On an Overgrown Pathé

[On an Overgrown Pathe]

It's a Dog's Life

[Italian version here]

Author: David Hoehl - TNT USA
Published: March, 2017

How about a ghost story? “Ghost in the machine” is a phrase widely known by the public in a variety of contexts; a quick check in Wikipedia turns up a philosophical term, the titles of several rock songs by various performers, a multi-Platinum album by new wave band The Police, a children's novel and a mystery novel, a motion picture bomb, an assortment of TV episodes, and even a piece of avant garde performance art. Less well known is that perhaps the most beloved, and certainly the best known, painting related to the world of music is haunted by the ghost of a machine.

In his concluding chapter on writing style in that venerable grammar guide The Elements of Style, E.B. White remarks on how, thanks to Robert Louis Stevenson's eponymous poem, “one cow, out of so many, received the gift of immortality.” And so it is with a little mongrel dog--said by some to have been mostly Jack Russell terrier, by others to have been a mixed bull and fox terrier--whose sentimental depiction, by an artist named Francis Barraud, peering into the horn of an early gramophone would become iconic thanks to its promotion by certain segments of the recording industry over the course of more than a century. “Nipper” was the dog's name, one he received not because he was a cute little puppy but because he was a fiesty ex-stray with a habit of biting the heels of visitors! He also is said to have enjoyed hunting rats; scrapping with other dogs; and even stalking pheasants, at least once all too successfully, at London's Richmond Park.

[With Gramophone]
Barraud's familiar painting with gramophone

If Nipper is known (albeit not necessarily by name) the world over, the same cannot be said of Francis Barraud, and yet in his day Barraud was by no means obscure. Some time ago I wrote of how talent often runs in families, and Barraud was yet another example: his great-grandfather was a successful miniaturist; his father and uncle were both popular and successful artists in their time, particularly as painters of portraits and hunting scenes; his brother Mark also followed in the family painterly footsteps; and another brother, Herbert, took the family's traditional occupation into then cutting-edge technological territory by becoming a noted photograpic portratist. Francis started by emulating his father's equestrian themes, but over time he struck out in his own direction and included book illustration among his accomplishments, if only because the proceeds put food on the table. Brother Mark was the least successful, trying to eke out a living painting theater scenery, but--being a man of the theater--he appropriately played a key role in our story. In 1884, while out on a walk, Mark Barraud encountered a stray puppy and brought him home, where he remained until Mark's early death some three years later at age 39. Having so entered the family, Nipper then passed to Francis, who kept one of those newfangled cylinder phonographs in his studio to entertain his subjects as he painted their portraits. On those occasions, Nipper would peer at the machine, trying to figure out the source of the voices. Some years later, Francis set brush to canvas and created a painting on that theme, to which he assigned the catchy title "Dog Looking at and Listening to a Phonograph." In a sense, the painting already had its ghostly aspect: by the time Barraud created it, Nipper had been dead for three years.

The story is well known how Decca turned down the Beatles, but that company was by no means the music industry's first to blunder by rejecting a future household name. Francis Barraud had hoped his painting would find a sale to a magazine, but none was interested. The Royal Academy also refused it. He tried selling it to the Edison Bell phonograph company, but here, too, he came up short: the company representative, against the evidence, dismissively asserted that dogs do not listen to phonographs. In fairness, the picture wasn't quite the same or nearly as appealing as we know it today--and here's where the ghost comes in. As he originally painted it, Barraud had Nipper listening to a cylinder phonograph, which had a very "mechanical" or "industrial" look compared to the simple lines of an early front-mount type gramophone. In addition, the painting was quite dark at first, not least because the phonograph's horn was black. One of Barraud's friends suggested the painting would be better if the horn were brass, and upon consideration Barraud agreed; he went to the newly-formed Gramophone company to borrow one as a subject for repainting, and the rest is history. Company director William Barry Owen immediately saw the promise of the painting and asked Barraud if he would sell it after painting a gramophone over the cylinder phonograph. Barraud readily agreed. And the ghost? The original painting still exists, and if one looks carefully the outlines of the original cylinder player still lurk under the repainted surface.

