[Essay] Goya’s Greyhounds — Michael McGinley-Hughes

The Museo del Prado, known simply as the Prado, is a grand neoclassical gallery in the centre of Madrid – situated in the middle of the Parque del Retiro, Real Jardin Botanico and the Barrio de las Letras. First designed in 1785, the Prado opened its doors to the public in 1819, simultaneously functioning as a display of wealth and a celebration of Spanish art. The Prado’s website describes it as ‘a museum of painters not of paintings’, such is the depth of their holdings of Hieronymus Bosch, Titian, El Greco, Diego Velásquez and Francisco Goya.

If you have visited the Prado, you will likely remember Goya’s Pinturas negras (Black Paintings): a macabre carnival of ghoulish faces, witches’ covens and a drowning dog. I first heard of these paintings after a conversation with my mum. She was visiting my brother in Madrid and wanted to talk about the paintings: they had left such an impression on her that she felt compelled to call me, insisting: you have to see them when youre here, Michael.

I discovered that the series was first painted on the walls of Goya’s house, Quinta del Sordo (Villa of the Deaf), during a period of disillusionment and paranoia shortly preceding his death in 1828. The aura surrounding these paintings seemed to grow as I realised they were not originally destined to hang on the walls of a gallery. Pinturas negras now constituted a glimpse into Goya’s mind – dark imaginings transposed onto perfect white walls, such as the haunting Dos viejos comiendo sopa (Two Old Men Eating Soup, 1819–1823).

Two figures at a table.
Francisco Goya, Dos viejos comiendo sopa (Two Old Men Eating Soup, 1819–1823).

I didn’t have to wait long to see these paintings in the flesh. I had taken a teaching assistant post in Madrid and soon pencilled in a visit to the gallery. In person, there is an eeriness that escapes pixels on a screen. You feel you are seeing something that you should not be privy to: a dying man’s thoughts laid bare. The violence of the images, painted mostly in black and brown brush strokes, resides in a room just a few corridors away from El Greco’s angels.

If you have your heart set on seeing these paintings, you might easily walk straight by another series of canvases, painted by a young Goya, without giving so much as a cursory glance. But it is this series that prompted me to write this essay. They depict the rolling hills, meandering rivers and green pastures of Asturias: a region in the North of Spain, nestled between the Cantabrian Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean. The unifying theme of the series is hunting, so most canvases feature men armed with rifles alongside hunting dogs.

In one canvas, Hunting Party (1775), Goya portrays two types of hunting within one image. In the foreground, a group of hunters are accompanied by two spaniels: while one looks into the distance, the other hovers its muzzle just over the ground, trying to catch the scent of a quail, perhaps.

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Francisco Goya, Hunting Party (1775)

You can also see greyhounds in the background. Bodies stretched out in full flight, spines flexed, with powerful legs propelling them forward, all chasing a fleeing hare. Life and death are suspended in one moment. This is a type of hunting called ‘coursing’, which solely relies on the sight and speed of the greyhound.

While the catalogue description on the Prado website outlines the content of the image, it reserves its analysis for the form, describing the painting as a ‘magnificent study of continuous movement.’ But rather than examine how Goya chose to formally represent the greyhounds, let us focus on what they are. The greyhounds are part of the Comedor de los Príncipes de Asturias collection: a series of canvases commissioned by the royal family of Asturias, made for the dining room walls at El Escorial.

In the eighteenth century, greyhounds were part of an aesthetic of nobility – along with velvet, gold leaf and, for the Hapsburg family of Spain, an incestuous underbite. We should not, however, reduce them to a simple feature in an aristocratic mise en scène. As hunting was the proprietary right of those who owned the land, these greyhounds represent power.

It’s true that many works of art, in one shape or another, take power as a subject. Think of Goya’s depiction of Saturn, the most famous of the Pinturas negras. In this painting, we see Saturn cannibalising the naked limp body of his son, a brutal reaction to a prophecy that one of his own sons would overthrow him. His wild eyes express his fear of becoming powerless. This image urges the viewer to consider their own world, whether it is the anxiety over succession amongst royal families in eighteenth-century Europe, the inevitability of one’s own demise or the mutually destructive nature of nuclear arms. 

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Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son (1819–1823)

But power is not questioned in Hunting Party nor any other painting in the series. These paintings, paid for by a wealthy and powerful family, are made for the royals rather than being made about the royals. And, as a consequence, they reflect their desires and tastes.

In Hunting Party, power is simply present. It’s just there. It is neither interrogated nor challenged. Over the past few millennia, select people have been born with a hereditary dominion over the land and its animals, and this image calls us to witness this power.

