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Queen Victoria’s King Charles spaniel: Dash

Islay [a pet dog] is still plagued by him [Lord Melbourne] every evening—a thing which he much enjoys—and constantly begs for the spectacles. I forgot to tell you that Karl has given me a pretty little Rowley, who likewise lives in the house. The multitude of dogs is really terrible!’ (ed. A. C. Benson & Viscount Esher, The Letters of Queen Victoria, Vol 1, 1837-1843, 204). So the young Queen Victoria wrote to her fiancé, Prince Albert, on 15 December 1839.

Amongst this multitude of dogs, a canine equivalent perhaps to the brood of nine children that would later surround her – much to her earlier fear of being mother ‘d’une nombreuse famille’ – these dogs were greatly loved and valued by Queen Victoria, for their companionship and their fidelity. Chief among these dogs was her beloved King Charles spaniel, Dash, whom she had been given in 1833, the year after she began writing her great journal.

As royal dogs, they were painted, photographed and sculpted; Queen Victoria made elaborate provision for them in both life and death. They appear in her portraits, and their names fill the Queen’s diaries and albums. I am interested to see if there is anything fresh to be discovered about the Queen’s relationship with this dog of her youth; for this dog was central to that period of the Queen’s early life as Princess Victoria at Kensington. He left Kensington Palace with the Queen on her accession and remained with her until he died, in the year of her marriage to Prince Albert. When Queen Victoria was dying, she asked for her beloved Spitz/Pomeranian dog Turi, when movingly, she was almost too blind even to see the dog properly. This was just over sixty years since Dash’s death, but still, she asked for a dog at the end.

The first proper mention of Dash occurs in Princess Victoria’s journal in 1833; she refers to Dash having been the devoted dog of her mother, the Duchess of Kent, to whom he was given by the Comptroller of her Household, Sir John Conroy, on 14th January 1833. He seems to have made a great impression on the young Victoria when she mentioned him the day after in her diary because her juvenile handwriting shows that she has crossed out the word ‘pretty’ and replaced it later in the sentence with the more splendid word, ‘beautiful’. The key importance for Dash in Victoria’s life is underlined by the fact that she was at this point, experiencing a lonely youth at Kensington Palace, with few but her governess, Baroness Louise Lehzen for company, who watched over her charge with a near-to obsessive interest.

This relative isolation – a considered product of the so-called ‘Kensington System’ championed by Sir John Conroy – was perhaps not the total solitude as later suggested by her later memoirs written down much later, but nevertheless was undoubtedly a lonely existence, with the hundred or so wooden dolls that she made and those ‘friends’, the Kensington Palace ‘black beetles’. Sir John Conroy probably gave Princess Victoria the oil painting of Dash by the artist George Morley for her birthday in 1833, which today hangs at Kensington Palace. Morley painted Dash again in 1841, obviously a memorial picture.

Dash, therefore, became an important, lively companion. His buoyant playfulness comes over in the early portraits that have come down to us, such as that by Sir George Hayter, which was painted the year that he entered the household at Kensington. The portrait was made for Leopold I, King of the Belgians and shows Princess Victoria in Regency evening dress, holding a rose. Dash is the spaniel at her feet, holding her gloves in his mouth, a theme which would often recur later for the dogs owned by either Queen Victoria or Prince Albert, which were often painted next to the gloves of their royal mistress (or master). Queen Victoria loved the picture so much that she requested a copy of the photograph from King Leopold in 1865, shortly before his death.

For Christmas 1833, Princess Victoria gave Dash his own presents, which included a set of balls and two pieces of gingerbread (Elizabeth Longford, Victoria R.I, 46). His name thereafter appears frequently in the journal, as ‘dear Dashy’ (Cecil Woodham-Smith, Queen Victoria: Her Life and Times, 91); and tellingly, in large capital letters, which usually denotes special affection in the case of the young Victoria: ‘DEAR SWEET LITTLE DASH’ (Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria, 43).

