If you grew up in the countryside, as I did, you will probably have seen prints or original pictures hanging on dining room walls of beasts such as these, hulking great creatures supported by impossibly short, thin legs.
Were some farm animals bred to be bigger 200 years ago – or did specialist artists deliberately exaggerate the gargantuan stature of the “sitters”?
The answer, it seems, is a bit of both. Fatstock breeders were obsessed with creating enormous cattle, pigs and sheep and consequently the animals’ shape was a little different back then. And, just as portraitists often exaggerated the beauty of a female sitter, so livestock painters made the animals even larger than life in order to please the farmers who commissioned them.
In any event, there seems to have been a revival of interest in top quality animal portraits among collectors and those in the livestock community and a small pedigree herd of five paintings of Yorkshire-bred shorthorn cattle by the little-remembered 19th century artist John Pitman surprised experts by fetching just under £31,500 (including premium) at a Chorley’s auction in Gloucestershire, well over twice as much as expected.
The huge shorthorns evolved in the North East, in Durham and Yorkshire, and the five painted by Worcester-born Pitman were bred by sisters Charlotte and Juliana Strickland, part of a long-established Yorkshire family, who moved from the county to the Worcestershire-Gloucestershire border in the early 19th century, where their brother, Henry Eustatius Strickland, built Apperley Court, in about 1816.
As the family built up a vast estate around the village of Deerhurst, they commissioned Pitman to paint prime specimens of what became known as the Apperley Cattle, perhaps the first shorthorns in Gloucestershire.
Charlotte died in 1833 and after Juliana’s death in 1849 the estate descended to Henry, a typical Victorian philanthropist.
But back to the quintet of oils. Joint Best in Show, at £6,500 each, were A Short Horn’d Ox, showing a bowler-hatted cowman, a dog by his side, proffering a swede to the prize-winning 232-stone animal, exhibited at the Smithfield Christmas Show in 1832; and Portrait of a Shorthorn Ox, standing in a field at Apperley in 1837. A portrait of a white shorthorn bull called Marquis, outside a barn with attendant at his side (1832) made £5,500, one of a shorthorn cow called Vetch in a cowshed, watched by a cowman at the door, realised £4,200 and one of another shorthorn cow, called Frisky, Best Dairy Cow at Gloucester in 1834, in a field at Apperley in 1835, went for £3,500.