A few months ago, I wrote about how Sir Everett Millais created the modern basset hound when the inbred strains of Norman basset that were being bred in England were crossed with a bloodhound.
Sir Everett Millais was a dog show person. He was obsessed with developing the basset hound as we know it today, and as a judge, he was adamant about the newly developing English strains of dachshund take more after the hound component of their heritage than the “terrier” component.
Everett was the son of Sir John Everett Millais, a noted painter from a prominent Jersey family, and most “dog people” generally know only about his eldest son. The story of the cross between the Norman basset and the bloodhound well-documented breed lore, and much of our understanding of the dachshund in English-speaking countries comes from his work in founding that breed in England.
But of this particular Millais family, there was another son who had an interest in dogs. The youngest son of Sir John Everett Millais was John Guille Millais, an author, a painter, and naturalist of some note. I once wrote about his account of sheep-killing “Labrador dogs” in Newfoundland.
I paid almost no attention this author, other than I noted he was the younger brother of Sir Everett. I searched around for more information about John Guille, but I got bored. I made a mental note of his name and then largely forgot about him.
A few years ago I came across a book written by John Guille. It was called The Wildfowler in Scotland, which was published in 1901. The book is ostensibly a how-to manual on shooting water and seabirds in Scotland, but it also includes accounts of his favorite retriever. Her name was Jet, and she was nothing like the celebrated show dogs of his brother:
“In my early days of shore shooting I was fortunate enough to procure a dog which eventually turned out to be (so far as my experience goes) the very best that ever stood on four legs. ‘Jet,’ for that was her name, was but a pup of ten months—a smooth-coated retriever of a most gentle and affectionate disposition, and quite unbroken—when I bought her of an innkeeper in Perth. She was the keenest and best nosed dog I have ever seen—too keen, as I found at first, and constantly running-in; but eventually she settled down and became almost human in her intelligence.
Every man becomes sentimental about something, and if I say too much here about dear old ‘Jet,’ who was my constant companion for sixteen years, the reader must forgive me. Many are the tales I could tell of her prowess; but I will confine myself to a few instances of her indomitable perseverance and pluck as a swimmer. One trick I mention as interesting, for she acquired it through her own cunning. Every shooter knows that while directing his eyes to the front or flank, as he naturally does while walking along the coast, birds often come up from behind, and before he can observe them, sheer off out of shot. ‘Jet,’ however, was quite up to this. As she trotted along behind me, she constantly glanced back over her shoulder, and if she saw anything coming, she would at once run in front of me, gazing alternatively at myself and the fowl in an inquiring manner, thereby giving the chance of obtaining something desirable. There was no sea, however thunderous–even the great winter breakers of the North Atlantic– that she would not face, if I asked her to fetch some fallen treasure.
When the seas were unusually heavy, she betrayed a most remarkable instinct in preserving herself from being dashed from the rocks. Instead of plunging into the mass of water, as a breaker surged towards her, she would allow herself to be carried out on the wash of the receding rush in time to meet the next huge wave and top it just as about to fall with a force that would have knocked her senseless had it broken upon her. More than once in a heavy sea she was not quick enough in this exploit, and paid smartly for her daring. An instance occurred one day in the winter when I was lying among rocks near the Black Craig, Orkney Isles, during one of those big westerly gales when Arctic gulls and Eiders come along the shore. I had been watching them for some days previously, and whilst this gale was it height, a male eider came by, at which I fired. The bird was hard hit, and made it out to sea, but had not gone 50 yards when it fell dead among the breakers. As the sea was wild in the extreme, and I knew the bird would soon be blown ashore, I never thought of sending my dog after it; but ‘Jet’ who was pottering about in the rocks at a short distance, unfortunately had her eye also on the eider, and seeing it fall, at once made for it, in spite of all my efforts to stop her, all my shouting drowned by the roar of the ocean. I could only stand and admire her pluck as she fought through the first two breakers. Now those who have lived much by the sea have noticed that those heavy breakers always travel over the face of the ocean in threes. The third did for ‘Jet’ as she was trying to raise herself and look about for the bird. It completely broke over her, and I felt a chill go to my heart as, the next moment, I saw her body floating helplessly admidst the rush of seething waters.” (pg 45-47).
Jet eventually washed up on the shore, alive but severely draggled. Millais carried her home two miles, and although modern retriever people would have her much more steady to shot, this tale is a story of her pluck and drive.
In the Tay Estuary, Millais once shot a brent goose (“brant” goose for North Americans), but left the bird only slightly pinioned. Jet took off after the bird in the water, but the bird was a much faster swimmer than the dog. The dog pursued the goose a great distance from the shore, and Millais estimated that he ran three miles trying to call her back in:
“I began to lose all hope of ever seeing my dear doggie again. However, by the merest chance, there happened that afternoon to be an old fellow collecting bait in a spot where never before or since have I seen a man so employed. We at once asked his help, but in vain. ‘Na, na,’ he said, ‘A ken fine yon spring tide; a few meenutes to get there and a’ day to get back.’ Bribery and persuasion having alike failed, I told the old chap that as I had no intention of seeing my dog drowned I should take his boat whether he liked it or not. That he did not like it was clear from his reply; but a glance at my beaming friend convinced him that resistance would be useless, so he sullenly assisted us to launch his coble.
