Renowned art critic Brian Sewell shares experiences of his life with dogs in the UK. We’ve been bringing his stories to you throughout the day – this is part 3. Parts 2 and 3 are excerpts from his book Sleeping with Dogs: A Peripheral Autobiography. Please bear in mind that pet customs vary across generations and countries. Female dogs are typically referred to as bitches, and for many years it was not common for people to spay or neuter their pets.
When a friend invited me to lunch with Prince Michael of Kent some 20 years ago, it was an occasion which I anticipated with some anxiety, not least because a moth had dined on my only suit.
As it turned out, my appearance would prove the least of my problems. Several weeks previously, I had disturbed a heron just as it took a sizeable goldfish from the pond in the back garden of my home in Wimbledon.
Dropped by the bird as it flew off, the broken-backed fish floundered helplessly in the water and I felt obliged to kill it and bury it in a hole deep enough to frustrate the foxes.
Of this I thought no more until, just as I was about to leave the house for my royal appointment, I discovered that one of the three dogs I had at the time had retrieved the goldfish from its grave and had been joined by the others in rolling around on its mouldering shreds of flesh.
This left me with a dilemma. One disintegrating fish no bigger than a sprat releases a volume of vile and clinging stink out of all proportion to its body. If I returned the dogs to the house every room would be uninhabitable, but I could not leave them in the garden.
I had time, I thought, to bathe them. Stripped to my underpants, I soaped and hosed them, but when dry, the stink was as strong as ever; I soaped and hosed again and still the stink clung to their coats — but this had to be enough.
I hauled on my clothes and rushed off to the lunch in South Kensington, aware throughout my journey on the Underground that I could still smell the stink; was it on my flesh, my clothes, or only in my nostrils? The mutual friend who was our host occasionally reminds me that my first words to the Prince were: ‘Oh, how do you do — do I stink of fish?’
Such embarrassments are the price you pay for canine companionship, and I have certainly had my share of them over the years.
Some of my most mortifying moments were down to Titian, a whippet-boxer cross with an astonishing libido. He came into my life in January 1987 following a phone call from my local vet Rusty Williams, who had cared for so many of my pets over the years.
He told me that this healthy six-year-old dog’s elderly mistress had died and that he would be put down unless a home could be found for him.
As I soon discovered, Titian’s response to a bitch in the merest hint of heat was of single-minded randiness that meant for me a sprinting pursuit towards the far horizon to head him away from his intended.
At home, meanwhile, he formed a passionate sexual relationship with the settee in my study, a good and comfortable old thing covered in yellow velvet that would have lasted another half century had it not been for his attentions.
His vices did not end there. If friends came to stay and, greeting me with a friendly hug, dropped their luggage where we stood, Titian laid claim by emptying his bladder on it. This was rather difficult to explain on a dry day, and I soon learned to spurn their embraces, seize their bags and hurry them away.
Rusty Williams knew nothing of these difficulties. Less than a month after landing me with Titian, he asked if I would also take in a ten year-old Jack Russell bitch perceived to be a menace to her owners’ new baby.
Her name was Penny, but soon I would have reason to dub her Mrs Macbeth, seeing in her nothing of the Lady but much of the wanton murderess. On our first evening together, she sank her teeth into my right hand, and on our morning walks she dispatched squirrels and small birds alike, interrupting her killing only for forays into the changing-rooms for bathers in the Serpentine.
What she did in them, having slipped through the railings that enclose them, I have no idea and she never returned with a trophy, but the yelps and screams of the women inside were audible a hundred yards away.
One morning, a package was delivered to my home by a motorcycle courier who was wearing, as was fashionable among such young men at the time, those one-piece black leathers with a prominent genital mount.
I was searching for a pen to sign for the delivery when Mrs Macbeth launched her attack. I did not see it but heard the yelp — his, not hers — and turned to see him bent low in pain with Mrs Macbeth hanging from his loins, her teeth sunk into his codpiece.
With some diplomacy, I managed to detach her and, breathing heavily, the boy went on his way, without threatening a lawsuit.
I had hoped that having a bitch in the house might soothe the restless Titian but, despite the presence of the valiant if vicious Mrs Macbeth, his attachment to his beloved yellow sofa was not diminished one whit. Soon, however, I inadvertently found a way to calm him down.
Later that same year, on a trip to Turkey to follow in the footsteps of Alexander the Great for a magazine article, I visited the ruins of an ancient city called Mopsuestia and found there an abandoned mongrel puppy with a broken foreleg, her coat hopelessly entangled in a savage thorn bush.
I could not walk away and leave her to die so I arranged for her to be flown back to England where she spent her first six months in quarantine.
Naming her Mop, I visited her at the kennels every Saturday, taking with me cubes of cheese and chocolate as treats, and a T-shirt in which I had slept so that she became accustomed to the odours of my body.
