top of page
  • Writer's picturetimeless travels

The Good Companions: The Many Roles of our Canine Friends

by Theresa Thompson, Arts Correspondent for Timeless Travels

Newmarket’s National Horse Racing Museum knows how to please. It offers us dogs - and galleries packed with wagging tails and tales of loyalty, companionship, heroism, playfulness and all – in The Good Companions: The Many Roles of our Canine Friends, an exhibition that takes a long, friendly look at the special bond shared by humans and dogs for centuries.

In fact, it’s a relationship that stretches back into pre-history. Dogs were the first animals to be domesticated by humans, and their importance to our lives is reflected in the art we produce - from, for example, recently discovered rock art panels in Yemen, recording some 349 dogs, some apparently with leashes on (in general it’s difficult to assign a precise date to rock carvings, but these have been estimated as between 8,000 and 9,000 years old; hitherto, 8,000-year-old paintingsof dogs on pottery from Iran were thought to be the oldest depictions of dogs); there are examples also in Egyptian hieroglyphics, the pottery of ancient Greece, and Babylonian wall reliefs.

The earliest pieces on show in this exhibition are A Gentleman with a Dog in a Wood (c.1746) by Thomas Gainsborough, an unnamed member of the landed gentry standing in dense foliage with eager spaniel at his knee, and William Hogarth’s wonderful self-portrait with his pet, Painter and his Pug (1746, Private Collection)- the pug’s name: Trump.

A Gentleman with a Dog in a Wood, Thomas Gainsborough, c1746. Image © Gainsborough's House

Images ancient and modern tell us much. Nowadays, of course, love-struck dog owners can take countless pictures of pooches for posting on social media, or framed for family and home, but in each case the images provide lasting, often endearing records of a very special relationship with four-legged friends.

The Good Companions features over 30 works – from paintings, drawing, sculptures, photographs, books and objects, to taxidermy - each chosen by curator Katherine Field to tell stories of individual dogs and their roles – as well as many types and breeds of dog, from sporting to playful, from pedigree to mutt.

The exhibition itself follows three distinct themes: Dogs as Companions, Dogs as Heroes, and Sporting Dogs.

A quick search on Google led to dozens of traits for which dogs are known: loyalty, friendship, companionship, protectiveness, and playfulness among them. What better depiction of playfulness than the mezzoprint used for the cover of the catalogue? In Mrs. Orby Hunter's spaniels, 'Diver' and 'Shuckleback', by the Sea, after Ben Marshall (1767–1835; English sporting and animal painter and follower of George Stubbs), two water dogs hold a stick in their mouths in a brief pause in a lively game of tug of war.

Van Dyck, Children of Charles I, 1635

Royalty and the aristocracy had long kept dogs as companions as well as for sport. For monarchs dogs were often constant companions - unquestioning, devoted and selfless - who loved them for themselves and not their title. Toy Spaniels were such loved members of the Royal Family during the reign of Charles I that they were included in a Van Dyck portrait of the King’s three eldest children (1635, the Royal Collection). The breed was so closely associated with Charles II that they became known as King Charles Spaniels. Incidentally, the Palace House Newmarket occupies the last remaining part of Charles II’s sporting palace and racing stables.

Prior to the 19th century pet portraits were rare but they became increasingly popular as demonstrations of owners’ affection for their loving and loyal companions, regardless of breeding. Pictures of Queen Victoria’s dogs in paintings, engravings and the popular press encouraged this trend.

Caesar was one of the most famous dogs in England in the later 19th century. The wire fox terrier dog was King Edward VII’s constant companion and apparently the feisty little thing was always ready to prevent anyone getting too close to his master. He had a collar adorned with a silver dog tag that read: “CAESAR I BELONG TO THE KING.”

Ceasar at the funeral precession of Edward VII

At Edward VII’s funeral, on Queen Alexandra’s instruction, Caesar and the King’s charger were given place of honour immediately behind the gun carriage carrying the coffin. They were followed by George V and his cousin, German Emperor Wilhelm II, in the uniforms of British Field Marshals. Reportedly, the Kaiser was affronted by his placement behind Caesar. Among photographs exhibited, one shows the funeral procession, and the other is a portrait of Edward VII and Caesar, c. 1902–1910.