Everything contained in these canvases is a harmonious expression of possession. The appropriation of the land by the ruling class appears natural and inevitable, though of course it is always underpinned by violence. Fish lurk in the rivers, so the men have rods to hook them; quails hide in the undergrowth, so they have spaniels to find them and guns to shoot them out of the sky; hares would normally be too quick to catch, so they have been blessed with greyhounds to run them down. Everything seems to just fit.

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Francisco Goya, The Angler (1775)

So, rather than say these greyhounds represent power, we can contextualise this statement and say, in these canvases, greyhounds represent the power of the aristocracy in eighteenth-century Europe: a specific type of power, predicated on the control of land, which maintained a class-based society that would develop into the capitalist world we reside in today.

Over two centuries after Goya painted these Asturian scenes, a photograph of two greyhounds racing at Walthamstow Stadium would be chosen as the cover art for Blur’s album Parklife (1994). According to Rewind/Fast Forward, a picture in the window of a local William Hill betting shop caught Damon Albarn’s eye and Graham Coxon later explained that the greyhounds ‘had an aggressiveness we liked. We chose the ones with the most teeth’.

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Blur, Parklife (1994)

A previously touted name for the album was Soft Porn, featuring an image of a fruit and veg stall. But this idea was eventually binned, with a designer explaining that they wanted to go for more of a ‘what blokes do for entertainment’ theme. [1] So greyhounds it was.

That’s quite a journey for the greyhound: from the companion of Hapsburg kings to a defining symbol of British working-class culture in just over 200 years. So what exactly prompted this development? Before we examine the greyhound’s existing relationship with social class, let’s take a look at its ancestral roots.

Rich Blood

The relationship between greyhounds and royal power has a long history. In a short film, created by New York’s MET Museum, Gary Tinterow, an art historian and director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, talks about his love of greyhounds and their prominent place in Western art. At one point, he discusses the greyhound’s physical attributes and declares that ‘they have very rich blood’.[2] Tinterow is referring to the dog’s unusually high level of red blood cells – but greyhounds’ ‘rich blood’ also has a long social history. 

As far back as ancient Egypt, the greyhound lived among royalty. Such was the greyhound’s aptitude at hunting, the Egyptians kept the dog within the palace walls – you could not risk having the greyhound mix with lowlier mutts, potentially diluting its genetic advantages. Egyptians painted greyhounds on the limestone of tombs and they were also mummified and entombed alongside their masters.

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Artist’s Sketch of Pharaoh Spearing a Lion (c.1186-1070 B.C), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Greyhounds held a similarly lofty position in Ancient Greek society (which believed the dogs to be Celtic in origin, while the Celts believed them to be Greek). The Greeks carved greyhounds out of bronze and into gems. It’s also likely that Odysseus’ dog, Argos, was a greyhound (as it describes the dog being taken out to hunt ‘deer’ and ‘hares’); and it is only Argos who recognises Odysseus when he returns home disguised as a beggar. A virtuous dog if there ever was one.

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Bronze statuette of a hound gnawing a bone (3rd-2nd century B.C), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
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Carnelian half-barrel (4th century B.C), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

This close and guarded relationship with the ruling class prevailed from ancient societies into the Middle Ages. If you take a look at the Bayeux Tapestry, you will see greyhounds stitched with great care alongside Norman knights. Like the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, the medieval English aristocracy also kept greyhounds for hunting and their cultural significance became deeply intertwined with forest laws.

These laws, first formally introduced by King Canute in the early eleventh-century and further strengthened by the Normans, regulated game hunting. The right to hunt game used to be awarded to select individuals who had courted favour with the King, but the laws evolved to more clearly entrench an ‘essential aristocratic principle,’ whereby, from 1390, people who did not own land were outright forbidden from keeping hunting dogs.[3]

For example, if a peasant was found to own a greyhound, its toes would be mutilated to prevent it from hunting. Moreover, if a peasant was somehow considered responsible for the death of a greyhound, they would pay for this transgression with their life (eye for an eye, dog for a peasant etc).

What came first, the greyhound or elegance?

This question is posed by Tinterow in his musings on the greyhound. This playful ‘first cause’ dilemma suggests that greyhounds possess an innate elegance, but it effaces bourgeois ideology: the ruling classes have always imbued the things, both material and immaterial, they have access to with value.[4] So it follows that they award desirable virtues to the animals they exercise absolute control over. It makes ideology seem natural: the greyhound is an elegant dog, so it must only be kept by elegant people.

