Most dog owners really love their dogs — they’re often considered part of the family. Sometimes, you’ll find them included in family portraits. And there is, similarly, a cottage industry around keepsakes featuring the family pet — for a small fee, you can have someone paint a picture of your dog. For example, here is a collection of people offering that service on Etsy, if you’re so inclined.
But while these works of art may be special to you and your family, they’re rarely worthy of a museum. The picture below, though, may be an exception.
That’s an oil on canvas of Callum, a Dandie Dinmont terrier. It’s by an artist named John Emms, who you’ve probably never heard of because almost no one has. Outside the art world, he’s virtually unknown — his sparse Wikipedia entry, if that is any measure, opens simply with “John Emms (1844 – 1 November 1912) was an English artist.” No birth date, no summary as to his importance or notability, not even a middle name, if he had one. He was talented, no one doubts, and one of his paintings is estimated to be worth about $1 million, so he’s also not purely a nobody. But that painting above isn’t that million dollar painting — and really, there’s nothing about it that’s all that special. At least not to most of us.
“Callum” was created on the request of James Cowan Smith, of whom history has left little record. All we know for sure is that he had a good amount of money and really loved his dogs as, in 1895, Smith commissioned Emms to paint the above. We don’t know if the real Callum was alive at the time, nor if Smith hired Emms because of the latter’s fame, or any other details of the transaction. What we do know is that the painting was special to Smith — but probably not a national treasure to the people of Scotland.
And yet, if you want to see “Callum” in person today, you can. It’s on display at the National Gallery of Scotland, and likely will be for as long as that gallery exists. The Gallery’s website explains why: “[Smith] bequeathed £55,000 [worth about £7 million or $8.5 million today] to the National Gallery of Scotland in 1919. This enormous amount formed an important trust fund for acquisitions. His bequest had two conditions: the first that the Gallery provided for his dog Fury, who survived him; the second that Emms’ picture of his previous dog Callum should always be hung in the Gallery. Both conditions were fulfilled, and although Fury is long since dead, Callum still hangs in the Gallery in memory of his owner.”
From the Archives: The Statue in Glasgow with a Traffic Cone on Its Head — Sometimes.