s a mid-Victorian, Harrison Weir worked in a culture in which the interconnectedness of humankind and animals was a central concern. The relationship between men and creatures was keenly debated, and was viewed from diverse perspectives. Weir’s menageries implicitly reflect this debate: his use of anthropomorphism intersects with the many attempts, scientific and pseudo-scientific, to find unities between humanity and beasts, and his attribution of human characteristics to his animal subjects is part of a much wider attempt to find linkage and moral order.
Evolutionary theory is part of this context, and Weir’s work provides an imaginative version of Darwin and T. H. Huxley’s belief in ‘the proximity of the human to other organisms’ (Levine, p.170). Evolutionists sought to establish shared biological and behavioural features that cut across the species, and Weir shows that humans and animals are interchangeable, dressing them in clothes, making them speak, and placing them in social situations. Darwin’s The Descent of Man (1871) and The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), and Huxley’s Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature (1863), are all part of a project in which the shared basis of all life is explored in detail, and the same can be said, in a humorous and satirical form, of many of the books designed by Weir for children and their parents.
The Adventures of a Bear (1853) and The Adventures of a Dog (1857) are good examples, and these and several others are predicated on the idea that there is no fundamental difference between the behaviours of people and creatures. Though mainly appearing before the scientific charting of cross-species similarities, they are a part of a contemporary zeitgeist that allowed evolutionary theory to build on an existing currency. Cultural historians have stressed the revolutionary nature of Darwin and Huxley’s claims, but there is no doubt that within popular culture there was a shared assumption – predating evolutionism – that the animal kingdom was fundamentally inclusive, even if man were placed at the top of God’s creation. Weir’s delightful books, notably Animal Stories Old and New (circa 1880), his Adventure series of the 1850s, and his illustrations for Shirley Hibberd’s Clever Dogs (1867) are playful reflections on this theme.
Weir’s designs were further influenced by a broader discourse of anthropomorphism. He is primarily responsive to the idea that human behaviour, once projected onto animals, can then be mirrored back onto humankind – so using animals as proxies or symbols which allow the artist (or writer) to provide social and moral commentaries on the mores of humanity at large. In the words of Martin Danahay and Deborah Morse, animals can be used to provide ‘social critique’, ‘caricature [and] fantasy’, and as emblems or signs for ‘human aspiration and pain’ (p.6). This didactic mechanism originates in Aesop’s Fables, which Weir illustrated in 1867, and provides a moral template for numerous books in which he wrote the text and drew the illustrations. Designed principally for children, though often to be shared with an adult, these publications critique moral behaviour. In Stories of the Sagacity of Animals (1892), for instance, he gives many examples of domestic pets doing good or useful things such as alerting householders of the presence of burglars (pp.39-40) or taking up the reins of a horse and returning it to its master (p.88). He deploys a similar imagery in his work for The Band of Hope Review, in which animals embody moral virtues and good living. In the words of one contemporary, whose comments on the art of Landseer are equally applicable to Weir, he ‘tries to make his animals more than animals … he lends a human sentimental trait to animal character’ (qtd. Maas, p.81).
All of this assumes – and Weir genuinely seems to have believed this idea – that animals were not just reflections of human behaviour, but possessed an instinctive (and instructive) morality all of their own. In Clever Dogs, Hibberd claims that ‘animals have many moral qualities, are capable of intense feeling’ and of ‘distinguishing … between right and wrong’. (pp. 28–29), and this is the informing notion of all of Weir’s didactic picture-books. Bearing in mind his apparent endorsement of Darwinist theories of evolution, he seems to have reconciled the arbitrariness of natural adaption to a fundamentally moralistic view of nature. Interestingly, he never dwells on creatures’ predatory cruelty: they could be selfish or proud, but never driven forward by the need to survive. Weir’s drawings are closely observed, but the tooth and claw are never red; he wants to instruct his juvenile audience, but the harsher realities are never on the agenda.
Animals could be used, nevertheless, as the vehicle for satire. Weir uses creatures as exemplars of behaviour, but he is equally interested in the notion of physical resemblance as a mode of commentary. In this respect he was again responsive to a number of influences. One important element was the anthropomorphism informing physiognomical theory.
