The Rabbit Fanciers (1886)
WILLIAM FRANK CALDERON (1865-1943)
Signed and dated 'W.FRANK CALDERON 1886 (lower right); and signed again and inscribed as titled (on the verso)
In original frame
On the face of it this is simply a charming picture of a smallholder’s dog and her charges eyeing up some pet rabbits; pet rabbits one has to add at great pains to make themselves look as delicious as possible. The collar on the adult dog holds the key to the predicament depicted: the rabbits look dangerously accessible and yet they and the dog know only too well that, as part of the establishment, they are strictly off limits.
There is, however, another more profound interpretation of the painting (an interpretation that one instinctively feels must be right) : that it is simultaneously a religious picture, symbolically representing the human condition. We, our sub-lunary selves, are constantly tempted to yield to self-rewarding temptation (in this case, a bit of impromptu Rabbit Tartare) and yet something powerful and mysterious tends to hold us back. It is this powerful, mysterious and indeed numinous thing that one feels the dog is trying to grapple with as she looks up in awe-filled supplication towards the rabbits (themselves of course anciently symbolic of The Passion). One feels the moment is transcendent for her (though one guesses, like communion, it is almost a daily ritual in the farmyard) – something (and this is the tour de force of the picture) not missed by the puppy on the right. While his sibling, the little heathen, looks up at what he hopes might imminently become lunch, the more curious right-hand puppy looks at his mother like a child looks for the first time at its parent taking the sacrament. He won’t forget it.
The collar has become God Himself.
William Frank Calderon was a painter of animals, portraits and landscape. Born in London, son of the painter, Philip Hermogenes Calderon (1833-1898) keeper of the Royal Academy, he was educated at University College School, London, and studied at the Slade under Alphonse Legros (1837-1911). He exhibited at the RA from 1881-1916 and established the School of Animal Painting, Baker Street, London, and remained its principal from 1894-1916.
William Frank Calderon’s work has been offered at auction multiple times, the record price being 72,170 USD for How Four Queens Found Sir Lancelot Sleeping sold at Sotheby’s London in 1999.