Museum Secrets

Requiem for a Pug

January 05, 2021 Ashmolean Museum Season 1 Episode 7
Museum Secrets
Requiem for a Pug
Show Notes Transcript

Alison Pollard, Lecturer at Oxford University, takes us to meet a very special marble table in the Ashmolean’s Arundel Collection, which was repurposed as a tombstone for a beloved pug dog.

Doug the Pug – View Alison’s photograph of Doug

Table top – View it here

Table legs – View it here

Henrietta Louisa Fermor – View a portrait / Read about her

If you want to take a closer look at the sculptures in this episode, you can view them at the links above, or visit the podcast page on the Ashmolean website:

Producer: Lucie Dawkins
Presenters: Lucie Dawkins and Alison Pollard

About Museum Secrets: The curators at the University of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology have been recording bite-sized tales of the wonderful, and sometimes unexpected, life of a museum. We can’t wait to share them with you! Join us every weekday for 3 weeks, from 28 December onwards, for a daily dose of cheer.

Lucie: This is Museum Secrets from the Ashmolean. 

I’m your host, Lucie Dawkins, and every day I’ll be bringing you a bitesized undercover story from our collections. Step in through the front doors, and join me for some joyful, wonderful, and sometimes bizarre tales hidden in the objects. We will be going behind the scenes and beyond the labels, into dark corners of the storerooms and into the minds of the curators.

Today, we are heading into gallery 21, immediately on your left as you enter the museum. Here, we’ll find sculptures and tombstones for august Ancient Greeks and Romans… and one beloved pet. Here’s lecturer Alison Pollard, of Oxford University, to tell us more. 

Alison: I used to have a pug. He died a couple of Christmases ago. His name was Doug. He was the original Doug the Pug. Dog breeds, apparently, have mottos, and the one for pugs is: multum in parvo, which is Latin for ‘much in little’ or ‘a lot in a small amount of space’. Never has a phrase been more apt for a dog. You’ve never known a little creature with as little sense of how little he was. On Bonfire night, he used to run outside to take the fireworks on, in person. I once saw him square up to a shire horse in a field. The horse’s rider couldn’t get round him because he – at about a foot in length and even less in height – wouldn’t let them pass. Once, I dropped him off at the dog sitters (called Pugs and Kisses, obviously) and was really worried he’d be intimidated by the bigger dogs. But within minutes he was on his back legs, paws in the air, ready to go ten rounds with a gigantic, and bewildered, greyhound. 

After he died, we had him cremated and put his ashes in an oak picture frame that now sits on our mantelpiece, with a photo of him inside. Because my partner and I are sentimental old northern fools (and that’s fo-ol, with two syllables), we even say hello to him, in the frame, when we come back into the house after a day at work.

My office is a bit out of the ordinary. I can normally be found in the Antiquities Galleries of the Ashmolean Museum because I specialise and teach on Greek and Roman Art and Archaeology and, in particular, sculpture. I curate and carry out research on the Arundel and Pomfet Marbles, which are the earliest collection of Greek, Roman and Neoclassical sculpture in the UK. Oxford has been the home of these since the 1660s, and over the following centuries the university, and the museum, have been acquiring bits and bobs from the original collection. 

One of our most recent acquisitions isn’t ancient at all, but became part of the Arundel and Pomfret collections, almost by default, in 1754. It’s a chunky marble table, supported by two very weighty and sturdy legs, which have carvings of majestic horses and athletic hunting dogs on them. These legs were commissioned by Thomas Howard, the Earl of Arundel – the founder of the collection – who lived in the early 1600s, and we know they were his because horses and dogs are the armorial animals of the historically-famous Howard family (famous members include Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard – unlucky wives number two and five of Henry the Eighth). But the enormous marble slab which forms the table top comes from around a century later, when the collection had been bought by the Pomfret family, and was on display at a house called Easton Neston, in Northamptonshire. 

There’s an inscription, in elegant, swirling letters, carved into the table top, which reads:

“To the memory of PUG, who departed this life June 24, 1754, in the third year of her age.

And then there’s a poem:

No blazon’d coat, or sculptor’d bone,

(Honours we scarcely deem our own)

Adorn this simple rustick stone

But love of friendship without blame

With gratitude we justly claim

Where will faith ever find the same?

Not unlamented now, the cries:

Besprinkled here this tribute lies

With heavenly tears from angel’s eyes

What I like about this, apart from the obvious, is that it lovingly commemorates a pug called Pug, but more so that the Arundel collection was most famous in its day for its wealth of funerary inscriptions and tombstones for ancient Greeks and Romans who lived over 2000 years ago, and whose lives can sometimes feel very distant from our own today. But when Pug died, her owner, who was probably Henrietta Louisa Fermor, the Countess of Pomfret - the same woman who gave the collection as a gift to the University of Oxford just a year later in 1755 - felt that her beloved dog deserved the same honours as the esteemed peoples of the past. 

In fact, Pug’s tombstone stayed at Easton Neston until 2016 when it given to the Ashmolean Museum, and it now it takes its place alongside equally heartfelt memorials for Greek musicians, Romans who were freed from a life of enslavement and even members of the Imperial household. A plethora of lost, and much-grieved, loved ones. 

Being rather haughty little creatures, quite used to sharing the company and sitting on the knees of emperors and empresses, kings and queens throughout history, I think that Pug, and also my Doug, would definitely approve.

Lucie: If you don’t have the chance to go and see Pug’s tombstone in person, take a look at the link in the podcast notes. Join us tomorrow for a story about broken and beautiful things. In the meantime, if you enjoyed this episode, please rate, review, and share the podcast. It helps other listeners find us.