But looking back over the vast majority of recorded history, who would challenge him? Greyhounds accompanied Pharaohs in both Egypt and the heavenly Field of Reeds; Argos would have probably received a loving scratch on the head from Odysseus; greyhounds even slept alongside medieval kings and queens on velvet throws. And, on top of all of that, greyhounds are the only dogs mentioned by name in the Bible: ‘There be three things which go well, yea, four are comely in going: A lion which is strongest among beasts […] a greyhound; an he goat also; and a king’ (Proverbs 30: 29-31).[5]

This seemingly unshakable relationship with the upper classes continued into the Early Modern Era. In Shakespeare’s Henry V (1599), King Henry utilises the greyhound as a sign to invoke nobility. Just as Henry is urging his men ‘Once more unto the breach’ (3.1.1), the greyhound appears; not physically, but in the form of an extended metaphor:

For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. (3.1.32–34)[6]

Henry needs his exhausted soldiers to charge once more into battle, risking their own lives to secure a vital military victory for his kingdom – but he can’t just order them to fight. He has to rally them. He has to use words to send the men into the breach. And, by claiming that the men remind him of ‘greyhounds in the slips’, straining to kill, he offers them the award of nobility. At the same time, it is true that the soldiers do appear like greyhounds before their master – vicious but ultimately subservient.[7]

This social and semantic relationship with the ruling classes survived into the eighteenth century.

As well as Goya’s Asturian scenes, greyhounds maintained a presence in British art, such as Gavin Hamilton’s portrait of Elizabeth Gunning, commissioned by James, 6th Duke of Hamilton.

Gavin Hamilton, Elizabeth Gunning, Duchess of Hamilton, 1733-1790 (1752–53), Scottish National Gallery.

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery website describes how Gunning had neither a ‘dowry’ or ‘rank’ but was married into high society due to her ‘celebrity beauty.’ Perhaps Hamilton thought this portrait required something to confirm Gunning’s societal status, and that’s where the greyhound comes in.

Off to the races

By the nineteenth century, the popularity of coursing among the ruling classes had begun to wane (no doubt spurred on by the gradual dissolution of archaic forest laws). The greyhound’s millennia-long relationship with the upper echelons of society was coming to an end: preempting Rishi Sunak’s retraining scheme, the greyhound gave up hunting and became a racer.

After an isolated meeting in Hendon in 1876, Britain’s first modern dog track, Manchester’s Belle Vue, opened its doors in 1926 (following a rise in popularity for circular tracks across the Atlantic). As the twentieth century progressed, greyhound racing became increasingly popular, with its heyday peaking in the decades following the Second World War.

Greyhound racing is not analogous to horse racing. It is not something which is enjoyed by all strata of society; rather it is distinctly working-class. Over the past hundred or so years, the working-classes have crammed into floodlit stadiums in gloomy corners of Britain’s industrial towns and sprawling cities, gathering to watch greyhounds chase a mechanical rabbit. The scheduling was even designed to accommodate its salt-of-the-earth clientele, with evening meets allowing working men to have a punt after their shift had finished.

Moreover, on an affective level, greyhound racing just feels working-class. Everything within that space is syntagmatically related to other signs of working-classness. There are industrial floodlights, idling burger vans, and a stadium that will most likely be enclosed by rows of terraced houses, perhaps overlooked by a tower block.

In recent years, due to a decline in attendances and more robust regulation, greyhound racing has fallen out of favour. It’s likely the greyhounds you see now will be retired; often knocking around town centres in worn overcoats, standing sheepishly and shivering slightly, like veterans collecting for charity.

Are these the dogs that are supposedly inextricable from our concept of elegance? These surely can’t be the same dogs that shared bedrooms with queens? But they are. The greyhounds you see today are, more or less, physically identical to the dogs which rested in the shade from the hot Egyptian sun. 

So, rather than being innately elegant, we can see how greyhounds have been appropriated and turned into a sign, signifying something more than what they physically are. The meaning of particular signs changes over time and they reflect the changes which occur within a society. And in no place can this change be more clearly observed than in the cover art for Blur’s Parklife.

The designers of the Parklife album were looking for something which expressed the theme of ‘what blokes do for fun’. Blokes – not men. This denotes masculinity of a specific type: the masculinity associated with the working-class. Blokeishness (or, perhaps, geezerishness) invokes images of fruit machines, hairy forearms, and tool belts. It’s no-frills, knows the barlady, and calls you ‘son.’ Blokeishness takes a shower after work rather than before work. It grafts – just like the modern greyhound.

Blur are not lads

In the mid-nineties, when we witnessed the pinnacle of Britpop, the press pitted Blur against Oasis: the posh, middle-class foil to the abrasive Mancunians. Oasis were a group of lads from council estates in Manchester. They didn’t do a take on working-classness because they just were working class. As Liam Gallagher so succinctly puts it, ‘being a lad is what I’m about [and] I can tell you who isn’t a lad – anyone from Blur.’

