Kings and Commoners: The Miniature Dog Paintings of Gertrude Massey
Some years ago, I was delighted to learn of the incredible miniature dog portraits by the Englishwoman Gertrude Massey, née Seth (1868-1957). I was fortunate to buy her personal archive of black and white photographs of her work and press clippings about her.
Massey originally painted full size works, but not of dogs; that would come later. At the age of 16, and without much of any formal training, her professional career began by accident. A friend was taking one of her works to be framed when another occupant of the carriage in which they were traveling was attracted to it. His admiration led to commissions of more than 40 portraits of his family and circle of friends.
In 1890, Gertrude Seth married the artist Henry Massey (1860-1934). Henry’s father hoped that a gold sovereign he had received as payment for a short-lived job at a retail establishment would bribe his son away from artistic pursuits. Henry, however, decided the sovereign would make a terrific watch fob and headed off to France and Italy to study art. When he returned from Europe, he met and married Gertrude, and the gold sovereign/watch fob was transformed into her wedding ring. The couple made their home in St. John’s Wood, London.
Mrs. Massey’s first royal patron was Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII). She described him as, “the best friend I ever had, and who kept me always busy doing miniatures of his own family or of his friends.” The royal portraits included Queen Victoria, Edward’s wife Alexandra and numerous likenesses of the royal children — such that by 1904, she had painted 11 miniatures of the English Royal Family.
It was also through Edward that she began painting canine miniatures by portraying his French bulldog, Peter. In 1900, she painted Queen Victoria’s Pomeranians, Turi and Marco. That painting was the last Christmas gift from Edward and Alexandra to Victoria.
In 1907, Henry purchased London’s famed art school, Heatherley’s. Believing that men and women should have access to the same education, he fought, somewhat scandalously, to include women students in classes having nude models. Gertrude became an instructor in miniature painting there.
Mrs. Massey’s output of miniatures of dogs and people was prolific. Her production was enhanced by her ambidextrous abilities: When her right hand or arm became fatigued, she would switch to her left. She would sometimes watch a dog for several days to observe all of its many expressions. In a 1903 magazine article, Mrs. Massey stated, “To me a dog-sitter is an individual, and I try to bring out his character and grasp the likeness in the same way as I paint the miniature of a human being.”
Her archive is full of photos of the dogs of princesses and queens. It includes the Queen of Norway’s dog Billy and others owned by her; numerous poses of Queen Alexandra’s many Japanese Chins (one pair being named Mr. and Mrs. Togo); the Empress of Russia’s Pekingese,
Souna; and Princess Victoria’s dog, Fluffy, posed with a dove imaginatively named Dovey. There are numerous dogs owned by numerous ladies, with the Rothschilds being very well represented.
Massey painted not only for the aristocracy and royalty but, as the title of her autobiography, Kings, Commoners and Me, indicates, for many people who were merely “Mr.” or “Mrs.” someone. Also in this vein, there are at least two miniatures that she did of collection dogs — dogs who inhabited the train stations and wore boxes in which to drop donations for charity.
A large swath of society was represented at Heatherley’s. Well known artists as well as beginners studied there, from low to highbrow. At an earlier time William Makepeace Thakeray had been a student. During Henry Massey’s tenure, Ray Bolger (the scarecrow in the movie “The Wizard of Oz”) attended classes and the novelist Evelyn Waugh studied there, as well.
Evidently, Waugh had a difficult time with the blending of social strata and sexes. In a typical bit of nastiness, he described the female students as, “underbred houris in gaudy overalls.” Perhaps he did not read the sign posted on the school door, “Abandon swank all ye who enter here.”
Gertrude Massey did read the sign, and with her talent it served her very well. Princess Victoriaʼs Dovey and Fluffy. Mrs. Arthur Sassoonʼs Sky Terrier.
Color images of Mrs. Masseyʼs miniatures can be viewed by clicking here. Mrs. Masseyʼs miniatures. You will have to scroll through a number of images of people before coming to dogs and other animals.
This article, in a slightly different version, first appeared in Middleburg Life, in the column “Then & There.”
© Richard Hooper