Possibly my favourite work here is a study of a Borzoi. It is by Philip de László (1869-1937), an Anglo-Hungarian painter known particularly for his portraits; indeed by the time of this work he had taken over from Sargent as the premier portrait painter of the day.

The Borzoi is a large, elegant and (in my view) beautiful sighthound. They were bred by the Russian Tsars for hunting wolves by sight rather than scent. The study is for a full-length equestrian portrait of German Emperor Wilhelm II. The story is that in order to paint the dogs a pair was brought to the palace of Wilhelmshöhe from Saxony for the artist to use as models. Also whereas the Kaiser favoured Dachshunds, de László deemed them insufficiently regal for his vision of the portrait.

Violet Munnings on Exmoor, c.1924, by Sir Alfred Munnings, Image: © The estate of Sir Alfred Munnings, Dedham, Essex

As the Industrial Revolution took hold in Britain, leisure time and disposable income increased for many of the working and middle classes and it became possible to keep dogs as pets. In the Sporting Dogs section, among depictions of working dogs is George Stubbs’s finely observed A Spaniel (1772) with its nose characteristically sniffing the ground, and a pointer pointing (British Sporting Art Trust, 1776).

In wartime and emergencies dogs have helped save lives; have served as messenger dogs – Airedales and Border collies were thought to be good breeds for this; and as service dogs, today offering greater independence to many with physical or mental health issues.

And in the Heroes section, in a wide display of dogs working to help save lives during times of conflict, we see Rip, a search dog for Poplar Air Raid Precautions (ARP) and Jet searching through rubble during the Blitz, as well as Edith Cavell’s Jack (works all from Imperial War Museum Photograph Archive). Cavell was the British nurse who saved hundreds of allied troops’ lives in German-occupied Belgium, during WW1.

Tragically, she was arrested on 5 August 1915 and tried by court martial before being executed that October by firing squad. A photograph of Cavell in happier times shows her in her garden in Brussels with her beloved dogs Jack and Don. Following Cavell’s death, Jack pined for her and would occasionally bite the nurses and other staff working in her hospital, but eventually a new home was found for him with the Dowager Duchess de Croÿ and her dogs.

National Military Working Dogs Memorial

The show finishes with modern day examples of exceptional assistance dogs. From the yellow Labrador retriever and PDSA Gold Medallist, Endal who learned hundreds of hand signals in order to help former Chief Petty Officer Allen Parton who had received serious head injuries in 1991 while serving in the Gulf War with the Royal Navy. Allen subsequently founded Hounds for Heroes to assist injured personnel from the military and emergency services. A 2017 design for a proposed military working dogs memorial is also on view.

The Military Working Dogs Memorial Charity has been raising awareness and funds for a memorial designed by Andrew Edwards to represent all branches of the UK’s Armed Forces, and land has been donated in North Wales at a location central to the UK and Ireland.

Our loyal four-legged friendswill do much for us and do it happily. This exhibition explores that extraordinary relationship with warmth and emotion, and also, in its outside courtyard offers a welcoming place for visitors’ dogs. Please remember to check the Palace House website before visiting for the new guidelines on visiting.

The Good Companions: The Many Roles of our Canine Friends

Newmarket’s National Horse Racing Museum

Showing until: 1 November 2020

See:, or follow @palacehousenkt on Facebook and @palacehouse_nkt on Twitter.


The National Horse Racing Museum opened in Newmarket, Suffolk in November 2016 with much greater display and exhibition spaces than its previous site. It aims to display the finest examples of British sporting art, defined in a broad sense together with the social history and science of British horse racing in a single venue.

The Palace House Newmarket is built in the remains of Charles II sporting palace and racing stables, and has links to many British Classic winners trained in the Kings Yard and Rothschild Yard.


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page