[Barraud's Original Painting]
Barraud's original painting, with a cylinder player

Incidentally, the substitution made good sense from an artistic but not so much from a practical standpoint. Most cylinder machines could be equipped to record, and therefore it made sense that the dog could be hearing "his master's voice" from one. Disk machines, on the other hand, had no recording capability. Thus, if a disk record contained "his master's voice," the "master" must have been someone of sufficient stature to make commercial records. Not impossible, of course, but certainly less likely than that Nipper was sitting there listening to an early home recording.


Needless to say, Nipper and the gramophone went on to international fame, becoming one of the world's handful of most valuable trademarks. And what of Barraud? When he sold the painting to the Gramophone Company in 1899, he received a total 100 Pounds, 50 for the painting and 50 for the copyright. That may seem a pittance for what would in due course become such a valuable property, but in today's money it would be quite a nice sum, according to one online calculator something in excess (perhaps much in excess) of 10,000 Pounds. We needn't, then, feel too sorry for Francis Barraud regarding that initial sale, which was quite profitable for a painting whose future value could hardly have been obvious. Moreover, thereafter he built something of a cottage industry on his creation's success, repeatedly painting copies on commission from the Gramophone company and earning a tidy living in the process. By the time of his death in 1924, he had painted in excess of 20 copies.

Curiously, having made a substantial investment in a property destined for greatness, the Gramophone Company seems not to have known quite what to do with it. "His Master's Voice" did not appear on the company's records until 1909; instead, they carried the pre-existing "recording angel" trademark. In 1902, Gramophone transferred to the Victor Talking Machine Company all American rights to Barraud's painting, and unlike its English counterpart Victor was quick to harness Nipper's charms to promote its wares. "Look for the dog!" urged the company's advertising literature. Through Victor, rights to Nipper passed to its Japanese subsidiary, which would go on to become the independent JVC. With rights so fractured, use of the mark in today's globalized music market has become problematic.

As noted above, Nipper the dog had been dead three years when the painting was finished, making his image there a bit of ghost in itself. He was buried in Kingston upon Thames in Clarence Street, in what at the time was a small park surrounded by magnolia trees. The area built up over the years since, and today a branch of Lloyds Bank occupies the site; Nipper's final resting place is under the parking lot, although the bank has posted a brass plaque in his memory, and a small road in the vicinity has been renamed Nipper Alley.

Of the original characters in our ghost story, that leaves Edison Bell. Brought into being to distribute all phonographs in England pursuant to a patent settlement between Edison and a group headed by Alexander Graham Bell, the company eventually would become independent of all and showed a penchant for naming its products in a way that would camp out on the fame of other marks. For example, in 1906 through 1908 Columbia marketed a flexible disk record under the name Marconi Velvet Tone. Edison Bell duly introduced a label, pressed in conventional brittle shellac, called "Velvet Face." And so it was with trademarks. As a result of patent litigation related to that just mentioned, Eldridge R. Johnson, the man whose clockwork motors had made the new style disk machines practical, won the principal point in dispute, the right to manufacture disk records, but lost the right to use the name "gramophone." He therefore substituted "Victor" to celebrate that his enterprise had come out, for the most part, on top. Edison Bell promptly adopted "The Winner" as its record label, and for good measure it added its own animal mascot. Curiously, the company that had rejected Nipper because "dogs don't listen to phonographs" decided that in horse races the riders routinely carry phonograph records across the finish line (see adjacent photo). I will strenuously resist remarking that so was born the world's first disk jockey!

[Winner record label (detail)]
Edison Bell's "The Winner" racing image

Copyright 2017 David Hoehl - drh@tnt-audio.com - www.tnt-audio.com