Daily Archives: October 1, 2006

Domestic histories: another perspective

Much to my regret, I won’t have time to participate in this week’s reading event. But let me offer you instead a few mostly half-baked thoughts on a different kind of ‘domestic’ sphere – livestock husbandry – which also has an important place in the long 18th century.

Yesterday’s Guardian had a review of Jenny Uglow’s biography of the engraver Thomas Bewick. The paper version was illustrated with one of Bewick’s engravings, the Leicestershire Improved Breed (from A general history of quadrupeds).

Bewick’s interests ranged far beyond portraits of prize livestock; but the genre was much in vogue from the late 18th century onwards and well into the 19th century, until prints and paintings were superseded by photography. This went in step with the rise of livestock improvement and ‘new breeds’ (now of course very old breeds, and most of them very rare to boot).

Fashions of the time dictated that size (no doubt contrasting with the general run of small, skinny, scrubby mongrels at the time) was everything – the John Bulls of the animal world, you might even say. Vast cattle, fat sheep and long pigs, all perfectly groomed and set against a backdrop of idyllic pastures, sometimes tended by equally well-groomed, plump, smug yokels. No real sheep ever looked quite like these: the animal portrait was intended to advertise, and idealise, a breeder’s wares.

They look so strange and quaint to us. But in the late 18th century these animals were at the cutting edge of scientific farming. They can be seen as symbols of ‘progress’, and a domestic and practical application of ‘the Enlightenment’. And I think the impulse to have them painted was both hard-headedly commercial and sentimental.

A few links:

Thomas Bewick
Bewick Society

Livestock in Art
A matter of good breeding
Farm animal portraits