Many tours of Highclere begin in the Library. When you walk into the smaller (north) part of this splendid cosy room, there is just one painting which is set above the fireplace. To our modern eyes it looks like a little girl in her frilly petticoats but it is, in fact, a little boy holding his pet dog on a lead. It was painted in 1770 by Thomas Hudson (Hudson 1701-1779) who studied under Jonathon Richardson before marrying Richardson’s daughter. Sir Joshua Reynolds was in fact one of his pupils.
Perhaps it was the presence of his pet dog that persuaded him to stand still and look happy for long enough for the artist to sketch him. Certainly, he looks not much older than my son Edward was when I bought our first yellow Labrador, Percy. Few photographs of Edward taken in those early years did not include Percy as well and, looking through the Castle rooms, many of the other family photos have at least one or two dogs in them too.
The drawing room is dominated by the large Beechey portrait of the children of the first Earl of Carnarvon with their pet dog Pincer who does not look at all friendly. In the Smoking Room there are more paintings with dogs though, in these cases, more in the guise of hunting dogs than children’s pets.
By the time you are climbing the Red Stairs to the Gallery, dogs have become assimilated into your impression of life and home throughout the Castle’s history. On the wall leading to the top floor of the Castle is an enormous portrait of a rather grand, commanding looking ancestor of Geordie’s – William Herbert – from the time of Henry VIII and his immediate successors. Despite his grand dress and formidable pose, he too is painted with a tiny, cute, white dog, making it clear that this little animal was definitely part of his life.
Today, our dogs are more often on our mobile phones and tablets acting as screen savers and are a large part of what I post on Instagram. However, in a life in which we look at screens all day long and listen to tiny headphones, dogs are often there to bring us back to a contrasting world. You don’t have to follow instructions in newspapers to know how good they are for our health. They encourage the sense of touch – so important for those on their own, are the safe and non-critical recipients of both dreams and tales of disasters and, most importantly of all, encourage us to get up and out to take some exercise in the fresh air. They offer unconditional love and from body language to scent, to hearing and sight, they help us attune to the world around.
I think you have all probably gathered by now through these blogs that the friendship of my dogs is at the centre of my life (apart from my husband of course!) and how much they are part of the sense of home and place here at Highclere but I am not alone in this. For centuries they have played this same role as companion and, in the past, co-hunter, featuring in prehistoric scenes, Egyptian tombs, Greek vases and Roman sculptures.
They make our journey through our lives so much richer to the point where I sometimes think they have a clearer idea of where they are going than we do in our more muddled lives.