BY SOPHIA DU BRUL
Growing up in Chicago, there were certain grandes dames here that were held up as examples of elegance and good taste. Once in a while, I would be invited, along with my parents, to some sort of gathering at the various homes of these ladies. I would be washed and brushed, ribbons tied in my hair, reminded to say “please” and “thank you,” and told, in serious tones, to be careful because I was going to a beautiful house full of fragile things—so no running around and don’t touch anything!
But whether I was being ushered through the portals of Mrs. Smith, Mrs. McCormick, or Mrs. Wood-Prince’s homes, they all had one thing decorating their shelves and mantels that entranced me as a child: Staffordshire dogs. And I wanted to touch them! I remember that most extensive collection belonged to the Southworths, and I loved that each and every dog would have a jolly red ribbon ‘round its neck for Christmas.
When I got my first apartment, I quickly acquired my first pair of dogs. They were later ones, but nicely done and not too expensive. As the years have gone by, I now have quite the pack (pictured are about half of my dogs). They a mix of 20th and 19th century ones and are scattered around on tables, shelves, and atop the mantel.
I have heard many stories about these Staffordshire figures and their origins, most of which turned out to be false. The most common one is that Staffordshire figures were carnival prizes, which is not true. The carnival prize figure was chalkware, made of plaster, not slip or stoneware like the Staffordshire figure. It turns out that Staffordshire figures started around 1720 in imitation of fancy porcelain figurines from Europe, like Meissen, which only the very wealthy could afford. The Staffordshire figures were molded from slip clay, easily mass produced, and presented the middle classes with an affordable decorative object of their own. Not very highbrow.
Early figures were lords and ladies, pastoral scenes of shepherds and shepherdesses, hunting dogs, and exotic animals, not the iconic spaniel that we see today. That classic canine, sitting on its haunches, was most often sold in pairs, becoming popular during the reign of Queen Victoria and her beloved little spaniel Dash. Not that Cavalier Spaniels had not been popular among the upper classes before. King Charles II was famous for his large pack of these regal dogs, ignoring his courtiers to play with his dogs and allowing them to whelp in his bed. (Samuel Pepys has many complaints about the King’s dogs in his diaries.) It was the king and his father, Charles I, who would inspire the breed’s full name, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.
The classic red and white spaniel, known as the Blenheim variety, was perfected by the first Duke of Marlborough, with the distinctive marking on the forehead of some deemed the Blenheim spot (or Duchess Thumbprint, in honor of the Duke’s wife), after his estate. But the first true celebrity Cavalier Spaniel, without a doubt, was Dash, and the dear little Queen was beloved. So darling pairs of spaniels spawned all over the mantelpieces of Great Britain—I was told by another antique dealer that they became a very popular wedding present in the Victorian period.
But this led me to wonder: how did this very middle-class decorative object, gracing the homes of grocers, shopkeepers, and clerks, become a mark of elegance in 20th century America?
I figured that some designer had to use it first so that it passed into the visual vocabulary of good taste. I started by perusing my collection of design books. First, I had a hunch that it might have been Edith Wharton because she had some very original ideas on decoration, but I was wrong. Far too kitschy for Frances Elkins. I finally stumbled on it in Dorothy Draper, and I should have figured it would have been her from the beginning with her bright colors, mix of periods, hints of whimsy, and abhorrence of minimalism.
Starting in 1946 Dorothy Draper undertook the redecoration of The Greenbrier, which had served as an army hospital during the war. She redesigned the entire hotel, right down to the matchbooks, including the famous Victorian Writing Room. Although not terribly Victorian with its cheerful and cozy chintz-laden club chairs paired with Louis Seize ottomans and Queen Anne wingbacks, the Victorian Writing Room is, deservedly, an oft photographed space with its dark green walls, bright white woodwork and fireplace, and pink and red florals.
And right there on the mantel is a large pair of Staffordshire dogs. When I look at this room, it resembles the elegant rooms that I was told represented good taste by my mother: a mix of old and new, clear colors, objects thoughtfully scattered throughout, and somehow simultaneously elegant, formal, and comfortable. One could just as easily curl up in the club chair with a book as swan in wearing an evening gown with a glass of champagne. Perfect.
If you want to start your own little pack of dogs, bear in mind that Staffordshire figures have remained popular for over 200 years. Early 20th century ones will be marked “Made in England Staffordshire” and should be much less expensive. Even earlier examples are not marked. The vent hole, if there is one, should be very small and on the bottom, which should also be indented, not flat. Real figures are hand-painted and look it. The cost can be over $1000 for old ones, but there are plenty of very nice ones from the early 20th century for less than $100. For ideas on how to deploy your dogs, Carleton Varney, Dorothy Draper’s successor, has some wonderful rooms to draw inspiration from.
Sophia du Brul is the owner of Sophia’s Room and conducts estate sales, does appraisals, and deals in vintage and antique décor and furnishings. You can find her at sophiadubrul.com.