Cattle and Milk Machines: Nature, Art and the Ideal Type
S. Quinn 1
York University, Canada
concept of a "breed" of domestic cattle is predominantly
a social construct. The late eighteenth century development
of intensive selective (in)breeding of livestock produced
breeds that were visually distinguishable from each other.
The adoption of breed standards was facilitated in part through
paintings and drawings of idealized animals. These "ideal
types" or "standards of perfection" further
served as targets for breeders who attempted to achieve the
artist's conception of the perfect animal. However, concepts
of perfection change with fashion and thus ideal types constitute
between humans and non-human domesticated animals are highly
complex phenomena of eminent social significance. Generations
of interaction between humans and suitable domesticates have
resulted in marked interdependence. Human societies rely on
these animals for both physical products (such as food, fuel,
power and raw materials), and a myriad of more intangible roles
(symbols of wealth or prestige, or religious belief; aesthetic
pleasure; verbal symbolism and vocabulary) (Dyson, 1972). These
relationships provide an opportunity to explore the dynamic
oscillation between human acceptance and denial of our being
fully within the domain of animality (Carson, 1972; Ingold,
ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think
and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature" (Lakoff
and Johnson, 1980). Sabloff (1991) investigated human-nonhuman
animal relations in three domains of Canadian cultural life:
domestic, workplace or "factory," and public or "civic"
domains. Her results suggest that a separate ruling metaphor
"constrained cognitive ordering processes and guided behaviors
in different ways" within each of the three domains. She
posits that a "kinship metaphor pattern[s] human relations
with animals in the domestic domain, the artifact metaphor in
the factory domain, and the citizenship metaphor in the civic
domain." These metaphors act as mechanisms of ordering
the natural world and thus determine what type of behaviour
is acceptable toward nonhuman animals.
cattle, as "live-stock," predominantly occupy the
factory domain in modern Western society; they are bought and
sold as market goods. Altered from their ancestral form by human
intervention, these animals exist as cultural artifacts (Reed,
1959). Thousands of years of selection, coupled with modern
genetic manipulation, have resulted in a gaping chasm between
most domestic animals and their wild progenitors. For many,
such as our modern breeds of cattle, they are placeless creatures.
The "regulated alteration of genomes of organisms [have
made] them into slaves that cannot be liberated, like comatose
patients hooked without reprieve to the economic machine"
(Shepard, 1992). A recent livestock textbook, under the sub-heading
"the real purpose of cattle," states simply that "[t]he
primary purpose of cattle is ... to convert roughage to meat,
milk, and by-products" (Briggs and Briggs, 1980). Thus,
viewed as a product of human ingenuity, cattle are stripped
of their subjectness to be dealt with as mere objects. The cluster
of concomitants of the animal-as-artifact metaphor, includes
a denial of sentience, discardability and a lack of moral standing
metaphor enables formalization of the concept of domestic breeds.
"A breed is a group of animals that has been
changed by [hu]man to possess a uniform appearance that is inheritable
and distinguishes it from other groups of animals within the
same species" (Clutton-Brock, 1981). The profusion of breeds
that exist today makes it difficult to fathom that most of our
domestic animal species are descended from a single progenitor
species or small group of closely related species. All domestic
dogs, for example, belong to the same species, Canis familiaris
. Hence, the Great Dane and the Pekinese are theoretically
capable of interbreeding and both are descended from wolf ancestors.
Selective breeding dates back to the Neolithic roots of domestication,
but the proliferation of well-defined breeds is predominantly
a product of the past two centuries (Ritvo, 1990).
breeds are characterized by unique physical and behavioral characteristics,
the notion of breeds exists primarily as a social construct.
That is, in order for a breed to exist, enough people have to
agree that the animals in question are sufficiently unique from
other breeds and conform to some set of standards for that breed.
A breed exists for us as a fact because we can all see it; it
is what Evernden (1992) terms the "democratization of knowledge."
