Rectangular cows: geometric livestock in 19th-century British paintings (21 photos)

27 October 2023
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Category: painting, 0+

Imagine that you find yourself in 19th century England. And no matter what picture you take of rural life, there is a lonely cow standing in the middle of a field, looking like a rectangle. If you see a sheep or a pig in the image, it makes little difference: all English livestock have strictly geometric shapes. Why? The solution is very simple!





The strange rectangular shape of English cows in paintings really attracts attention and intrigues.

What gave rise to this curious phenomenon? What artistic or social movements influenced the creation of these distinctive images?



"The Yorkshire Rose", Charles Turner (1773–1857)

In 19th-century England, wealthy farmers sought to demonstrate their wealth and status by commissioning works of art depicting their livestock - cows, pigs, sheep.

Such paintings suffered from artistic exaggeration: the animals had unusual proportions and were too large in size. Pigs, for example, could be drawn as round as inflated footballs, cows as elongated into rectangular shapes, and sheep as tending towards an oval.

This artistic trend coincided with a period in which English farmers were actively experimenting with breeding and innovative feeding methods to raise larger livestock.



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"Lady Fragrance, aged 7", A. M. Gauci (1848–1882)

During this period, the art of depicting livestock reached its peak. Racehorses were typically depicted using sleek lines that conveyed their speed and elegance. However, in the case of farm animals, strong physique was preferred.

In commissioned paintings, cows, sheep and pigs are very massive carcasses, balancing intricately on four thin legs. Sometimes their owner stands proudly next to them (if the artist painted him next to valuable property). If the animal in the picture is grazing alone, then it looks as if it is capable of swallowing an entire village.

Such pictures simultaneously delighted the eyes of farmers and served as advertising for them.



A cow being fed by its owner. Yale Center for British Art

Large animals were of great value as evidence of their owners' success in breeding for size and weight. Wealthy and experienced farmers achieved this by using selective breeding techniques, resulting in the production of fast-growing and large livestock.

Along with these breeding efforts, innovative farming and feeding methods have contributed to the overall increase in animal size. People called "improvers" sought to improve existing breeds of animals. Such popular methods as feeding cows with cake and turnips for fattening before slaughter have become widespread.

So, in such commissioned paintings and commercial reproductions, information was often added about the size of the animal and what breeding efforts its owner had made. Why not advertising?



This is a really big and very spherical pig. Yale Center for British Art



Two Durham bulls and one tiny man



Breeding huge animals was considered patriotic, and this bull was called "Patriot". Yale Center for British Art



"The famous Lincolnshire bull suckled by the Right Honorable Lord Yarborough Brocklesby"



A whole herd of supercows



"Famous Sheep" Yale Center for British Art



Portrait of a prize Hereford bull



Mr Garn's Cotswold sheep, NorthLeach, Richard Whitford (c. 1821–1890)



Shorthorn cow, circa 1855. Artist Henry Stafford (1830–1873). Townley Hall Art Gallery and Museum



Hereford cow, 1852. Artist William Henry Davis (1786–1865). National Trust, Attingham Park



Sussex cow "Joan", 1874. Painting by James Clark Sr. (1860–1902). Museum of English Country Life



Shorthorn cow. Artist John Vine (1808–1867). Museum of English Country Life



Hornless heifer. Museum of English Country Life



Danern Bull, circa 1812–1815 Artist Thomas Weaver (1774–1843). National Museums Scotland, National Museum of Country Life



Prize Sheep, William Henry Davis (1786–1865). Lincolnshire Life Museum



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