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Rectangular Cows

Ashleigh McLarin, Exhibitions Curator


On Trend c.1850s

Two artworks in the collection caught my attention and raised many questions. These prominent bovines were hard to look past. Their solid and rectangular figures demanded attention. It also triggered a memory; I have seen other rectangular cows. What is going on here? This stylistic representation was purposeful, but why?


At the start of the 19th century, selective breeding, as a practice, was on the rise. As the saying goes, ‘the bigger the better’ ̶ this was wholeheartedly taken on board, and it became a dedicated past-time. The aim of the game was creating the largest stock possible. This activity of competitive breeding was limited to those of wealth as it was an expensive past-time and not one that livelihood farmers could risk.


Beginning in the 1810s, but reaching its dominance in the 1850s, it became popular for the elite to commission portraits of their prized stock. These portraits were not restricted to cows, rather sheep and pigs were also implicated although their representational profiles differed. In the cow portraits, their rectangular figure was emphasised; sheep had an oblong emphasis and pigs were emphatically oval. The common element between the animals were the four spindly legs that carried them.


Often, as is the case here, the name of the animal was recorded, its age, the owner, its origin farm, and any awards that had been won. Other common descriptors listed the animal’s dimensions and dietary supplements were sometimes noted. These commissioned portraits were an act self-promotion but were also well received by the public. Etched prints, like these two, were in high demand. Ownership of stock animals were symbols of wealth, but ownership of ginormous animals proved ‘mans’ ability to conquer nature and improve it. This was what appealed to the people of 19th century Britain. These portraits boasted about human influence and dominance.


The popularity extended beyond acquisition of prints and the novelty of seeing the beasts in-person drew large crowds. Some of these cows became household names. The two of the most famous bovines were “The Durham Ox” and “The Craven Heifer.” These animals travelled around the country and stopped in different towns for locals to marvel at the extremities of their being.  In 2018, The Great Yorkshire Show celebrated its 160th anniversary. In celebration a huge (to-scale) sculpture of “The Craven Heifer” was commissioned and, like the original, it went on tour around the Yorkshire region. This historic reality has been brought back into the Yorkshire collective consciousness as it has here with us at the Whangārei Museum with these prints.


These two works were donated to the museum by Archie Clapham. This is extremely fitting as Archie was well known for his humour and delight in novelty items. It is also fitting as these prints came from Yorkshire which is where Clapham was born. It wasn’t until 1920s that he settled in Whangārei. “The Craven Heifer” was a famous cow that resided in Yorkshire and these prints link us to the wider trend. It seems fitting that Archie was the owner of these prints as I could see him finding the humour in the self-importance these farmers radiated.


These are simple portraits of cows, but they represent much more. These two prints represent a turning point in the agricultural industry and reveal aspects of the popular mindset of the time.  They create a link between a well-known figure of the Whangārei community and their birthplace.