brian and dogs
Friday, 23 March 2012

The art of dogs

Written by Rebecca Wallersteiner
Brian Sewell was on the shortlist for the Critic of the Year award at the British Press Awards – the newspaper equivalent of the Oscars. But if I were a dog, I would certainly have no hesitation in choosing Brian as my master. When I arrive to interview Brian at his Wimbledon home, he greets me at the front door wearing an elegant dressing gown, as if he were Sherlock Holmes. Brian has a kind and sensitive face and rather shrewd eyes that distract me from the two large dogs growling rather menacingly behind him.

In his autobiography Outsider, Brian describes his lifelong love of dogs, as well as his enduring passion for art. He leads me into his donnish living room, filled with paintings art books, then he offers to make tea.

I have for years been a fan of Brian's art reviews in the London Evening Standard, even if our tastes have often differed. He always speaks his mind. Indeed, I can't resist bringing up the work of Lucian Freud and Sir Eduardo Paolozzi. Brian exclaims that he finds Freud's etchings, 'excremental' and that he is relieved that Paolozzi's mosaics at Tottenham Court Road Underground station are crumbling to dust – as, 'that is where they belong'.

Lifelong love

To my relief he does, however, admit to liking some of Freud's early paintings. Both artists were dear friends of mine until their deaths and so it seems wise to end on this positive note, and switch our conversation back to dogs.

Brian is as entertaining and witty when talking about dogs, as he is on art. The dogs, Winckelmann, an Alsatian, and Lottie, a Staffordshire bull terrier, are well behaved and lie quietly on the floor. Brian tells me that another dog, Gretel, is asleep upstairs. Every now and again, Winckelmann and Lottie get up and plod over to nuzzle and lick my fingers, wagging their tails with pleasure.

'As you can see, Winckelmann is warm and gentle,' says Brian. 'She has been mine for 12 years. I have owned 17 dogs and only paid for two of them. The others have been rescue dogs – other people's cast-offs, without pedigree, or ancestry: wished on me by a compassionate vet, or languishing in the Mayhew Animal Home, near Kensal Green, of which I am now a patron.

'I would unhesitatingly commend adopting them to readers of The Lady. If you are thinking of getting a dog, there are thousands of abandoned, or lost animals around the country in rescue homes, waiting for a kind owner – they would be forever grateful for your loving care.'

So how did Brian choose Lottie? 'Oh I didn't choose Lottie, Winck chose her for me. I felt a hole in my life when Jack, my beloved whippet died, but after five months of mourning I felt strong enough to fill the gap. Winck and I set off to see what we could find at the Mayhew Animal Home and 20 dogs came in and ran round us boisterously. Winck looked around, then went over to Lottie and sniffed her – so he chose her and we took her home. I sometimes find them sleeping together, with limbs affectionately entwined. They are tremendous friends.'

So when did his love of dogs begin? Did he own one as a child? 'Although my mother and I were almost penniless for long stretches of time during my childhood, I had a dog called Prince until 1939. Then my stepfather took Prince for a walk along the Whitstable shore, shot him dead and allowed the tide to sweep him away. I like to think that he remembered the 1914-18 war and was worried about the hardship another war would bring.

'But I was devastated by Prince's death. Taking a dog is like taking a child, for both are treasured possessions. It should be unthinkable. Subsequently, whenever my parents asked me what I would like for Christmas, I always replied: "A dog". When the war ended, I bought a mongrel terrier puppy for half a crown, as black and white as Prince had been, but lacking his longlegged nobility.'

Does he like whippets? I tell Brian about a lover who had a whippet that used to creep into our bed and snuggle up to sleep between us, seemingly craving our warmth. I became extremely fond of her although she generally behaved badly.

'My last proper [pedigree] dog, bred by a friend, was a whippet with blue eyes and blue toenails and born to order,' Brian recalls. 'I got Jack, another whippet, from the Mayhew. She had arrived at the animal home in a terrible condition after having been found dumped in a churchyard. Readers interested in adopting a whippet can contact JR Whippet Rescue, a charity that solely rescues discarded, or neglected whippets,' says Brian.

So which artists have painted the best dogs? 'Both Velázquez and Titian are excellent painters of dogs and are likely to have owned them. Look at Titian's painting, Diana And Actaeon, recently acquired for £50m by the National Gallery.

'At the bottom are two brilliantly executed dogs yapping away at each other and almost more captivating than the people. In the lower left-hand corner of Velázquez's painting of Philip IV hunting wild boar, also in the National Gallery, servants bend over an unfortunate gored and bleeding hound with compassionate interest. You can see when an artist is more interested in the dog than the subjects he is painting.'

But does he like dogs more than people? 'Possibly, but I think that I would go crazy without someone to talk to.'

Even though Brian said that he was feeling unwell he is astoundingly generous with his time, and so friendly and welcoming that I almost wish I was a rescue dog myself.

Outsider: Always Almost: Never Quite, by Brian Sewell, is published by Quartet Books, priced £25.

Give a dog a home ... facts about rescue dogs

1 Brian says, 'Rescue dogs will be forever grateful and provide excellent companionship.'

2 There are about 100,000 abandoned dogs in rescue homes up and down the country. At least 10 per cent of these will be put down, according to figures from the Dogs Trust: www.dogstrust.org.uk

3 Founded in 1886, the Mayhew Animal Home celebrated its 125th anniversary last year. It takes in unwanted cats and rabbits, as well as dogs, and finds homes for them. Mayhew Animal Home: 020-8969 0178, www.mayhewanimalhome.org

4 If you would like to adopt an abandoned whippet, contact the charity founded in 1971, JR Whippet Rescue: 01234-838927, www.whippetrescue.org.uk




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