The standards that are created to demarcate breeds are presented
in the form of an "ideal type" or "standard of
perfection," a hypothetical model of the perfect member
of the breed. The primary characters that distinguish breeds
are most often related to outward appearance (phenotype).
of perfection developed for breeds of cattle are primarily those
correlated with the intended purpose of the animal/artifact
(eg. the proportions of desirable "cuts" in beef cattle
or the size and shape of the udder in dairy cattle). However,
some criteria are highly arbitrary (eg. a white stripe on the
back of a Hereford is discriminated against by some breeders
(Briggs and Briggs, 1980). In sum, breeds are created by humans
for aesthetic, economic or ritual reasons through selective
breeding practices based on a conception of how the perfect
animal should look and act or perform.
paper is an historical interpretation of how a small groups
of individuals were able to initiate the social construction
of a breed of cattle. In particular I will focus on the role
of graphic representation in both establishing and further altering
the form of a breed. Shepard (1967), among others, has argued
that the ideals portrayed in Italian Renaissance landscape painting
were subsequently transferred to the actual landscape. People
were taught what was considered "picturesque" and
moulded the landscape to fit the ideal. My thesis is that livestock
portraiture plays an analogous role in molding new forms of
Cattle and Cattle Portraiture
The artistic representation of bovine subjects traces its origins
to the earliest known art. The first subjects of painting were
animals, the first medium was probably animal blood and bovids
were among the first animals painted (Berger, 1980; Klingender,
1971). The little we know about the experience of prehistoric
humans is greatly enriched by the legacy of their paintings.
Livingston (1973) suggests these graphic representations mark
the dawn of a new relationship between human and nonhuman animals.
The new magic of symbolism was probably meant to increase the
odds in favor of the hunter and is thereby "the deliberate
manipulating of natural objects toward the goals of human will."
We cannot know for certain why Cro-Magnon humans toiled in the
depths of caverns to create elaborate depictions of their fellow
creatures. However, more than a reflection of the artist, graphic
reflection helps others to learn how animals are to be seen
and thus treated.
cave art clearly depicts animals recognizable as Bos primigenius
, the aurochs (plural: aurochsen). It is from the aurochsen,
the wild cattle of northern Europe and Asia, that all contemporary
domestic cattle are descended. The earliest certain evidence
for the domestication of cattle has been dated to c. 6400 B.C.
from a site in Turkey (Clutton-Brock, 1981). The aurochs was
eventually extirpated from western Europe near the end of the
fourteenth century, but lingered on until 1627 when the last
known cow died in Poland (Fraser, 1972). The legacy of aurochsen
is recognized today by taxonomic authorities as two species
of domestic cattle: Bos taurus, the domestic humpless
cattle and the zebu, Bos indicus , the humped cattle
of India and Asia. The genetic constitution of all modern cattle
breeds is traceable to these progenitors which in turn can be
traced to Bos primigenius .
of desirable traits in domestic species, even if unconsciously,
dates back to the initial attempts at domestication (Reed, 1959).
However, the earliest certain evidence for willful selective
breeding of cattle comes to us from the paintings and artifacts
of ancient Egypt, more than five thousand years ago (Morse,
1912). Other societies subsequently developed selection techniques,
populations of cattle were moved and bred with other forms,
and local traditions established characteristic regional phenotypes.
By the Middle Ages there was a great deal of variation in the
appearance of domestic cattle across Europe and Asia.
primarily oxen, had long been the work animals of Europe. Oxen
pulled carts, logs, stumps and a variety of simple farm implements.
These animals were usually worked for about ten years and were
then slaughtered for food (Fussell, 1929). Cows were likely
kept for a similar period of time for milk and also for breeding.
