Champion Animals

I knew we would enjoy our visit to Richmond, Va., but I never dreamed I’d see so many gorgeous animals – not only dogs, but horses, cows, sheep and pigs – all at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

They have a wonderful collection of paintings by George Stubbs, who’s known for his paintings of horses, but I was drawn to one of a black and white spaniel. I don’t remember the artist’s name, but if I could have hidden the painting beneath my coat and made a clean get-away I would have. There was also a humorous painting of a brown spaniel with his paws on a keyboard titled “Portrait of an Extraordinary Musical Dog” by Philip Reinagle.

What really captivated me, though, was the collection of sculptures by Herbert Haseltine, all part of his series, “British Champion Animals.” The series includes three sheep, three pigs, four sculptures of cattle and nine of horses. The cattle, pigs and sheep are all one-third life-size and are in bronze, marble or limestone, with embellishments such as gold plate, onyx, ivory and lapis lazuli.

I hardly knew what to look at first, and finally started on the right and looked at each statue once, then zigzagged through them, looking at my favorites again, backtracking for another look at any that I felt I hadn’t given my full attention to the first time through.

It’s not unusual to see bronzes of horses but they are rarely of draft breeds, Haseltine does include one polo pony and two thoroughbreds, in his series, but the rest are all draft breeds and they are just magnificent. The artist really captures the power and strength of these animals in a small space.

The first draft horse the artist ever sculpted was a Shire stallion, Field Marshal V, owned by King George V. The sculpture is bronze with gold plate and just radiates power. I also loved his rendering of a Percheron stallion, Rhum, done in Bardiglio marble, a dark gray marble, with lighter veins throughout, and a Percheron mare and foal in the same material.

As much as I love horses, my three favorite statues were those of a sheep, a cow and a pig. Of the three sheep, two were done in limestone and depicted two Lincoln rams, Conqueror and Challenger. My favorite, just designated as Sandringham Ewe No. 10, is bronze with gold plate. The gold-plated “wool” looks like the ewe is covered with hundreds of gold disks. The only bronze that shows is the sheep’s lower legs, muzzle, eyes and ears.

Of the three pigs, two, a Middle White boar and a Middle White sow, are carved in a light rose-colored marble. They are “Wharfedale Deliverance” and “Wharfedale Royal Lady.” The detail is amazing and the personality of the boar, especially, is evident. The sculpture I’d like to own, though, is a likeness of “Highfield Royal Pygmalion,” done in bronze and gold plate. He was a Berkshire boar, and he trots along daintily on gold plated hooves, leading with a lightly gold-plated muzzle. The rest of the sculpture has a dark, almost black patina.

The third statue I’d like in my collection is of a dairy shorthorn cow, “Lily Charter the Second.” The proportions seem so perfect, and the sculpture has a beautiful blue-green patina except for the gold plate accents. Hooves, inner ears, horns and the hair on the end of her tail, are all gold. The other three bovines are all bulls. There’s an Angus, “Black Knight of Auchterarder,” in black marble, a shorthorn, “Bridgebank Paymaster,” in red marble, and a Hereford bull, “Twyford Fairy Boy,” in bronze, with gold-plate hooves. I loved Lily from one end to the other, but the head on this Hereford bull is really lovely.

It was hard to leave and I think I tested the patience of the rest of the family. Jim, Joan, Tom, thanks for letting me look my fill, including my darting back for “just one more look” at the paintings, and a quick step left to admire “Rhum” one more time, and another step to the right for a final glance at “Field Marshal V.”

The museum is full of wonderful treasures from all over the world and I enjoyed everything we saw, but if we return, it may be hard to pry me away from the canine paintings, and from the amazing sculptures of Herbert Haseltine. If you ever visit Richmond, and you love animals, make the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts your first stop.