According to this pseudo-scientific theory, it was possible to decode a person’s moral character by charting their resemblance to a particular animal – which was itself the embodiment of certain values. He may have read James Redfield’s influential Comparative Physiognomy; or Resemblances between Men and Animals (1852, 1855, 1866), which explores in detail animals’ characteristics and how resemblance to a certain beast denotes a person’s morality and habits. The situation is exemplified by Redfield’s commentary on the vanity of the peacock, arguing how:
Those who cultivate the appearance and manners of the peacock possess the same traits of character … The beauty which surrounds them is an outbirth of an innate appreciation of the beautiful, together with the love of self; and hence they admire it with the fervency of self-love. In other words, they admire nothing so much as themselves; they are filled with vanity, and they believe they must be equally admired by others … .
There is no direct evidence of Weir’s knowledge of Redfield, but the premise of anthropological resemblance was already inscribed in several of his texts. He visualized Mrs Dorset’s The Peacock at Home (1854), showing the vain in precisely these ornithological terms, and followed the same formulation throughout his work for this commission and elsewhere. In practice, animals are substituted for humans: dressed as if they were citizens rather than creatures, they promenade through the pages, people turned into animals whose inner characters are revealed and identified by their surrogate identities. The cunning are re-visualized as foxes, the superficial as pigeons, the lazy as blundering oxen, the brave as lions, and so on.
Left: Fidelity. Right: A sagacious dog. [Click on these images to enlarge them.]
Weir’s treatment of this code can be interestingly read in conjunction with Redfield’s claims, but he was directly influenced by the work of George Cruikshank and the graphic satire of the French artist, Jean Ignace Isidore Gérard Grandville (1803–47). Both artists provided visual exemplars. In Cruikshank’s Table Book (1845), we have images such as ‘Social Ornithology’ (facing p. 165), in which he comments on ‘The annual migration of birds’ by showing the vain and precious as they fly off to the next pleasure-ground. The most direct influence, however, was Grandville’s anthropomorphic books, and especially Scenès de La Vie Privée et Publique des Animaux (1842, issued in parts 1840–42). This depicts Parisians as well-dressed birds, mammals, or reptiles; grotesque in effect (and an obvious influence on Max Ernst and the Surrealists), their moral nature is charted by their bestial identity. This book was copied by Punch cartoonists, notably Richard Doyle, and Weir would have had opportunities to see both Grandville’s book and its many imitators.
Weir’s closest fit with the art of Grandville is Funny Dogs and Funny Tales (1857). Presented as a series of illustrations to texts by Alfred Elwes and Robert Brough, the book embodies the idea that ‘Man and Dog’ throw ‘light on each other’ (p.5), with ‘the souls of men going abroad in the shapes of animals’ (p.9). Weir presents eight droll portraits of Victorian types in the form of dogs: ‘The Low Dog’, ‘The Fast Dog’, ‘The Knowing Dog’, and so on.
Funny Dogs and Funny Tales is a perfect fusion of observation, both anatomical and satirical; at once knowing and urbane, it is the sort of book children would have loved while also appealing to their parents. Recalling the fables of Aesop and La Fontaine, it has the power of allegory, mediating between fantasy and hard social truths, entertaining story-telling and penetrating satire.
Primary Works Cited and Sources of Information
Blatty, Joseph. Harrison Weir: Artist, Author and Poultryman. Beech Publishing House, 2003.
Brothers Dalziel, The. A Record of Work: 1840–1900. 1901; rpt. London: Batsford, 1978.
Elwes, Alfred. The Adventures of a Bear. London: Addey & Co., 1853.
Elwes, Alfred. The Adventures of a Dog. London: Addey & Co., 1857.
Funny Dogs with Funny Tales. London: Addey & Co., 1852.
George Cruikshank’s Table Book. London: Punch Office, 1845.
Grandville, J. J. Scenès de La Vie Privée et Publique des Animaux. Paris: Hetzel et Paulin, 1842.
Graves, Algernon. The Royal Academy of Arts: A Complete Dictionary of Contributors from its Foundation in 1769 to 1904. Vol. 3. London: Bell, 1905.
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Poetry of Nature, The.Selected & Illustrated by Harrison Weir. London: Sampson Low, 1861.
Redfield, James.Comparative Physiognomy; or Resemblances between Men and Animals. New York: for the author, 1852.
Stories about Birds. London: Cassell, Petter, & Galpin, n.d. .
Summer Time in the Country. Ed. R. A. Willmott. London: Routledge, 1858.
Turner, Catherine Ann [Mrs Dorset].The Peacock at Home.London: Grant & Griffith, 1854.
Victorian Animal Dreams: Representations of Animals in Victorian Literature and Culture. Eds. Deborah Denenholz Morse and Martin A. Danahay. Burlington VT: Ashgate, 2007.
Weir, Harrison. Animal Stories Old and New. London: Sampson Low, n.d. .
Last modified 1 April 2013