Antiques Obsession: Best in Show

Still sought-after today, antique ceramic dogs are a testament to our enduring affection for man's best friend.

Text: Jennifer Boles
Design by Faith Jansen; Photography by John O’Hagan

If the adage “every dog has his day” is anything to go by, it was inevitable that dogs would become as celebrated in the realm of decorative arts as they are in real life. From sporting pictures to needlepoint pillows, dogs have featured prominently in a variety of mediums, especially ceramics, and of the many canine forms that have been modeled over the centuries, there are two types in particular that have captured the hearts of generations of collectors: Meissen pugs and Staffordshire spaniels.

Like porcelain, pugs can trace their roots back centuries to China, where the wide-eyed breed was a favorite at the Imperial Court. Later introduced to Europe by Dutch traders in the sixteenth century, pugs became the “it” lapdog among seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European nobility, particularly in Holland and Germany, where, coincidentally, the first European porcelain factory was established at Meissen.

After initially producing porcelain that imitated the Chinese style, Meissen began to design porcelain that represented prevailing European tastes, such as Rococo-style dinner services and three-dimensional figures that were intended to be displayed on dining tables, particularly during the dessert service. Fanciful characters, such as harlequins, were popular porcelain table ornaments, as were delightful arrays of animals, including the much-loved pug, whose aristocratic bearing was perfectly captured by Johann Joachim Kändler, the renowned Meissen artist who set the standard for porcelain pugs.

Perhaps best known for their jaunty bell-studded collars, Kändler-designed pugs were also frequently decorated with colorful ribbons tied around their necks. Occasionally seated on colorful cushions or, more often, depicted standing, Meissen pugs were sometimes shown in a typical canine stance: using one of its back legs to scratch behind its ear. Although Meissen’s success with its charming porcelain pugs inspired other porcelain makers to follow suit, including the Chelsea porcelain factory in England and even Chinese ceramicists, whose versions of pugs were based on European models, it was the Meissen pug, still produced today, which has remained a favorite collectible among pug-lovers, including, most famously, the Duchess of Windsor and, more recently, Brooke Astor.

Although pugs were equally admired in England as they were on the Continent, it was the King Charles Spaniel that won the hearts of the British. A royal favorite since the reign of their namesake, King Charles II, these sweet, affectionate little dogs were frequently represented in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century paintings and porcelain. But it was the numerous potteries located in the Staffordshire area of England that were responsible for introducing a style of ceramic spaniels that was in a class of its own. Working with less-expensive earthenware rather than porcelain, meaning their wares were affordable to the burgeoning middle class, Staffordshire potteries first began modeling spaniels in the eighteenth century. But it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that the model with which we’re familiar today took the British by storm, and it was possibly inspired by one of history’s most well-known King Charles Spaniels: Dash, the beloved companion of the young Queen Victoria.

Designed to stand as facing pairs on mantelpieces, hence their nicknames, mantel or hearth dogs, antique Staffordshire spaniels are easy to recognize thanks to their distinctive looks. Usually hand-painted with rust, black, or metallic markings on press-molded white bodies and frequently accessorized with collars bearing chains and locks, Staffordshire spaniels were most often depicted seated upright with what are known as “blocked-in,” or fully attached, legs and feet. They were also produced in a range of sizes, from a few inches to around a foot high. But it was a matter of economy that was responsible for one of the design’s most distinctive features: its mostly unadorned backside. Whereas early-nineteenth-century spaniels were mostly molded and painted in the round so that they were attractive from any angle, mid-to-late nineteenth-century examples are often referred to as “flat backs” because of their minimally detailed backs, which was a result not only of their typical positions on mantels, where their backs were against walls and thus not easily seen, but also because the lack of detailing cut down on production time and cost.

An almost ubiquitous presence in the average British home during the Victorian era, Staffordshire spaniels were not the only type of dog modeled by the Staffordshire potteries. Poodles, greyhounds, Dalmatians, and, yes, even pugs, were also produced. But even though most Staffordshire potteries stopped producing spaniels by the turn of the twentieth century, their enduring appeal, like that of the Meissen pug, shows little sign of waning.

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