Princess Victoria made numerous pencil studies of Dash, including one made in her hotel at Sittingbourne, alongside some sketches she had made at Ramsgate, of Zephyr, the Italian greyhound which belonged to Miss Victoire Conroy. Many examples would appear to have been done from life, such as the pencil study of Dash’s head which Victoria did in 1834: ‘From nature’. We can gather from all these sketches not only an appreciation of Victoria’s prodigious talent but also the fact that Dash must, therefore, have been constantly in her company, wherever she went. She even drew him in her carriage en route. We know this because of a fragile sketch of five heads of Dash in the Royal Collection, which Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Louise appears to have found in one of the Queen’s old learning books because she annotated it as such. The drawing was made in the carriage as Princess Victoria journeyed from St. Leonard’s back to Kensington: ‘Dear Dashy was in our carriage and behaved like a darling’ (Quoted in entry for RCIN 980014). Another early pen and ink sketch shows that he did indeed go around with the Princess, as part of the royal party – in October 1833 he was sketched in full aboard the Emerald, during Victoria’s visit to the Isle of Wight in 1833, when she stayed at Norris Castle. These sketches show Dash in various poses; Victoria’s affection for him is evident. Her journals are filled with references to him; she walked him on occasion, on Hampstead Heath (Hibbert, 43).

Of course, King Charles spaniels feature in some of the court paintings of the celebrated painter Sir Anthony Van Dyck, of the family of Charles I. Queen Victoria once told Dean Stanley, Dean of Westminster that she considered Charles II – who is closely associated with the eponymous breed – as ‘one of the most attractive of her ancestors’ (Antonia Fraser, King Charles II, Xiii).

In her coronation year of 1838, the Duchess of Kent gave the young Queen among other Christmas presents, a whip which had the head of Dash as its top and the letters of the dog spelt out in jewels. Two years earlier, she had commissioned a splendid oil on panel painting of Dash for Princess Victoria and given it to her the day before her birthday. It had been done by the great animal painter, Sir Edwin Landseer. Wonderfully like, it shows the pink ribbon he seems to have worn around his neck. (Princess Victoria used to dress up Dash at Kensington Palace, like many a pampered and adored pet). It remains the best-known image of the dog as Dash died before the age of photography was properly established.

He also features in the group dog painting by Landseer now at Clarence House, showing Dash with the greyhound Nero and the Scottish deerhound Hector and the parrot Lory; we might imagine these dogs grouped in front of the fireplace in the Royal Dining Room at Clarence House where the painting hangs today, as the tour guide told the present author on a recent group visit. The Queen thought it ‘too beautiful’.

When Dash died on Christmas Eve 1840, the Queen noted the event with sadness in her journal and then typically, followed the entry with a personal reminiscence – something she constantly did on the deaths of people she knew, let alone pets, detailing how long she had owned him. Prince Albert broke the news to her. There were no capital letters this time, no ‘DASH’. Instead, the Queen had written earlier in the year, in her journal entry for her wedding day – 10 February 1840 -‘MY DEAREST DEAREST DEAR Albert’, showing the emotional shift (Hibbert, 123).

Dash was buried at Adelaide Cottage in Windsor Great Park. We know from the Queen’s journals that Adelaide Cottage was a popular place to which to drive for Queen Victoria because she admired its grounds; she even made a watercolour sketch of a spruce there. She drove over to Adelaide Cottage before the end of December 1840, although she does not mention Dash’s grave, so presumably, he had not yet been buried there. Eventually, he merited a marble effigy; as her beloved Scottish Collie, Noble would later have, at Balmoral.

His epitaph is typical for the Queen: ‘Here lies DASH, the favourite spaniel of Her Majesty Queen Victoria, in his 10th year. His attachment was without selfishness, His playfulness without malice, His fidelity without deceit. READER, if you would live beloved and die regretted, profit by the example of DASH’.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018
About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.