  6. Eliza Haywood, The Invisible Spy, 4 vols (London: T. Gardner 1755), ii, 33–34.
  7. Ingrid H. Tague, Animal Companions: Pets and Social Change in Eighteenth-Century Britain (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015), p. 44; Lady Mary Coke, The Letters and Journals of Lady Mary Coke, 4 vols (Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1889-1896), i (1889), 49.

 

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