Jennings’ Dog

Jun 26, 2022 | Diggings Online | 0 comments

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According to Plutarch, Alcibiades, the Athenian politician, had a particularly fine dog but one day, when the political pressure was more than usually intense, he cut its tail off “in order to give the Athenians something else to talk about”. This story must have been in the mind of Henry Jennings (1731-1819) when he happened upon a striking statue of a dog in the shop of Bartolomeo Cavaceppi, a restorer and dealer in antiques in Rome. The statue had part of its tail missing – damaged in antiquity – and Jennings promptly christened it “Alciabiades’ Dog” and bought it.

Molossian Hounds were famous in Greek and Roman times as ferocious hunting and guard dogs. One of the “turns” in the circus was to set a pack of Molossian Hounds loose on a group of condemned prisoners so that the crowd could enjoy watching them being torn to pieces. (Much the same sort of pleasure was gained by the ancient Romans by such a spectacle as we gain from some of the more gory films on television. Although we know – or hope – that the stuntmen involved walked away afterwards, I always think of Seneca’s comment when condemning the bloody games of the circus; “If the man is a murderer, hang him, kill him, but you, what have you done that you should be condemned to watch him being slowly torn apart?”)

The arrival in Britain of this larger than life-size statue of a Molossian Hound caused a sensation, so much so that for many years afterwards Henry was known as “Dog Jennings” and the statue itself as “Jennings’ Dog”. Unfortunately it did not remain Jennings’ dog for long: as well as a passion for collecting, Jennings was also a keen gambler and 18 years after buying the dog he was forced to sell it – and the rest of his collection – in order to pay off his debts and gain his release from the debtors’ prison.

Jennings’ Dog was purchased by a certain Charles Duncombe, who took it to his home in Duncombe Park, where it remained, accessible only to his friends and guests until 1925 when the iniquity of inheritance taxes obliged his descendants to dispose of the hall, which was rented to Queen Mary’s School for Girls. The young ladies, I regret to say, did not treat the Hound with the respect it deserved and there are rumours that its jaws were often the repository of unwanted Marmite sandwiches – an austerity food favoured by the Matron and detested by the damsels.

However while the original was hidden from the public, copies were readily available and, thanks to favourable comments from such arbiters of public taste as Dr Samuel Johnson, replicas were soon to be found all over England, for a copy was considered to make “a most noble appearance in a gentleman’s hall.” This is somewhat ironic, for Jennings’ marble dog was itself a Roman copy of a Greek original, which was probably cast in bronze. Unfortunately there is nothing on the statue itself to indicate the provenance of this original.

Recently the dog has found a new home. Thanks to a public appeal, as well as support from various charitable funds, the British Museum has purchased Jennings’ Dog and intends to put it on display in the very near future.

May 2002

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