It all began some thirty years ago, shortly after I’d fallen in love with the breed and welcomed Mame, my first Pug, home.
It was a Beswick figure of Champion Cutmil Cupie, a past Crufts winner immortalized in porcelain that got me started. And I knew right away that I was hooked—hooked on collecting just about anything that celebrated these extraordinary dogs and appealed, for whatever reason, to my own aesthetic sense.
Now thirty years is a long time to be hunting and gathering, and in that time I’ve put together a large and varied assemblage of this, that, and the other thing—items of all sorts with only the theme in common. Some of these items, like the Beswick figure, are relatively commonplace, but others, like an original Meissen figure of a “Lady of the Mopsorden” that was left to me in the will of a friend, are rare and valuable. (The Mopsorden was an eighteenth-century German underground Masonic-styled fraternal group for Roman Catholics who had been forbidden by Papal edict to join the Masons.)
Traditionally there has been some dispute about specifically where Pugs originated, but they’ve certainly been around for much of recorded history. Pug-like dogs are considered second only to the Greyhound type in the matter of ancient lineage. It seems to be accepted that Pugs originated in the Far East and that they were introduced to Europe as Chinese Mastiffs by the Dutch in the days of the great clipper ships. In the sixteenth century, William I, Prince of Orange, was particularly fond of Pugs and took several along with him when he waged war against the Spanish. One of these pets was said to have awakened him just in time to confront would-be assassins and earned the breed special recognition as the official dog of the House of Orange. To this day, the Pug Dog Club of Great Britain has orange as its official color.
Since Pugs have been popular for so many centuries, there are an enormous number of artifacts, artworks, and plain old tchotchkes available for devotees. Just take a random peek at the eBay or Etsy listings for “Pug” and you’ll get some idea. More than with most other breeds, you’ll find oil paintings and watercolors, antiques and handmade craft items, towels with embroidered images, T-shirts, plastic piggy banks, pillows, hand-knitted puppets, ashtrays, pencil holders, and silk-screened aprons—the list goes on and on.
My own collection may be impressive by some standards, but it is relatively small compared to those of people like the late actress Sylvia Sidney, who left her large assemblage to the National Arts Club, or Brigit Berlin, the artist and former Andy Warhol superstar whose parents were serious collectors and great friends of those other Pug devotees, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
Comparisons notwithstanding, however, I certainly have a lot of breed-related things that I cherish: a pair of white nineteenth-century Staffordshire figures; a Charles Dana Gibson print; a twentieth-century copper weather vane; an impressive etching found at the Biscuit Factory, a contemporary art gallery in Newcastle, England; a nineteenth-century coach blanket; Pug-themed posters from a museum in the former East Berlin; antique paper Christmas ornaments; a Majolica pitcher; an old German beer stein; a Rainer Gross drawing; two Dora Frost watercolors; assorted pieces of Pug-themed jewelry and many Pug books, among them the very special Pugorama by Enrico D’Assia.
My own three Pugs—Mame, Jicky and Jane—have been immortalized again and again. Carrie Marvin, a London-based artist of considerable gifts, painted Mame at least twice. Gorky Gonzales, the celebrated Mexican potter, decorated a large platter with his portrait of Jicky. Jim Lewis, the Kentucky folk artist, has rendered both Jicky and Jane. Jicky has likewise been immortalized on a hooked rug and Jane has had her portrait painted by New Englander Jeffrey Brooks and cartoonist Victoria Roberts.
Friends have sent a concrete sculpture from Carmel, California; a small collection of unsigned but very special original cartoons; a Hogarth etching; a pair of Limoges bowls; a beribboned order for evening from which dangles a miniature oil painting; and two early figures found in India, undoubtedly left over from the days of the Raj.
Travels have also been a good source of regular additions. Thrift shops and antique fairs, dog shows, auctions, flea markets, and Madison Avenue have all yielded finds. Years ago there was a shop called Three Pugs Antiques outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, and it was there that I found the weather vane. In Paris, Goyard used to have wonderful Pug things in the days before it had redefined itself. There was also a small shop at 229 rue St. Honore called Aux Etats Unis that could be counted on for unique and precious examples. London, not surprisingly, had and has perhaps the widest variety of Pug things. I’ve found wonderful old photographs, etchings, paintings, and porcelains.
Clearly, Pugs have invaded my home and the theme is immediately apparent to anyone who walks though the front door. One thing I resisted in London, however, was perhaps too exotic.
A dealer there had suggested I try a particular shop on the King’s Road where the proprietress was said to have many Pug things for sale. When I explained what I was looking for this lady was indeed most agreeable and pointed first to a gloomy little oil painting, then to a pair of bisque figures similar to ones I already had. She then smiled and said, “Of course, there’s that. It’s quite special.”
That was on the floor in a dusty corner. It was a glass domed display case housing a scrawny Pug that had been preserved by a taxidermist long ago.
None of my Pugs would have approved. I certainly didn’t.