Horses, much smaller than the draught animals that would follow,
played only a minor role in farm work until the dawn of the
second millennium A.D. The first undisputed reference to horses
used for ploughing is from ninth century Norway and it was likely
uncommon in most of Europe until the eleventh and twelfth centuries
(Langdon, 1986). Changes in this pattern were brought about
through an unlikely connection, the warriors of medieval Europe.
the medieval period there is evidence for an increase in size
of both cattle and horses. However, the development of the medieval
war horse beginning in the early fourteenth century was a key
factor in determining the future of both animals. The improvement
of horses for warfare was fuelled by a need for larger and stronger
animals. The spin-off of selection programs for large war horses
was more powerful, faster animals available for agricultural
draught work. The great Flanders and Flemish horse stock, the
mounts of armor-clad warriors, were the forerunners of the modern
draught breeds (Fraser, 1991). As the horse became more desirable
for farm work, the oxen became more available for the production
of beef. The English especially seized the opportunity to exploit
this new availability of meat and from the sixteenth to eighteenth
centuries "the roast beef of England was a national symbol"
(Thomas, 1983). The growing demand and healthy market spawned
a desire to produce larger beef cattle in a shorter period of
time. It was not long before the methods of thoroughbred racehorse
breeders, who were showing remarkable results on the racetracks
by the beginning of the eighteenth century, were adopted by
cattle producers (Ritvo, 1991).
of the Breeds
Let each succeeding
race employ your care,
Distinguishing which to slaughter, which to spare;
Mark well the lineage from purest make,
And from pure blood its just proportions take.
under a painting of the
"Cotmore" (Russell, 1947)
breeders in the middle of the eighteenth century set about to
increase their profits through the "improvement" of
their beef-producing livestock. Improvement meant animals that
gained weight faster, matured sooner and grew larger. The tenets
of Taylorism, production, specialization and efficiency, were
imposed on animals (Noske, 1989). The pioneers of such improvement
were Benjamin Tomkins, Richard Bakewell, and Charles Colling
who began "systematic improvement" through selection
in 1742, 1750 and 1784 respectively. It is important to remember
that before this time there were no real breeds of cattle formally
recognized. However, there were local variations in populations
with regard to color and conformation. A breed came into being
through intensive breeding programs driven by the selection
of traits deemed desirable by the breeder. Much of the early
breed establishment was wrought with rampant inbreeding. The
following story illustrates the development of a new breed of
Colling, the owner of a small farm, became envious of the name,
and money, that Richard Bakewell was beginning to make for himself
through his improvement of what he called Longhorn Cattle. Colling
visited Bakewell in 1784 and managed to pry loose some of Bakewell's
secrets of success. He returned home and purchased a small bull
that he named "Hubbach." Hubbach was "small,
short-legged, yellowish-red and white with a good mossy coat"
(Russell, 1947). Colling then bought four cows named "Duchess,"
"Cherry," "Daisy" and "Favourite"
from four different farmers in the area. It is said that the
owner of Favourite, John Maynard, initially asked too high a
price for the cow and Colling refused to pay. However, Mrs.
Colling was particularly fond of the cow and Mrs. Maynard urged
her husband to lower the price. "These five animals were
the foundation of the Shorthorn breed; and the descendants of
Favourite became the best known" (Russell, 1947). (Similar
processes spawned other beef breeds such as Herefords, Highlanders
and Aberdeen Angus).
with such a small herd at the outset, there was much inbreeding.
One of Hubbach's sons sired a cow named Phoenix from Favourite.
Phoenix was bred with another bull and birthed a bull named
Favourite. The bull Favourite was bred back to his mother and
sired a cow named Young Phoenix. Favourite was then bred with
Young Phoenix (his daughter begot of his own mother) to sire
a bull named Comet (1804-1815) the most famous bull of the nineteenth
century. Favourite also sired the Ketton Ox, which became better
known as the Durham Ox.
"Durham Ox", 1802
Ox was a huge, obese animal that captured the attention of the
British public. The ox was purchased by a wealthy aristocrat
and toured England and Scotland for six years in a specially
a single day in London, where the Ox spent most of 1802, admission
fees totalled 97 pounds....Combining massive presence and
distinguished pedigree, the Durham ox exemplified the end
toward which late eighteenth-century prize cattle breeding
was directed; it was the type of bovine excellence (Ritvo,
did people pay to see this beast, but in 1802 alone, more than
2000 people purchased a print of the squarish, roan ox. The
ideal type for the early short-horn breed was established. The
publicity that was accorded the Durham Ox (as well as another
travelling obese Shorthorn of the same line, "The White
Heifer that Travelled") helped the Collings to construct
the foundation of the breed. The paintings and prints, although
exaggerated in form, reinforced the color and marking pattern,
horn shape and other such characteristics that were to make
the breed recognizable (Briggs and Briggs, 1980; Plumb, 1904).
were vaulted into a symbol of English prestige. They reflected
affluence, power, domination and the importance of good breeding.