Over those months I watched her grow, her snout lengthening to suggest Alsatian ancestry and her dense waterproof coat hinting at Turkish sheepdog. It was an exotic mix and one which clearly appealed to Titian when I finally brought Mop home in May 1988.
At first sight, he fell in love with her — fierce physical love that he was too small to impose. Slipping off every time he attempted to mount her, he was so exhausted with the effort by the end of the day that he could hardly stand without some sturdy piece of furniture on which to lean.
Around the house he saw to her education — how to open doors with circular door-handles, or stand erect and reach deep across a sideboard to grab a roast chicken.
Out on walks in Kensington Gardens he behaved with astonishing aplomb, introducing her to the other dogs with whom he was friendly as might a young man his fiancée.
Walking with him at last became a pleasure without anxiety, and with Mop around he was undoubtedly more tractable and obedient. But their happiness together would prove short-lived.
In the autumn of 1994, a year after I had lost Mrs Macbeth to a heart attack, Titian succumbed to old age and in Mop I witnessed proof of canine emotion of a human kind.
For months, unresponsive to my comforting, she was lacklustre on walks and indifferent to all my promptings. For my part, I observed that the deaths of dogs grow more painful the more you experience them.
In grieving for Titian, I could hardly bear the thought that one day I would have to say goodbye to Mop, but of course there was no escaping it.
In my experience, old dogs simply decide to die though nothing is amiss with them, no cancer, no liver failure, no diabetes — it is just that the time has come. For Mop, that point was reached in November 2001.
Then aged 16 or so, she refused to eat or drink and, with overwhelming relaxation of her will, faded very fast. As with all my other dogs, I buried her in the garden, wrapped in one of my cardigans.
With her were grave-goods of cheese and chocolate, the same gifts that I had taken when I visited her every Saturday during her half year of quarantine.
My grief was gentled by a relatively new addition to the household in the form of an Alsatian puppy named Winck. I found her on a visit to the Mayhew Animal Home in North-West London in the spring of 2000.
I was there to take part in a BBC television programme about abandoned puppies, not to come home with one of my own, but from the moment I saw Winck there I was utterly seduced.
When I let her off the lead for the first time on Wimbledon Common she ran like an arrow for a hundred yards, then stopped, turned round, ran back — and I’d swear that for the rest of her life she was never more than 20 or 30 yards away from me.
She had no fears, only a wonderful self-confidence. On a visit from Miss Mabel, the Jack Russell bitch belonging to my friend Diana Rigg, she and Winck went mad with pleasure, racing hither and yon.
Mabel was small enough to run under Winck as though she were a bridge and in their first chase Winck collided with the back of my knees and felled me like a log — and there I lay, helpless with laughter, flat on my back at Diana’s feet, where perhaps all men should be.
Winck immediately had the makings of a great dog and, as I knew she would, helped lessen the grief when, towards the end of 2001, I had to face Mop’s death.
She marked Mop’s absence in our lives less with her own grief than with her acknowledgement of mine, which was acute. Lying quietly beside me on the bed in silent commiseration she responded only if I reached out to run my fingers through her coat.
In the years to come, she pursued the business of ageing gracefully, quietly content despite being increasingly deaf and developing wobbly hind legs.
Together we discovered that there is much to be said for the relationship of an old dog and an old man, its custom, composure and tranquility, though the old man knows how fragile it is when both are stalked by death.
Towards the end of 2012, it was Winck’s turn to accept that her life had run its course, just like Titian and Mop before her. By the time of her death that November, I had acquired two more rescue dogs who are still my companions today.
One is Lottie, a Staffordshire bull terrier crossed with something rather long-legged. Full-face, she has something of the monkfish in her looks, not helped by an eye that wanders far further to the right than God intended.
While she looks after the house, a watchful, baleful presence in the window, the garden is guarded by Gretel, a shaggy-coated border terrier with a surprised expression that I can only interpret as: ‘How can you be so silly?’
When not seeing off foxes, squirrels, magpies, and other intruders, she likes to watch TV and has become a devotee of David Attenborough’s programmes, defending me from lion, elephant and ape.
In truth, she is not my dog. She belongs to the friend who has, in my dotage, slowly and subtly assumed many of the duties of my dog ownership, leaving me with the comfortable delusion that I am still wholly responsible for them.
I am not; I am an old fool on crutches with a crumbling spine and a heart that is as disorderly as a single-cylinder diesel engine of much the same age.
Lottie and Gretel will surely see me out. And when that time comes I fancy that, for me, long an agnostic, proof of the existence of God will be waking one morning to find all my old dogs sleeping on my bed or nuzzling my face and demanding to be let into the garden — then I shall know that I am dead and in Heaven.