An Englishman’s dog is his lion

If you’ve ever seen Blake’s illustrated plate of Tyger, you might wonder whether Blake had ever seen a real tiger in his life. The creature standing beneath the tree has more in common with poor Hobbes than with the scourge of Bengali villagers. But the more I see lions in London, the more it seems that the English make their lions look like nothing more than dogs.

Your monumental lion in London, whether it’s helpfully holding a ring in its jaws, sleeping watch over the dead, atop a grand country pile or just resting is positively canine in appearance. It’s not so much their anatomy as their attitude, the subservient, position they take, guardians rather than hunters, teeth never bared. Entirely missing are either the inscrutability or the fierceness you see in the face of any actual lion.

Landseer’s pack of four guarding Nelson’s column are typical. No lone predators here, their heads are alert, their paws forward and they wait for the order to stand just as if Barbara Woodhouse herself were waving a tasty treat at them.

One response to “An Englishman’s dog is his lion

  1. Robert Kingham

    In ‘A Complaint of the Decay of Beggars in the Metropolis’ (1823), Charles Lamb compares the homeless to lions:

    ‘Mendicants of this great city were so many of her sights, her lions. I can no more spare them than I could the Cries of London. No corner of a street is complete without them. They are as indispensable as the Ballad Singer; and in their picturesque attire as ornamental as the Signs of old London. They were the standing morals, emblems, mementos, dial-mottos, the spital sermons, the books for children, the salutary checks and pauses to the high and rushing tide of greasy citizenry.’

    As well as lions, Lamb discourses upon dogs, the constant companion of ‘those old blind Tobits that used to line the wall of Lincoln’s Inn Garden, before modern fastidiousness had expelled them’. He quotes in full a Latin poem – ‘Epitaphium in Canem’ – laying the lime mortar of classicism on thick with a trowel, all the better to cement his vision of begging firmly into the stonework of London. The homeless become, for Lamb, an inseparable and essential part of the theatrical cyclorama of London: ‘When they come with their counterfeit looks, and mumping tones, think them players. You pay your money to see a comedian feign these things, which, concerning these poor people, thou canst not certainly tell whether they are feigned or not.’

    Her sights, her lions. Lamb’s lion-like beggars and Landseer’s dog-like lions all become conflated. And still, the dogs are coming out of all this the best. It reminds me of how portrait painters use to command a higher price for a painting of his Lordship’s dog than of his wife.

    But more than anything it reminds me that the English have never been sure what a lion is:

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