"They were intrinsically desirable objects of conspicuous
consumption" (Ritvo, 1987). The public display in ample
flesh as well as in painting suggests a metaphorical more than
practical function. The cattle celebrated and reaffirmed the
traditional rural order. Domination and control over nature
exhibited by the ruling elite, reminded ordinary farmers that
these beef barons were their natural leaders (Ritvo, 1987).
for livestock portraiture blossomed in the first half of the
nineteenth century. There was a steady flow of cattle prints
produced between 1798 and 1845 (Russell, 1947). Wealthy cattle
owners celebrated themselves through paintings of their creations,
and cattle-watchers shared in the prestige vicariously through
prints of the same. Rich owners commissioned some of the better
artists of the day to portray their favorite beasts. Engravers
then made less expensive prints available to the rest of society.
Several artists, such as George Garrard, James Ward and Thomas
Sidney "Cow" Cooper made a substantial living doing
only cow portraits. Of this commercial art George Garrard commented:
has always been the practice of polished nations to unite
the elegant with the useful, the polite with the necessary
arts, which thus serve mutually to illustrate and assist each
other, and render employment at the same time and upon the
same subject for the man of genius and the man of labour (in
cattle portraits" depicted the brutal mass of their subjects.
The animals were drawn broad-side and appeared massive. If human
or other figures appeared in the paintings they were dwarfed.
It was also the custom to partake in a little artistic licence,
a touch of adiposal hyperbole. Bulging bovines with minuscule
heads and broomstick legs were the order of the day. Some artists,
however, refused to so indulge. Thomas Bewick describes how,
in 1798, he was called to Barmpton to draw cattle and sheep
for a subsequent wood engraving (quoted in Boalch, 1958).
I had made my drawings from the fat sheep, I soon saw that
they were not approved, but that they were to be made like
certain paintings shown to me. I observed to my employer that
the paintings bore no resemblance to the animals whose figures
I had made my drawings from; and that I would not alter mine
to suit the paintings that were shown to me;...my journey,
as far as concerned these fat cattle makers, ended in nothing.
I objected to put lumps of fat here and there where I could
not see it, at least not in so exaggerated a way as on the
painting before me; so "I got my labour for my trouble."
Many of the animals were, during this rage for fat cattle,
fed up to as great a weight and bulk as it was possible for
feeding to make them; but this was not enough; they were to
be figured monstrously fat before the owners of them could
be pleased. Painters were found who could be quite subservient
to this guidance, and nothing else would satisfy. Many of
these paintings will mark the times, and, by the exaggerated
productions of the artists, serve to be laughed at when the
folly and the self-interested motives which gave birth to
them are done away.
portraiture also helped to establish livestock as an aesthetically
pleasing part of the landscape. The idyllic landscapes of the
Victorian era were seldom without farm animals, and cattle,
with their composed posture and benign expression, were among
the favorites. The elite Victorians held a romantic view of
a pure and innocent Arcadia. They were clinging to the vanishing
ideals of country life as society became transformed from predominantly
rural to urban; cattle became symbols of mythical rural tranquillity.
Cattle also became established as aesthetically pleasing and
picturesque in their own right. Both sentiments are expressed
in the following passage:
all breeds of cattle the Highland is admitted to be the most
picturesque. To see beasts of this description, however, to
advantage, they should not be visited in the cultured pastures
of the lowlands, or in the parks around "The stately
Homes of England" where numbers of them find their way
for a season to fulfil a twofold function, viz. to adorn the
landscape, and at the same time to improve their condition.