It took about ten minutes to run out to ‘Jet’ and her quarry, and when the latter was promptly dispatched the staunch dog fetched it to the boat, obviously proud of her accomplishment. Poor old girl, she little knew how near death she had been! Without the help that only by good luck we were able to render, she would have gone on another mile or two; then, feeling tired, would have tried in vain to make headway back’ to the shore. It took us about four and a half hours to make the coast again in that angry sea.
At all sorts of shooting, whether grouse driving, covert shooting, or wildfowling, ‘Jet’ was equally reliable; and having constant practice throughout the shooting season, she became as good a retriever as the most exacting sportsman could desire. At flight shooting she was simply perfection, and seemed, like her master, to take special delight in sitting at twilight waiting for the black forms and whistling pinions of the approaching duck. On ‘coarse’ nights, when duck flying by are seen almost as soon as they are heard, a dog is seldom quicker than a man in catching sight of them; but on still, fine nights, when the moon rises early, and the birds can be heard approaching from a distance, a good dog will always see them before the shooter, and will indicate by his motions the precise direction from which they are coming. ‘Jet’ was very good at this, almost invariably rising from her sitting posture, stiffening herself in pointer fashion, and whining if she thought I was not paying sufficient attention to her suggestions. Frequently, too, in an evening, when the wind is not too strong, many trips of birds will come down wind, from behind the shooter, and on these occasions ‘Jet’s’ sharp ears have often helped me to a shot that I should otherwise have lost from lack of time to change my position.
And now good-bye, old ‘Jet,’ fondest and faithfullest of companions! Stone deaf, and stiff with rheumatism, she quietly lay down and died, in 1897, and I can hardly hope to ever see her like again (pg. 49-50).
Jet was a poorly trained animal by our standards today, but she had lots of drive and intelligence that could have been crafted into a fine working animal. Her longevity is something that many retriever people would like to see again. In no breed of retriever do dogs routinely reach those great ages now.
Jet was not purebred by any stretch. She was a “collie-and-smooth-coated-retriever mongrel.” From her photo in Wildfowler, she looked very much like a small flat-coated retriever, so the “smooth coat” in her breed description like refers to her being a cross between some form of collie and what became the flat-coated retriever. She had definite feathering, and if she had been a cross with a collie and the dogs that became the Labrador retriever, she would have been without feathering. The flash of white on her muzzle might point to her collie ancestry, but she would have been very typical of the retrievers that Millais and other sporting young men at the time would have had.
John Guille Millais recommended crosses between “the curly and the waving retrievers. As a general rule a curly coat denotes strength, intelligence, and a relish for the hard and coarse work of the water; whilst the wavy-coated dogs are more amenable to discipline, and gifted. with a softness of mouth and sweetness of disposition not to be found in any other of the canine species” (pg. 44).
John Guille was ultimately going against his brother’s aesthetic. His favorite dogs are retrievers bred for work:
“In selecting a pup for wildfowling work the shooter cannot be too careful in his inquiries as to the cleverness, mouth, taste for the water, and other characteristics of the mother. Where possible, he should ascertain this for himself, as the mental capacity and proclivities of the mother are generally transmitted to the pups. I think am correct in saying that a dog gets from her most of his abilities—good, bad, or indifferent; while his external form is due rather to his father. Good bench qualities will, of course, add to his value, as affording more pleasure to the eye, but otherwise, they are of no importance (pg 44).
John Guille Millais would eventually become a major force in conservation. He was a co-founder of what became Fauna & Flora International, and his travels in North America, Europe, and Africa brought him into contact with many wild things. He wrote of his experiences in those regions, but he also wrote tomes of natural history, including books on magnolias and rhododendrons. He wrote about deer species and deer hunting, and he often returned to the subject of wing-shooting and the natural history of game birds and waterfowl.
Like so many young men of his class, he came to natural history with the gun in his hand and a retriever at his heels. It was around the same time that Jet came into his life that John Guille and his father met the ornithologist John Gould. That meeting laid the eggs of a passion that would drive the young man out onto the windswept coasts with his little black retriever. (It also became the inspiration for Sir John Everett Millais’s painting The Ruling Passion.)
John Guille Millais, at least when it came to dogs, was a bit of rebel compared to his brother. Everett Millais was a doyen among the dog show set. He was more interested in producing dogs that could be judged and discussed in lavish sitting rooms. John Guille was more interested in the wilder working dogs, the ones with rugged coats and lots of pluck and courage.
I am so glad that John Guille Millais was able to have this connection with Jet. She was a wonderful creature, the very sort of dog that burns your psyche deeply, the kind that visits you in dreams and leaves the memories waxing rheumy.