The present work is an exciting re-discovery within Elsley's oeuvre having not appeared on the market in London since it was painted in 1911. This painting was commissioned, for reproduction, by an American calendar company, and has remained in private ownership ever since. After completion it was shipped directly to America where it remained until prior to this auction.
Arthur J. Elsley was the premier British canine artist during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, more than ably following in the tradition of Edwin Landseer and Charles Burton Barber. His earliest surviving work is Vic, a cairn terrier drawn in 1871 when he was eleven years old. Following his training at the Royal Academy Schools Elsley's early commissions included a series of canine portraits for the Benett-Stanford family of Preston Manor, near Brighton, Sussex. He had perfected his canine portraiture by the time he entered the studio of Fred Morgan in 1889. Here he discovered the successful formula of combining pets with children. Elsley painted the animals in conjunction with Morgan who undertook the children until 1900 when Elsley started to execute works on a grander scale successfully by himself.
Saint Bernard dogs were particularly popular in America during the early 20th Century. This 'gentle giant', best known for mountain rescues in the Swiss Alps, was owned by Miss Mumford, a leading breeder of Saint Bernards (fig. 1). Elsley made photographic records of his models both human and animal. Miss Mumford and a companion are seen here in his studio, with the painting on the easel, during one of these photo sessions (fig. 2). The dog's pose was used in Goodnight (1911), which would indicate the painting was started in 1911 and finished in 1912. Elsley's first work to feature a Saint Bernard was I'se Biggest (1892) and he later returned to the breed in both 1894 and 1901. Thereafter, these dogs became a frequent feature in his paintings and can be counted in 24 of his works.
The guardian sister featured in the present work is 'Queenie' (fig. 3) named after Queen Alexandra, the wife of King George V. She appeared in numerous paintings. Her real name is unknown, and she married an American after the First World War and went to live in the U.S.A.
Elsley found a ready and eager market in America. In Vintage Illustration. Discovering America's Calendar Artists 1900-1960, Rick and Charlotte Martin observed, 'Although not an American, Arthur Elsley's prints and calendars were equally as popular in the early 1900s as the American artists. The combination of children and animals and the sentimental situations in which they were set have rarely been more beautifully depicted than in the calendar paintings. Among his subjects, paintings of little girls and Saint Bernards are possibly his best remembered pieces.' (Portland, 1997, p. 60).
The publicity leaflet for Private and Confidential (1906; another of Elsley's exports to America, also featuring a St. Bernard, and reproduced by Thomas D. Murphy Co.) describes him as 'one of the greatest of living English artists, and this grand old St Bernard is one of the best things he has ever done. The touch of the master is especially noticeable in the tones of the picture. There are no loud or discordant elements and the painting is a splendid example of the harmony of colors.' It continues: 'Arthur J. Elsley, is the only man in the world who could have painted it, is probably the best known of contemporary British artists. His pictures appeal to all classes of people and have been widely reproduced.'
This work was painted the same year as The Village Punch and Judy Show which sold for the world record at auction (Christie's, London, 11 November 1999, lot 26, $1,054,365).
We are grateful to Terry Parker for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.