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he status, role and significance of animals and the animal kingdom were key issues in the development of Victorian culture. The theory of evolution was of course the central constituent in this debate, but other considerations were important too. Animals as pets, as beasts of burden, their position within the evolutionary chain, their behaviour and character and their relationship to humankind were all important topics, sometimes surrounded by anxiety and fear. These issues are the subject of academic investigation, and one of the most interesting explorations is a collection of essays edited by Deborah Denenholz Morse and Martin A. Danahay, Victorian Animal Dreams: Representations of Animals in Victorian Literature and Culture (2007). The arguments contained in this anthology are detailed and provocative, but their emphasis is mainly on literature, and does not enter into a detailed consideration of visual representations.

How animals are shown in visual culture is nevertheless a central part of the discourse of Victorian understandings of the natural world. Animals are the subjects of paintings, prints, book and magazine illustrations, cartoons, zoological text-books and books for the school and nursery. The variety of depiction is itself difficult to limit or conceptualize, forming a genre that extends from picturesque landscapes including groups of cattle to emblematic signs of moral values, such as Edwin Landseer’s The Monarch of the Glen(1851) and Dignity and Impudence(1839). It also encompasses satirical hits at society in Punch cartoons, where politicians are often characterized as animals, and pictures of prize-winning bulls and horses, the sort of folk-art that can still be seen on the walls of British pubs and clubs.

Left to right: (a) Self-portrait, aged 38, with Chickens by William Huggins . (b) Queen Victoria's Dogs and Parrot by Sir Edwin Landseer, RA. (c) The Only One — The Earth by Harrison Weir. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

These complex traditions are carried forward by numerous painters and graphic designers. Landseer is the most celebrated of these trained practitioners; others included Edward Lear, John William Herring and William Huggins (Maas, pp.78–86). Less familiar are the designers whose primary work appeared in illustrations rather than on canvas or in watercolour, and whose audiences were those of the middle-class fireside. One of the most accomplished of these was Joseph Wolf (1820–99), although the foremost illustrator of this type of material was unquestionably Harrison Weir (1824–1906). Weir’s art is complex, and encompasses a wide range of subjects; apparently straightforward, his achievement embodies many of the features of the genre as a whole.

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Last modified 1 April 2013