Part of the Family: Pets in Victorian Portraits

C. Millington Drayson, Mrs. Milhausen, Wife of the Bishop of Barbados, c. 1875, albumen silver print, 9 x 5.6 cm. Purchased 1972, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC


Cats, dogs of all sizes, rabbits, birds and even a horse are the unexpected subjects of a new, intriguing display of Victorian photographs from the collections of the National Gallery of Canada and Library and Archives Canada. The installation is an impressive display of various photographic mediums — including a daguerreotype, tintypes, albumen prints, and modern inkjet prints of glass plate negatives — all united by the theme of ‘Pets’. 

Farmer,  Basil Levett with Nina the pony, c. 1865, albumen silver print, 6.1 x 9.1 cm. Purchased 1972, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC


According to Andrea Kunard, Associate Curator of Photographs at the NGC, the idea originated in her research into cartes de visite (small photographs mounted on card, patented in Paris in the 1850s) in the collection of Library and Archives Canada. Initially surprised by how many of these images featured animals, she notes that “these photographs are incredibly interesting in terms of their imagery but also in what they reveal about the identity and societal values of the Victoria Era.”

William James Topley, Cat for Master Frechette, 1887, photograph inkjet print from glass negative, c. 3.25 x 4.25 in. Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3448830


While some of the photographs feature exclusively animals as, for example, the charming image of a cat in a hat, others are formal studio portraits of individuals or families with their ‘furry friends’. During these early years of photographic technology, photographs were treasured keepsakes that were usually taken in commercial studios on rare occasions. The use of this modern (and, for some, expensive) technology to capture images of pets speaks volumes about the changing status of animals during the late nineteenth century. Instead of being relegated to the outdoors, Kunard notes how pets were being integrated into the domestic sphere and became viewed as members of the extended family.  

This shift in thought is reflected in the photography of the time. Long associated with morality, loyalty and faithfulness, dogs are particularly prominent in these photographs. Their popularity is even more interesting, considering the significant role of morality, humility and loyalty in the social consciousness of the Victorian era. It raises the question whether such photographs of pets were taken solely to serve as cherished keepsakes or were individuals hoping to associate themselves with these values by including animals in their portraits.

Unknown, Man with two dogs, n.d., photograph carte de visite, 6 x 10 cm. Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 4957993


More questions arise when thinking about broader histories taking place during this period. As Kunard explains, it was during the Victorian era that advocacy for child labour laws and animal rights began to gain prominence: “people became preoccupied with ideas of social responsibility, and how to protect the rights of those who can't speak for themselves”. These human and animal rights movements extended into other creative fields, and photography became a way to memorialize oneself, one’s individuality, values and awareness of oneself.

Unknown, Alice Field with white rabbit, n.d., photograph cabinet cards, 10.9 x 16.5 cm.  Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 4955132


Interestingly, in the display there are two separate studio portraits of different people but including the same dog in both images. Does this mean the studio had a real dog on stand-by as a “prop” for customers to include in their photos? Or perhaps different members of the same family had their portraits taken separately but wished to include the household pet. Visitors to the gallery will have the opportunity to admire the photographs, contemplate these possibilities and think about our collective histories of caring for animals and cherishing their images. 



The photographic display Constant Companions: Pets in Nineteenth Century Photography is on view in the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries at the National Gallery of Canada from April 10, 2018. To share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right hand of the page.

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