Which brings us to what the cover for Parklife really represents. What we see is a type of middle-class voyeurism: the original album name of Soft Porn, and with it the fruit and veg stand cover image, was certainly too ‘on the nose’. Now, this is not to say that the greyhound doesn’tsignify working-classness; but rather this is what Blur and their designers think represents working-classness, from the outside looking in.

With both the song and accompanying music video for lead single ‘Parklife’, there is a performance of working-classness: from the ice cream vans and the 99s; the Slazenger tracksuit top which, ten years previously, you might have seen on the terraces; to the brilliant Phil Daniels, a working-class actor playing a working-class caricature.

This performance crescendos in the ‘AWWWLLLLL THE PAYYYPULLLL’ of the chorus, sung by Damon Albarn, who was accused of hiding his upper-class roots by James Blunt (of all people).[8] Now, if you look online, people will be quick to point out that Albarn attended a comprehensive and lived in Leytonstone. But, for me, this follows an all-too-common trend where the middle-classes seek to disguise their roots.

According to the British Social Attitudes Survey, many people who grew up in comfortably middle-class environments, working in professional and managerial positions, still claim a working class identity.[9] It seems people will often cling to a working class ‘origin story’ even if this means ignoring their own privileged upbringing. Albarn’s father was an architect (also previously head of Colchester Art School) and his mother was a theatrical set designer. So, he’s not exactly blue collar, even if he went to a comprehensive. 

The greyhound, however, does not disguise its roots. It is more that we have largely forgotten about them. I do not think I had ever associated the greyhound with the aristocracy before that day at the Prado (if you want to check this idea out, you can ask the person sitting next to you to do a quick word association with the greyhound – I’d wager elegance and nobility are not mentioned).

The cover of Parklife shows us how far the greyhound has travelled; from the palaces of Pharaohs and the forests of Hapsburg kings to the humble English dog track, a living symbol of working-class British culture refracted through middle-class condescension.

I’d love to talk to a greyhound about their genealogical history. I think the scene would be reminiscent of the episode of Who Do You Think You Are? with Danny Dyer who, upon finding out he’s a direct descendent of King Edward III, asks the presenter to give him a minute to get his nut around it. I think the greyhound would need a minute too.


In 2015, on a baltic October night in Gorton, I went to the Belle Vue to bet some money on greyhounds chasing a mechanical rabbit – courtesy of a £5 Groupon deal for entrance, burger and a pint.

For the last race of the night, there was a greyhound named BOOM SHAKALAKA running and everyone seemed to have a punt on it. It was priced at 4/1 and romped home first: beers were spilled as people jumped around with betting slips held in the air. In that moment, this greyhound was a king and there was nothing to separate us from the Pharaohs.

*

Michael McGinley-Hughes is a writer from the North West. He studied English Literature and Postcolonial Literature & Theory at the University of Manchester. He has just returned to Manchester after living in Madrid: he writes about both cities on tenertodo.


[1] ‘”Parklife Day”: Blur’s “Parklife” Artwork Explained, Rewind/Fastforward, April 25 2014 https://rwffmusic.blogspot.com/2014/04/parklife-day-blurs-parklife-artwork.html [accessed 4 July 2021].

[2] Gary Tinterow, ‘Greyhounds’, Met Museum <https://www.metmuseum.org/connections/greyhounds#/Feature/> [accessed 4 July 2021]

[3] Chester Kirby, ‘The English Game Law System’, American Historical Review, Vol. 38, No. 2 (1933), pp. 240-262

[4] The word elegant derives from the old French elegir (to choose) and was first used to define something that was ‘choice’ or ‘tasteful’ – so we can clearly observe how taste is defined by the ruling classes and serves as a tool to support their superior position in the social hierarchy.

[5] Reference taken from the King James Version. While there is debate about the translation to arrive at greyhound, it still remains that the original translators of the King James Bible considered a greyhound to be one of the four examples of majesty.

[6] T.W. Craik, ed. Henry V (London: Arden, 1995).

[7] It is interesting to compare Henry’s greyhound metaphor to the symbol of the English bulldog during the Second World War. Facing defeat and imminent invasion, the British government pumped out propaganda that rallied the British people by invoking a bulldog spirit: one which is not defined by the hunt but rather a willingness to fight to the death against a more daunting opponent.

[8] Jenn Selby, ‘James Blunt accuses Damon Albarn of disguising his “upper class roots”: “He’s got a silver spoon up his a**e”’, The Independent, 15 April 2014 < https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/james-blunt-accuses-damon-albarn-disguising-his-upper-class-roots-he-s-got-silver-spoon-his-e-9259618.html&gt; [accessed 4 July 2021]

[9] Sam Friedman, ‘Why do so many professional, middle-class Brits insist they’re working class?’, The Guardian, 18 January 2021 < https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jan/18/why-professional-middle-class-brits-insist-working-class> [accessed 4 July 2021].