A Matter of Good Breeding

You've probably laughed at the exaggerated eighteenth and early nineteenth century paintings and prints of cattle with their large rectangular bodies and short spindly legs; but have you ever wondered what events and attitudes made this art appealing to the people of that time? The truth may surprise you. These charming, countrified, depictions of cattle actually mark the beginning of a more scientific approach to animal husbandry. Certainly many of the painters who portrayed the cattle had little formal art training, which resulted in the "innocent art" simplicity of the pieces. Also the animals themselves took on a somewhat exaggerated appearance because the goal of the final feeding program was to fatten them to obesity. Tallow was then an important beef-by-product. The breeding of larger cattle with uniform traits had become a fashionable pastime for many of the great land owners. The art was a result of a wish to make a lasting record of the animals they bred and owned. This new scientific approach to breeding cattle was a matter of great interest and pride to all landowners, whether or not they possessed the where-with-all to indulge in this gentlemanly pursuit. Magazines, lectures, clubs, and prints all capitalized on the enthusiasm for the new breeding programs that produced improved livestock. The art quite simply exaggerated the traits that marked the new breeds helping to establish the look and traits of the new breed types in the public mind.

Improvements in fodder production coupled with a burgeoning population provided an incentive for the development of larger cattle breeds. A feeding program that included fodder crops and even seaweed combined with the in-breeding and cross-breeding programs used to establish the desired traits of a new breed had a dramatic impact on the average size of animals brought to the Smithfield Market. In 1710 beeves averaged 370 pounds and calves 50 pounds, by 1795, the average reached 800 pounds for beeves and 148 pounds for calves.

A painting by Thomas Weaver (ca.1774-1843) portrays a gigantic white heifer, one of the famous "exhibition" animal known as " The White Heifer That Traveled", in front of a shed with a man slicing turnips, one of the new fodder crops, into a bowl placed before the animal. The reference to the use of turnips as fodder in the painting was meant to convey that the animal had been raised according to the latest methods.

The Collings brothersCharles Colling, the owner of a small farm, visited Robert Bakewell in 1784 and learned some of Bakewell's methods for breeding animals with particular traits. He returned home and purchased a small bull that he named Hubbach. The bull was "small, short-legged, yellowish-red and white with a good mossy coat" (Russell, 1947). Colling then bought four cows named Duchess,Cherry, Daisy and Favourite from four different farmers in the area. It is said that the owner of Favourite, John Maynard, initially asked too high a price for the cow and Colling refused to pay. However, Mrs. Colling was particularly fond of the cow and Mrs. Maynard urged her husband to lower the price. "These five animals were the foundation of the Shorthorn breed; and the descendants of Favourite became the best known" (Russell, 1947).

One of Hubbach's descendants Favorite sired a bull named Comet (1804-1815), the most famous bull of the nineteenth century. Favourite also sired the Ketton Ox, which became better known as the Durham Ox.

The Durham OxThe Durham Ox was bred by the brothers Charles and Robert Colling of Ketton farm in 1796 was a huge animal that captured the attention of the British public. The ox was purchased by a wealthy aristocrat and toured England and Scotland for six years in a specially designed carriage. The ox's owner sent the celebrated animal from one agricultural fair to another -- and pocketed a portion of the admission fees. The ox was conveyed more than 3,000 miles, over a period of five years, before the beast dislocated its hip while on show at Oxford in February 1807. It was slaughtered two months later and weighed in at 189 stone. During its lifetime, it reached an incredible maximum weight of 270 stone.

On a single day in London, where the Ox spent most of 1802, admission fees totaled 97 pounds....Combining massive presence and distinguished pedigree, the Durham ox exemplified the end toward which late eighteenth-century prize cattle breeding was directed; it was the type of bovine excellence (Ritvo, 1987).
Not only did people pay to see this beast, but in 1802 alone, more than 2000 people purchased a print, done in 1802 by John Boultbee, of the squarish, roan ox. The prints were hung in homes, inns, and coaching houses. The touring ox and the prints helped to establish the ideal type for the early short-horn breed. The ox's image even appeared on blue and white Staffordshire dinner service.

The animal became so famous that many inns were named after the Durham Ox of Ketton Farm.

The paintings of the new cattle breeds and inexpensive prints helped to both spread information about new cattle breeds and allowed interested people to follow other breeder's progress. These prints depicted the color and marking pattern, horn shape, and other breed characteristics that were to make the breeds immediately recognizable to the public. Wide sales of the prints made this information a part of public knowledge. There were a steady flow of cattle prints produced between 1798 and 1845 (Russell, 1947). Those wealthy enough to own the animals commissioned artists of the day to portray their beasts. Engravers then made less expensive prints, which were offered for sale to the public. Several artists: George Garrard (1760 - 1826), James Ward (1769-1859), and Thomas Sidney "Cow" Cooper made a substantial living doing paintings that depicted cattle.

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