by   David Hancock

The association between large and often imposing houses and large and equally imposing dogs is a long and varied one. In the days when the nobility of Europe prided themselves on their horses and dogs, many famous breeds owed their origin to the dedicated, almost single-minded patronage of landed families. The royalty and aristocracy of Europe liked to have their portraits painted with their mastiff-like dogs, as the Batoni portrait of Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, the Della portrait of Kaiser Ferdinand II, the Van Dyck portrait of the children of Charles I and the Velazquez painting of Las Meninas illustrate, the latter featuring a cropped-eared Spanish mastiff, a breed still existing today. The inherited sense of sporting history in the blood of such dynasties so often led to the stables and kennels being a prized feature of the family property. The architectural importance of purpose-built kennels such as those at Croxteth Hall in Liverpool and Lyme Hall near Manchester is now acknowledged. The fact that so many of these kennels no longer have dogs in them is disappointing. Lyme Hall retains paintings of its mastiffs; Chatsworth and Nostell Priory retain the collars of their mastiffs. But how comforting it would be to see this ancient association revived. The Lyme Hall kennels are now empty but their Danish equivalents may soon be filling up with the mastiffs of Broholm Castle or Broholmers, now thankfully being resurrected. The Boerboel of South Africa, developed from the Bullenbijter of the Brabant -- now divided between Belgium and Holland, also of mastiff type, is similarly being saved from extinction. Our own breed doesn't need saving from extinction but how good it would be to see these huge dogs back in favour at great houses. Mastiffs, eminent owners and historic houses coincide again and again when the development of today's mastiff breed is researched. We can read of the Earl of Oxford's 'Lion', the Marquis of Hertford's 'Pluto', Lord Waldegrave's 'Turk' and 'Couchez', Sir Fermor Hesketh's 'Nero', Sir George Armitage's 'Tiger' and Sir E. Wilmott's 'Lion'. As well as the celebrated Lyme Hall strain, we can discover an old line of pure Alpine mastiffs (probably smooth St.Bernards) at Chatsworth and references to mastiffs at Elvaston Castle near Derby, Hadzor Hall near Worcester, Trentham Park near Stoke on Trent, Bold Hall in Lancashire, Esthwaite Hall in the Lake District and Nostell Priory in Yorkshire, Lord Stanley's dogs at Alderley and Athrington Hall's 'Lion'. Mastiffs and mansions were clearly closely associated and those at Lyme Hall hardly unique. Mastiff researchers however, looking at the words of writers in the 19th century, especially the Victorians, need to exercise great caution. Far too many so-called authorities of that period knew little of foreign breeds, seemed to regard British breeds as the source of all foreign ones and constantly referred to breeds in times when pure-breeding was neither desired nor practised. Writers on mastiffs have produced more inventions than perhaps any other breed historians. It is vital too to keep in mind that writers on dogs in the last century came almost entirely from the educated monied classes in times when class distinction was at its height. Just as 300 years earlier, Dr. Caius, a scholar not a sportsman, had his leg pulled by the dogmen of his day, so too were far too many 19th century writers out of touch with breeds not used in the hunting or shooting fields. In this way, sheepdogs, terriers and dogs used by uneducated people were rarely adequately covered, whilst foxhounds, pointers and setters had whole libraries written about them. Links with 'mastiffs' based on quotes from British writers on dogs at the turn of the century therefore need close scrutiny if they are to have a value placed upon them. Those wishful thinkers seeking a long and pure ancestry for the modern breed of mastiff would be wise to ignore the more absurd claims of past breed enthusiasts. In previous centuries the mastiff was, by contemporary criteria, a very large mongrel. 'Idstone', writing in his authoritative 'The Dog' of 1871, states: "We cannot visit a fair or market in any provincial town without observing this mongrel Mastiff on guard amongst the travellers' carts, generally brindled, frequently blazed...and blended with the Greyhound." Etymologists tell us that the word mastiff itself comes from the French 'metif', in Old French 'mestif', in Middle English 'mastyf' or 'mestiv' meaning mixed breed or mongrel. This accepted meaning should not be perceived as being demeaning to the contemporary recognised breed of mastiff; pure breeding is a modern phenomenon. It emphasises however the foolishness of identifying modern breeds in ancient illustrations or antique paintings. The artist depicted the phenotype (i.e. what he saw), we can only guess at the genotype (i.e. the genetic make-up of the dog) and what the parents or the offspring looked like. Noble sportsmen favoured the heavy hound or hunting mastiff because of its field capability not its pedigree. Famous names on early mastiff breeding records indicate the remarkable mixture behind the modern breed. The esteemed 'Couchez' was in fact an 'Alpine Mastiff', probably in the mould of a smooth St. Bernard. Waterman's 'Tiger' was aGreat Dane from Ireland. Lukey's 'Pluto' and 'Countess' were not English and reportly of Thibet mastiff type. James Watson's words, in his undervalued two volume work 'The Dog Book' of 1906, were probably the most accurate opinion at that time: "The patent facts are that from a number of dogs of various types ofEnglish watchdogs and baiting dogs, running from 26" to 29" or perhaps 30" in height, crossed with continental dogs of Great Dane and of old fashioned St. Bernard type, the mastiff has been elevated through the efforts of English breeders to the dog he became about twenty years ago." I suspect that the separation of noble families from their mastiffs had multiple causes, with two world wars significant accelerators. But one rather sad reason could lie in the departure of the modern breed away from its historic mould as a heavy hound, used to pull down big game such as auroch, buffalo, boar and wild bull, and into a cumbersome unathletic overweight yard-dog. It is not historically correct to seek in this modern breed a dog weighing 180lbs, measuring 32" at the withers and lacking mobility, physical soundness, featuring sunken eyes and sagging lips. Morally, it is disgraceful to breed dogs with harmful exaggerations. Commercially, it is disastrous to breed dogs which attract huge veterinary bills. Compassionately, it is distressing to see dogs bred which only enjoy a limited lifespan and a restricted lifestyle. On these grounds I can understand any potential mastiff owner, mansion-owner or not, looking elsewhere. Nevertheless, the mastiff, a magnificent breed of imposing stature and impressive temperament, is an important feature of our canine heritage and it would be good to see a remodelled breed, physically respecting its own ancestry, gracing the steps of great houses once again. Earlier this century, the Marquess of Londonderry and the Duke of Gloucester favoured the bullmastiff, smaller and more athletic than their sister breed but strangely now being desired by some fanciers to be more mastifflike. Fashion has destroyed more than one breed of dog but it would be good to see the mastiff of England fashionable once again amongst mansion-owners. This a breed of reassuring solidity, with noble bearing, an air of relaxed superiority yet possessing considerable reliability. They have much in common with the great houses they once adorned.