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Sydenham Edwards was born in 1768 at Brynbuga, also known as Usk, in Wales. His father, Lloyd Pittell Edwards, was a schoolmaster and organist. Sydenham had a talent for draughtmanship and at only 11 years old had copied plates from books for his own enjoyment. His work was seen by a Mr. Denman, who then spoke to a friend, William Curtis, a publisher of botanical works, and founder of the Curtis's Botanical Magazine, about the boy. Curtis proceeded to have Edwards trained in botany and botanical illustration.

Edwards became a natural history illustrator, and his illustrations were enormously popular. At the time, collecting expeditions made to unknown corners of the earth gripped the public imagination and the desire for new illustrations seemed endless. Between 1787 and 1815 Edwards produced over 1,700 watercolours for the Botanical Magazine alone.

In 1800, he illustrated Cynographica Britannica, an encylopedia of British dog breeds. It is this volume that we are particularly interested in. While Sydenham Edwards did not specialize in dogs, he is very important as a chronicler of early breeds. Edwards originally painted his illustrations as watercolors, and then reproduced them as hand colored plates, in installments for Cynographia Britanica, a book which was never actually finished. Executed some seventy years before the founding of British Kennel Club, these images are important for showing what the antecedents of our modern-day breeds looked like.

According to historian Harriet Ritvo (The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age, Harvard University Press, 1987), the concept of canine breeds adopted today is very recent. For her, patterns of breeds set by associations of breeders according to the evidence of conformation to a standard, genealogical records, and pedigrees, are inventions of the nineteenth century. Only starting then would they become indispensable for the definition of dog breeds.

Until then, breed selection was a private affair in England and almost always revolved around the production of dogs for working and sports. A few types were selected for companionship; owning guard dogs was limited to the aristocracy and clergy. Breeders kept records of private lines produced in their kennels, based on function. Concern for the conformation and physical type was secondary. If a specimin of unknown origin superbly performed his duties, he was used for breeding.

The number of types of dogs recognized by experts was minimal. Around 1800, Sydenham Edwards identified only 15 permanent breeds. Among them was the Shepherd's Dog or Canis Pastoralis. At the top of this page is Edwards' illustration of the various types of shepherd's dogs. In Edwards' description of the shepherd's dog, although it includes a long and rambling repudiation of Count Buffon's [Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), L'Histoire naturelle "Le Chien de Berger"] theories on the origin of the species, we can see our working collies of today.

The Shepherd's Dog seems so universally disseminated, that it would not be easy to name the country to which it belongs. The useful obtains a universality, denied to that which is sought for only by the idle for amusement, or by the great for pomp or pleasure. To restrain the flock on the pathless plain, and recall the bold straggler, to obey the commands of an humble and unlettered master, were not likely to procure distinction and a name; yet his properties, peculiar to himself and essential to the wandering shepherd, must have early spread his breed whereever the pastoral life prevailed.

The Dog [is] carnivorous by nature wherever he is found in a wild state...[but the] Shepherd's Dog [must be] harmless to the harmless, and careful for the weak...In all countries where the various races are said to have arisen from degeneration or cultivation, the Shepherd's Dog retains...his simple appearance, his sharp muzzle, his flowing coat, his pensive melancholy aspect, and his useful yet harmless exertions..attending to cattle by the eye without using the scent, and without offering injury.

The Shepherd's Dog is about fourteen inches high [!], nose sharp, ears half pricked, coat moderately long, somewhat waving; thick about the neck and haunches, tail bushy with an inclination upwards towards the point, seldom erected; colour all black, black with tanned muzzle and feet, or black with a white ring round the neck and white feet; most have one and some two dew claws; of all Dogs he seems the most thoughtful, most pensive, and most melancholy.

His properties, peculiar to himself, are retaining in memory a command given, which he will execute at an after period on simply recalling it by a hint; his procceeding at signal to any given point, and, though in the heat and hurry of action, conforming himself strictly to command, and obedient to the wave of the hand...

To the Shepherd who guides his flocks on mountainous regions or extensive plains his services are invaluable; he will proceed to great distances...out of reach of the voice he will obey the wave of the hand...in this manner he saves him traversing many a weary mile, and performs services that without his aid could not be achieved...

If well taught he never approaches too nigh, but hovering round presents himself wherever his presence is necessary. He surrounds them with rapidity, prompts them to their proper course, restrains their ardour to his master's pace...and exerts his attention if there is danger of escape. If the whole burst away in a body, he flies before...[and]makes half circles and meets them in front...he gazes on the flock scattered over the mountains with an attentive eye, and considers them as under his controul...The best kinds run perfectly silent.

There is no indication in the Cynographia where Edwards observed sheepdogs working, but obviously he did; perhaps he did not see or hear a whistle being used, because he does not mention it, as Caius did. The illustration above shows four types of collie; three are rough and the fourth is smooth, although Edwards mentions only the rough coat in his text.

Edwards' illustrations are still sought after today, though Cynographia Britannica is extremely rare. Only a few select libraries (like McGill in Canada) have a copy. If you are lucky enough to find a copy for sale, it will be a modern edition, which are also very rare, and will cost a small fortune. Some of his botanical prints and some animal illustrations (like the four below) are available for sale individually from online book and printsellers.

CommonSheepI.jpg CommonSheepII.jpg
HornedSheepI.jpg HornedSheepII.jpg
Top, "Common Sheep I & II"; bottom, "Horned Sheep I & II"

Copyright 2008 by Carole L. Presberg



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Last modified: July 11, 2013