Greyhounds in art and history

Dominic Chessum They were once the preserve of the aristocracy and a symbol of status and wealth but sadly today there are thousands of greyhounds looking for a home. A charity lecture this week will use art to highlight the dogs’ plight and chart their importance through history. Dominic Chessum reports.

Dominic Chessum

Think of greyhounds and the immediate image is one of athletic dogs racing round a track with anxious onlookers cheering on their chosen animal.

But the largely working class world of the dog track is a far cry from the greyhound's lofty origins.

On Thursday, art historian Mary Alexander will combine her in-depth knowledge of art with her passion for the iconic dogs as she reveals how the breed has been seen and treasured through time.

She will also touch on Norfolk's greyhound links which stretch far further back in time than the setting up of Yarmouth's dog track.

With greyhound racing big business, and with dogs only having a short racing career, it is estimated that there are about 9,000 dogs currently needing a home in the UK.

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Ms Alexander, who lives at Wolterton, near Aylsham, got her own greyhound when she moved from London to live in Norfolk eight years ago.

She said: “I have always thought they were very beautiful dogs and as a student I had an art deco poster by Erte on my wall. It was a silhouette of woman in black with a greyhound. I always said that when I left London I would rescue a London greyhound and I got mine from Walthamstow. He would not chase things so has never raced. We called him Speedy as a joke.”

But the struggle to find good homes for greyhounds is a relatively new phenomenon. Throughout history they have been prized possessions often the preserve of the rich and powerful.

“It is most likely that the name greyhound comes from the Hebrew for 'girt in the loin',” continued Ms Alexander. “They have massive acceleration and speed because of their huge haunches. They are the only dog to be mentioned by breed in the bible and in Roman times they were used for coursing, but it is important to note that this sport was more about judging a dogs speed and agility rather than tearing hares apart.”

In ancient Egypt greyhounds were so treasured they were often mummified and buried with their owners.

And in Medieval England the dogs were seen as such a symbol of status that only the nobility were allowed to own them after a law passed by King Canute in 1014.

Ms Alexander said: “If you were a commoner and you were found owning a greyhound the dog was maimed. Commoners tended to have black dogs so they were camouflaged while nobles had lighter ones.”

Greyhounds feature in many medieval tapestries and pictures as well as renaissance frescoes. Some of the art shows them being groomed and cared for and there are even depictions of the dogs sitting under the king's dining table while a meal is in progress.

“They were a symbol of status, wealth and rank and were both highly prized and incredibly valuable,” said Ms Alexander.

During the age of the European Grand Tour in the 18th century, when young English nobles would go on a tour of Europe as a rite of passage, it was quite customary for their dogs to be taken along.

Norfolk has strong links to greyhounds stretching back to the 16th century.

In the 1500s Elizabeth I asked the Duke of Norfolk to draw up the rules for competitive coursing and in 1776 the first public coursing club was opened in Swaffham.

Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, was also a fan and thought so much of his greyhound, Eos, that he commissioned renowned animal artist Sir Edward Landseer to paint a picture of her in 1841.

Three years later he was desperately distraught when the dog died.

In the late 19th and early 20th century the image of the greyhound became iconic due to its association with seduction and speed.

In 1912 the mechanical lure was invented in the USA and six years later it was run on an oval track for the first time in Oklahoma.

The invention landed in the UK in 1926 heralding the start of modern dog racing.

“The irony in this is how they have fallen. Look how they are treated today,” said Ms Alexander.

“That is when they started to fall when they were just being bred for racing.

“They are great pets and I think if just one dog found a home from my doing this lecture it would be fantastic.”

t The lecture takes place on Thursday, May 8, at Bayfield Hall, near Holt. Tickets are £20 with all proceeds going to the Retired Greyhound Trust. They must be booked in advance by calling 01263 768022. For more information on rehoming a greyhound contact the Retired Greyhound Trust on 0844 8268424.