Anyone interested in British folk Art will be familiar with paintings of prize winning animals often with his proud owner standing alongside. The Durham Ox is a recognised breed of short-horn cattle, but the first specimen of the breed was a famous show animal which weighed in at nearly 3000 pounds. The poor animal was dragged across England, shown all around the country, and immortalised in a painting, of which many copies were made, and many thousands of prints sold to the admiring public. Printed images of The Durham Ox were circulated widely long after the poor animal had died in the early 19th century.
A proud owner with his prize sheep. Why the top hat and tails one wonders. Hardly the attire for visiting the sheep.
Yale Centre for British Art, Public Domain
According to animal studies professor Ron Broglio, the portraits were often exaggerated to emphasize the idealized animal shape, which usually consisted of “a bit more fat in crucial areas.” For pigs, the ideal was a football shape. Cows were rectangular, and sheep tended towards oblong.
Commissioned paintings and commercial prints often came with information like the animal’s measurements and the owner’s breeding efforts.
Whilst many animal portraits were painted in the academic manner, by sophisticated mainly London based artists, the majority would have been painted by local, untrained but talented artists, and hence most are unsigned. They either carried out their trade as itinerant artists, moving around the local countryside from commission to commission, or they were those whose main employment was sign painting. It is interesting to see in the engravings opposite how every shop and service would have had a sign outside their establishment as most ordinary people would have been illiterate at the time.
A pair of enormous bulls if benchmarked against the height of the owner Yale Centre for British Art, Public Domain
Sir John Sinclair (1791) was the first to divide sheep breeds into short wools (used to make woollens) and the long wools (used to make worsteds) while omitting the more hairy mountain breeds whose wool was used mainly to make carpets.
In England, Robert Bakewell and Thomas Coke introduced selective breeding as a scientific practice, mating together two animals with particularly desirable characteristics. They also used inbreeding or the mating of close relatives, such as father and daughter, or brother and sister, to stabilise certain qualities in order to reduce genetic diversity in desirable animal programmes from the mid-18th century.
Sheep were selected to produce large, yet fine-boned sheep, with long, lustrous wool and cattle for beef. Cattle had previously been used for pulling ploughs or for dairy purposes, with beef only used from surplus males.
An exceptionally large pig, dwarfing all other elements in the painting. Gives a whole new meaning to pork belly!
Yale British Art Museum, Public Domain
Beyond making wealthy farmers famous, animal paintings and prints had a practical purpose. Breeders across the country could use a specific animal’s image as a model for their own herd, since livestock that fit beauty ideals were worth much more.
From the 18th century onward sheep breeds changed a lot, usually to produce better meat at the expense of the quality of the wool, which had since the Middle Ages been a mainstay of the British cloth export industry. Sheep breeds were not described or discussed much before the early 18th century and breeds from those times, even if mentioned, may have been quite different from how they appear today given the amount of breeding activity in the period since.
This period in history marked the start of the selective breeding process of which we are so familiar today, and covered every aspect of livestock and plants, from pigeons and chickens, farm animals to roses and tomatoes.
Prize winning sheep in a barn. 19th century, detail.
The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age by Harriet Ritvo. Harvard University Press
Etching of the Durham Ox by John Boultee 1753-1812. Public Domain
From the late 18th century onwards farmers and landowners were breeding animals larger and fatter than ever before, whether or not this proved to the benefit or detriment to the animals involved. The general public, most of whom at the time would have been engaged in or associated with work on the land, were fascinated by these developments and flocked to see these animals.
We will never know how accurate these depictions of prize animals were, as they were no doubt produced to enhance the reputation of the owner or breeder. But they are charming, albeit rather amusing to the modern eye. The high point of these prize winning animal portraits was the early to mid 19th century, before the advent of photography, and you will note that they all appear rather geometric in shape, and often have such spindly legs one wonders how they were able to support their own weight.
A prize cow, The Newark Ox, being fed by its owner. Interestingly the farmer appears to be using mechanical means to make feed pellets.
Yale Centre for British Art, Public Domain
The jumble of street trade signs as shown in the combined prints of Beer Street and Gin Lane by the wonderful chronicler of early 18th century life, William Hogarth. Illustrating why there were so many sign writers employed in this period.
The Durham Ox. early 19th century blue and white transfer platter
The early 19th century period saw massive change in agriculture. Gentleman farmers used selective breeding to create quick-growing, heavy livestock. Along with breeding, new farming and feeding practices also produced larger animals. Rich farmers participated in agricultural competitions and read new research. They were called “improvers,” since they tried to improve on existing animal breeds. Methods such as feeding cows oil cakes and turnips for a final fattening up before slaughter became widespread. Even Queen Victoria’s consort Prince Albert became an “improver”, showing off his prize pigs and cattle.
Whilst selective breeding of both plants and animals has been practiced since prehistory, Charles Darwin coined the term 'selective breeding'. He was interested in the process as an illustration of his proposed wider process of natural selection. Darwin noted that many domesticated animals and plants had special properties that were developed by intentional animal and plant breeding from individuals that showed desirable characteristics, and discouraging the breeding of individuals with less desirable characteristics.
The historian Harriet Ritvo notes that gentry farmers used patriotism to justify the competitions and self-promotion. If elites could breed and feed larger, fattier cows, then poorer farmers could eventually own them. With more meat to sell, rural communities would be more financially stable. The national security of the country would benefit, or so went the argument. Britain’s population was quickly growing, and due to the prospect of frequent wars, having a secure food supply of fat animals was imperative. “Improvement” progressed quickly. The average weight of British cows increased by a third from 1710 to 1795.
If an animal was especially large, its owner would use both exhibitions and art as self promotion, such as the Durham Ox, whose image was even used as a pattern for dinner plates. Exceptional animals could be sold for very high prices. But usually, only elite amateur breeders had the time and wealth to develop prize animals. Many noblemen and gentlemen owned large agricultural estates, and breeding was considered a high-class pastime. According to Harriet Ritvo, regular farmers were frequently warned in agricultural publications that trying to compete with the nobility’s selectively bred cows was expensive.
"A celebrated ewe". I can't believe that this sheep actuallu had such a large rear end.
Yale Centre for British Art, Public domain.