When discussing early paintings of Collies the name most often heard is Edwin Henry Landseer, yet looking through the examples of his work online he doesn’t really paint too many Collies and they are usually obscured or in the background. The lesser known contemporary of Landseer’s who really painted the Collie is Richard Ansdell.
Ansdell spent a great deal of time in the Highlands of Scotland in the decades prior to the founding of The Kennel Club and the beginning of the Collies slow evolution into the modern Rough Collie and as such the study of his paintings is a great tool in determining what the true Highland Collie looked like before it began to change to meet the whims of fanciers. Ansdell built a home in the Highlands on Loch Laggan where he spent time painting and studying the rural lifestyle that was rapidly disappearing, so we know that he definitely had opportunity to observe the native Collies of the Scottish Highlands.
Richard Ansdell was born in 1815 in Liverpool and started his career as a painter in earnest in 1835, he died in 1885. Charles Wheeler, writing in “The Dog Book” published in 1906 says “About the year 1860 classes were first provided for sheep dogs at the Birmingham Show, and at the show in 1863 the entries numbered six only. However, the entries steadily increased until they reached as many as forty-five at the show held in Birmingham in 1874, and it was about this era that breeding for show points started in earnest” This puts the majority of Ansdell’s Collie paintings long before “breeding for show points” began.
There are really a wide range of looks in Ansdell’s Collies, black and tan, tri-color, even sable and even some more unusual color patterns. The most common look is a tri-color with irish-white markings that looks like Sojourner’s Jacob, a modern Scotch Collie.
A lot is made of the Collie’s head and it’s evolution over the years. In the next comparison I have taken several show Collies from the turn of the 20th century and compared their heads to Ansdell’s Collies. In my eyes there is not that much change for over 30 years of show breeding. I see that same pointed, fox-like muzzle, although I would say there seems to be a definite lessening of the stop.
Richard Ansdell’s paintings are a real treasure, some of the finest material available for studying the pre-dog show Collie, and because he spent real time on the ground in the Scottish Highlands we can trust his depictions as accurate.