A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The chances of Cecil Aldin opting to earn a living as anything OTHER than an artist could be categorized as ‘slim to non-existent’.
His father had been a keen amateur artist and Cecil himself started drawing as a child. He initially studied under Albert Moore, then at the National Art Training School (which later became the Royal College of Art) before spending a summer with the renowned animal artist Frank Calderon.
The years of study may have refined his technique and deepened his understanding of his craft, but his talent was innate and informed by his great affinity with animals – most especially dogs. He drew from life and his ability to catch the essence of an animal in a rapid sketch, (to be refined later at his leisure) was almost uncanny.
As an enthusiastic twenty-something, his determination to make his way as an artist led to him inundating The Illustrated London News with his work. His persistence paid off, and by the turn of the century his sporting prints and book illustrations had won him a substantial public following – which increased after an exhibition in Paris in 1909. Marriage and two children resulted in the addition of nursery pictures to his rapidly growing repertoire.
During the First World War – too old for active service – he was major in charge of the remount depot at Calcot near Reading, a task which must have grieved the animal-loving man deeply because it involved dealing with the horses that were being sent out to almost certain death on the Western Front. In 1917, he lost his only son in the action on Vimy Ridge.
After the war he turned his attention once again to the perennially popular hunting scenes, but in addition he also produced a superb set of nostalgic prints of old coaching inns, cathedrals and manor houses, many of which continue to be reproduced on endless Christmas and greetings cards.
It is, however, for his love affair with dogs that Cecil Aldin is best remembered today. Towards the end of his life, increasingly troubled by arthritis, he concentrated on them almost exclusively, sketching his own (whom he called ‘The Professionals’) and those of visitors (‘The Amateurs’) over and over again. He would let them loose in the 60 foot long ex-army barracks that was his studio and wait patiently – often for hours on end – for them to settle in the right pose.
An early best seller was A Dog Day in 1902. Aldin provided the illustrations for the whimsical narrative of Walter Emanuel. The little book – much reprinted – tells the story of one enterprising terrier’s typical day in an Edwardian household.
5.15: Awakened by a bad attack of eczema.
5.20 to 5.30: Slept again.
5.30: Awakened again by eczema. Caught one.
His favourite model was his ebullient bull terrier Cracker who – thanks to dozens of magazine and newspaper illustrations plus a series of hugely popular books – became one of the most famous dogs in the world. Cracker was almost pure white, with a jaunty black patch above one eye, giving him a rakish appearance which he fully lived up to. His straight man was a simply enormous Irish Wolfhound called Micky, usually to be found lounging full length on an old sofa. As is often the case with very large dogs, Micky was phenomenally good natured and literally allowed Cracker to walk all over him.
One of Aldin’s most successful books was Sleeping Partners, which consisted of nothing more than 20 pastel studies of Cracker’s attempts to claim some of the sofa for himself. To thumb through it is to understand why it was said that Aldin captured the very soul of a dog.
When his health began to decline, Aldin and his wife Rita moved to Majorca, taking Cracker and Micky with them. There, he continued to produce books and features about them for The Illustrated London News, the New York Times and The Sketch. The two dogs were so popular they even received their own fan mail.
Unfortunately, Micky never really acclimatized to his new surroundings. He died from heart failure just a year after the move to Majorca.
In January 1935 while Aldin was away on a visit to London, Cracker – back home in Majorca – started to howl in a most extraordinary and unprecedented fashion. It was several hours later that the news reached Rita Aldin that her husband had died from a heart attack in the London Clinic. She could not ascribe the terrier’s behaviour to anything other than a reaction to the severing of a psychic link between the man and the dog.
Following Aldin’s death Rita wanted to return to England, but that would have entailed putting the 10 year old Cracker into quarantine. She wouldn’t desert him, and so she stayed in Majorca with him until his death in 1937. Such was his fame that he received his own obituary notice in The Times:
Cracker, the bull terrier, for many years the beloved companion and favourite model of the late Cecil Aldin, died July 31st, Mallorca. Deeply mourned.
The books that Cecil Aldin illustrated are too numerous to list in their totality, and many are now out of print (and changing hands for small fortunes) – but the ‘classics’ are reprinted and still readily available:
Cecil Aldin’s long out of print autobiography, Time I Was Dead: Pages from My Autobiography (1934) is now a collectible, currently selling for three figures – as does Roy Heron’s 1981 biography Cecil Aldin, the Story of a Sporting Artist (which is really ironic considering that it when it was published, it was quickly remaindered).