An evocative and touching oil painting from our collection inspired October’s Hands on History session: Devotion. The painting is by a Victorian artist called Robert Morley. It depicts a girl watched over by her dog as she sleeps and has two titles, ‘Devoted’ and ‘Her Faithful Guardian’.
‘Her Faithful Guardian’/’Devoted’, oil on canvas, Robert Morley (1857 – 1901)
Our Hands on History session looks at a range of objects exploring different types of devotion, including religious, familial and vocational, but this painting specifically highlights the devotion between a girl and her dog.
With devoted relationships between dogs and their owners in mind, I note that dogs held an important place in the lives of several key figures in Nuneaton’s history.
The famous Victorian writer George Eliot, who was born in Nuneaton in 1819, had a deep fondness for dogs. Eliot’s appreciation of dogs interweaves both her personal and fictional writing. In her novel ‘Adam Bede’, Adam’s dog, Gyp, is portrayed as the ultimate devotee of his master, hanging on every move Adam makes.
George Eliot received her first dog, a pug, called Pug, as a present from her publisher, following the success of her first novel in 1859. In her personal letters, Eliot frequently mentioned Pug with fascination and adoration. In a letter thanking her publisher for the present of Pug, she writes:
‘Pug is come! – come to fill up the void left by false and narrow-hearted friends. I see already that he is without envy, hatred or malice – that he will betray no secrets, and feel neither pain at my success or pleasure at my chagrin…’.
Eliot owned a number of dogs throughout her life including Towzer, Ben and Dash. She acquired Ben, a bull terrier in 1864. Ben, Eliot’s longest surviving pet, lived with her and her partner Henry Lewes for 7 years. Writing to her close friend Sara Hennell in 1864, she revealed:
‘“Ben” is master of us all, and the most momentous subject must be deferred if Ben wants a stick to be thrown for him.’
The highly regarded entertainer, Larry Grayson, who lived in Nuneaton for the majority of his life, was also a devoted dog owner. Larry’s dog, Peter, a poodle, was with him and his sister Fan for 17 years. Peter died shortly after Larry began a season at the Princess Theatre, Torquay. In a letter to his fan, Pauline Pearson, with whom he developed a close and abiding friendship, Larry wrote with sadness on the loss of Peter:
‘My dear little dog Peter died just after I opened here and of course it’s been a very sad time for Fan and myself as you can imagine after having him and loving him so much for 17 years…still miss him so very much, no one could take his place so shall not have another one’.
Despite Larry’s feeling that Peter was irreplaceable, he did in fact acquire another dog. A further letter to Pauline Pearson tells of Larry being presented with the gift of a new puppy at the end of his run at the Princess Theatre:
‘Fan is fine and we now have another little poodle since our Peter died last June, he was a last night present at Torquay and his name is Arthur Marshall, he’s smaller than Peter and he’s white but just like Peter in his ways and Fan and I love him very much’.
Following Larry’s death in January 1995, an article appeared in Today newspaper dated Wednesday 31 May 1995.
Article from Today newspaper, dated Wednesday 31 May 1995
According to the article, so deep was the devotion between Larry and his last poodle, William, that Larry wanted to save the dog he described as ‘my dear and loyal companion’ from grief. In his will, Larry apparently left instructions for what was to happen to William after his death:
‘Sure in the knowledge he would fret inconsolably after my death I direct that he be put to sleep in the kindest and most humane way possible.’
Thankfully, no one had the heart to carry out Larry’s instructions and William was happily placed with a new owner.
Although I know very little about Edward Melly’s dog and the relationship between them, I do know that Melly had a dog, who was, wonderfully, named Tootles. Since Tootles was the pet of the founder of Nuneaton Museum and Art Gallery, his memory is kept alive here via our audio trail for children aged under 5, which is named after Tootles.
Join our friendly Access Assistants for Hands on History: Devotion on Saturday 20 October in the White Gallery from 11 until 4 pm.