The breed we know today was created by John Cumming Macdona, a clergyman in Cheadle, near Manchester. He was a leading figure at dog shows and was invited to judge at the first dog show in New York in 1877. He became Cruft’s friend and Chair of his shows for two decades.
Macdona bought dogs from the Alps and reimagined them as those kept by monks at the hospice on the St Bernard Pass in Switzerland.
A new book by University of Manchester historian Michael Worboys shows that Macdona’s St. Bernard looked nothing like the dogs at the hospice. The monks kept dogs for their bravery and ability, not their beauty and anatomy. Their dogs were a motley group of no specific type.
Macdona’s choice originated in St. John’s Wood, London. It was there that the famous Victorian animal painter Edwin Landseer had his studio. In 1820, he painted a rescue scene of two Alpine Mastiffs, inspired by stories of the exploits of the monks’ most famous dog - Barry.
This story is one of many in the Manchester University Press book Doggy People, The Victorians who made the modern dog , which discusses the doggy doings of Cruft, Macdona, Landseer and nineteen other Victorian canine aficionados.
After Barry died, he was taxidermied and can still be seen in the Natural History Museum in Bern. A sketch of Barry in the press in 1892 showed he did not have the heavy coat, large head, or thick mane that became characteristic of the breed.
It’s fascinating that Macdona’s St Bernards, due to their size, weight and long coats, were ever thought to have been good working dogs in snowy mountains
After visitors complained that he looked ’wrong’, the Museum remodelled Barry to be taller, given a nobler look, and a barrel of brandy was hung around his neck. But he still bears little resemblance to the St. Bernards that will be at Crufts this week.
The large, colourful, long-haired, friendly dogs were a sensation at Victorian dog shows and were owned by royalty. Macdona’s dog Tell became a celebrity and was in demand for breeding; the Prince of Wales’s St Bernard Hope was sired by him.
"It’s fascinating that Macdona’s St Bernards, due to their size, weight and long coats, were ever thought to have been good working dogs in snowy mountains," said Professor Worboys.
He added: "The newly invented St. Bernards were bred for show, not work; form trumped function. Macdona was a founder member of the Kennel Club, whose shows fostered the increase in the number, standardisation and beautification of breeds.’
"Though defined by their form, the new breeds were also given backstories, and St. Bernards had a good one that celebrated Victorian values."
However, Macdona had his critics. In 1905, the American fancier James Watson wrote that Macdona was ’the great English exploiter of the breed,’ lampooning its invented tradition.
’It is popularly believed that every stormy night the monks of St. Bernard send out a dog to save travellers. It carries a blanket, two bottles of hot water, a mustard plaster, two coarse towels, a basket filled with roast chicken and three kinds of vegetables, and a liquor case containing rum, lemon peel, sugar, and water,’ he wrote.
But the breed went from strength to strength and became one of the most recognisable in the world, one even starring in Hollywood’s Beethoven movie series in the 1990s.
Study at The University of Manchester opens in new window