Dogs are a familiar sight in portraits and there are a couple featured in the collection at Lydiard Park. In one of Lady Johanna St John, painted in 1670 by Godfrey Kneller, she is shown against a classical backdrop with a small spaniel seated on a ledge alongside her, its paw resting on her arm in a very cute pose. When pictured at a woman’s feet or in her lap, the dog usually represents marital fidelity or in the case of a widow, fidelity to her husband’s memory. Spaniels of all sorts were popular in the 17th century, particularly at the court of Charles II whose ministers would grumble at his paying more attention to his dogs than to government business. Spaniels were sporting dogs as well as pet dogs, and were status symbols associated with grand estates.
The toy spaniel in the portrait of Henrietta St John aged two, which was painted in 1701, served a slightly different purpose. It looks gentle and sweet, and Henrietta is stroking its soft ears. It’s a charming picture in which both the dog and the small child convey a sense of goodness. The dog wears a tiny red collar and looks very compliant and obedient.
A dog’s presence in a seventeenth century nursery was not at all uncommon despite the hygiene implications, and it could when needed be used like a hot water bottle! Nowadays the dogs at Lydiard are most likely to be all sorts of breeds, running around enjoying themselves in the park, just as Lady Johanna and Henrietta’s dogs did before them.