You can you usually tell which artwork is among my favorites based on what greets visitors when they enter an exhibition at the National Sporting Library & Museum. Zillah by Charles Hamilton is currently on view at the entrance of Identity & Restraint: Art of the Dog Collar, flanked by two pierce-work brass dog collars. The grouping sets the tone for the exhibition exploring humans’ evolving relationship with dogs in the hunt, war, work, sport, and leisure.
The painting at center is on loan from the American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog. A striking conversation piece measuring 16 ½ x 21 inches, it is smaller than it may seem from isolated images of it. In the work, a 19th century Persian sportsman in refined red and gold attire holds a lead clipped to a thin, elegant collar (likely made of leather and metal) worn around the neck of a black and tan Saluki.
The composition heightens the imagination with its formidable mountainscape in the background with additional figures in the shade of palm trees.
A mounted rider points to the distance while a second figure on foot looks in the same direction. A brace of Salukis accompanying the pair awaits the next command. When the artist completed the painting, this dog breed was rarely seen in Britain. The composition was reproduced in New Sporting Magazine in September 1837 with the title, “Persian Greyhound,” the name Salukis were known by in the West at the time.
The article accompanying the engraving described the sighthound bred and kept for hunting by Persian nobility to course hare and chase antelope in the plains as well as pursue wild ass, or “ghoo-khur,” in its challenging mountainous habitat:
The Persians evince great skill and courage in this arduous sport, rifle in hand, riding up and down precipitous hills, over stony paths, and across ravines and mountain streams, which might well daunt our boldest turf-skimming Meltonians. – New Sporting Magazine, September 1837
This description of hunting for wild donkey in rugged terrain was targeted toward a British audience of the sporting periodical—the fast-riding foxhunters known as the “Meltonians” who thundered across the Melton Mowbray territory in Leicestershire, England. The description would have conveyed the speed and agility of the Saluki and the pace of a hunt after the fastest indigenous quadruped of a far-off region.
Was the artist Charles Hamilton taking a cue from the rising tide of Orientalism, a romanticized colonialist view of the Middle East/North Africa and its rich cultures being depicted in art? Had he witnessed the subject at hand? There is little known about the painter’s life and studies who signed “C. Hamilton pinxit,” the latter a Latin word meaning “one painted” dating back to the late Middle Ages.
Exhibition catalogues from the 1830s reveal Hamilton’s attempt to become recognized in the highly selective and competitive Royal Academy of Arts, London, with Persian and British sporting subjects. Although he did not exhibit Zillah there, nine others were selected: The Egyptian Emir and Egyptians and Horses in 1831, Mehemet [sic] Ali’s Six Wives Returning from a Ride and The Overloaded Mule in 1833; War, Peace, and The Falconer’s Boy in 1835; Portrait of the late Robert Oldacre, Huntsman to T.G.S. Selbright, Esq.; with Portraits of the Two Whips, Fovourite Horses, and Hounds in 1837; and The Kensworth Harriers, with Portraits of the Owner and his Two Whips in 1838. For the first one, he was recorded as living at 30, Crown Street, Strand, and the others at Kensworth, Herts.
In 1832, Hamilton’s showing of “The Persian Sportsman” met with an excellent review:
A hawking party. The principal character, in the costume of his country, is well seated on a noble animal, with a goshawk on his fist. A greyhound, skillfully portrayed, is by his side; the rest of the party is in excellent keeping, and the whole produces a very pleasurable effect. We heard this picture much approved. -New Sporting Magazine, July 1832
Hamilton’s 1837 attempt at a more typical sporting portrait also met with a favorable review but was “skied,” meaning it had been accepted for exhibition by the Academy but hung high up on the wall in the jam-packed salon style display:
This picture appears to be on the whole well painted,–the chestnut horse in particular on which Oldacre is mounted; but it is hung so high as to preclude close examination. -New Sporting Magazine, June 1837
In 1838, a review of the last painting Hamilton exhibited at the Royal Academy of the Kensworth Harriers was not favorable:
The lights upon the horses are broad and harsh, a style certainly not to be followed. The gradations of light can never be represented by patches, and least of all upon unequal surfaces. – New Sporting Magazine, June 1838
The last known review of Hamilton’s work was likely of Zillah. A painting with the title Persian and Greyhound was shown at the British Institution two years after it was reproduced in New Sporting Magazine. The periodical’s article, “Sporting Subjects in the British Institution for 1839,” of the exhibition did not give the work a favorable review either, and saw it as old news:
“Not a performance of much merit; by the way, has not the subject been for some time engraved?” -New Sporting Magazine, March 1839
Despite the negative critique, the composition, its exotic setting, and name, Zillah, continue to capture the imagination today. But from where did the title “Zillah” for the painting come? The 1837 article about the painting and engraving of it noted that the import breed was still scarcely seen and the subject for the composition was the only known female Saluki in England at the time. There was, however, no reference to her name. Over 100 years later, the engraving was reproduced in the 1968 book, Popular Sight Hounds by Juliette Cunliffe, in which the name is noted: “This is said to be ‘Zillah,’ a bitch owned by Mr. G. Lock of Kentish Town, London.” Earlier references to this have not been found to-date, however, the painting of the Saluki stood the test of time, depicting a now iconic show dog and its origins in the alluring sporting imagery making its way into Western consciousness in the 19th century.
Zillah will be on view at the NSLM until March 26, 2022, and then the exhibition will travel to the American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog in New York City, and Pebble Hill Plantation, Thomasville, GA. Identity & Restraint: Art of the Dog Collar was created in partnership with the AKC Museum of the Dog and was made possible at the National Sporting Library & Museum through the generosity of Dr. and Mrs. Timothy J. Greenan, Garth Greenan Gallery, and Mark Anstine and Marianna Lancaster. For more information, visit the NSLM’s website.
Claudia Pfeiffer is the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Deputy Director & Head Curator at the National Sporting Library & Museum and has been with the organization since the position was first underwritten by the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Foundation in 2012. In addition to her administrative role, her primary focus is the research, design, interpretation, writing, and installation of exhibitions. E-mail Claudia at email@example.com