To see them at their best the spectator must betake himself
to the north or west of Scotland, where the heather, brackens,
and furze that are to be seen on every hand form a harmonious
setting to the picturesque and striking figures of the animals
then, both reflected the thought of the day and catalyzed a
transformation to a different conception of a part of nature.
Breeds of cattle became recognizable and valued as they captured
the spirit of improvement, refinement and pedigree. As artifacts
they ranked with the other mechanistic achievements of the nascent
Heights of Platonic Pure Form
paint a squirrel or a bird? Domestic animals have been part
of our lives for thousands of years - they have made us what
we are, and they are constantly being improved. That's what
we should be celebrating.
Ross Butler, Canadian Livestock Artist
Bakewell and the Collings, with their methods of livestock improvement,
established themselves as the "fathers of breed improvement"
(Whitlock, 1977). The adoption of their standards of perfection
was, at least in part, mediated through visual representation
in the form of paintings and prints. They provided forms for
other breeders to aspire to. It was obvious to anyone who saw
the paintings, prints or animals themselves that formal breeds
were a reality; they were there for all to see. However, livestock
portraiture was not only important in the establishment of a
breed, but in its continuance and "improvement." The
rediscovery of Mendel's genetic experiments and the increasing
demand for cattle products created a heightened sense of urgency
for livestock "improvement" in the first decade of
the twentieth century. By this time, the newly formalized breeds
of Europe were well established in North America. The following
Canadian example illustrates the role portraiture played in
a young artist and farmer from Norwich, Ontario was commissioned
to do a portrait of the new world champion Jersey Cow from the
nearby town of Brampton. The Canadian Jersey Cattle Club was
so impressed by Ross Butler's painting that they approached
him to create a "model type" for the breed. They wanted
a painting of the perfect Jersey Cow. Butler accepted the assignment
with relish but was soon faced with a perplexing question: What
would this perfect animal look like?
purchased a Jersey heifer of outstanding pedigree named "Major
Sea Girl." His plan was to pamper and study her to form
a conception of perfect proportions. He began to take various
measurements of Major Sea Girl in an attempt to reduce the notion
of excellence to something approaching a mathematical formula.
His discoveries astonished him:
the tip of her nose to her tailsetting, was exactly equal
to her largest girth measurement...her height at the withers
was equal to her height at the rump and...it was also precisely
the distance between her front and rear hooves...The length
of the head was a unit measurement duplicated in 22 proportions
of her body...from her throat to her dewlap, from dewlap to
udder...the length of her neck to her withers, twice from
her withers to her hipbones, from hip to pinbone and hip to
stifle joint, from stifle to hock, hock to hoof and more (in
concluded that the ideal Jersey cow was framed around a perfect
square. His perfect animal was a series of boxes within a box,
a notion he entitled "Butler's theory of relativity."
extended his theory to other breeds of cattle and then other
domestic animals. He quickly became established as the Canadian
authority on what was called the True Type, Ideal Type or Standard
of Perfection. He was granted one of the widest reaching commissions
in Canadian art history when in 1937 he began work on 22 paintings
depicting the perfect male and female of every major dairy breed,
beef breed and draught horse. The completed series was sent
to every school in Canada and
rare was the classroom that did not display a print or two
on the wall above the blackboard, up there beside the carefully
lettered Aa Bb Cc. Generations of daydreaming school children
settled their eyes on the bony hips and soft contours of Butler's
ideal jersey cow or the great feet and mighty haunches of
his perfect Percheron stallion (Webster, 1985).
types became the targets at which livestock breeders aimed.
Through the selection methods first developed in the eighteenth
century, coupled with the new techniques of artificial insemination
and embryo transplantation, the modern animal was "improved."
It is not insignificant that Butler himself stowed his paintbrush
for twenty-five years in favor of starting an artificial insemination
business that, at its peak, employed sixteen technicians and
bred more than 100 cows a day. Science and technology raced
towards the artists' conception. The new technology allowed
for rapid world-wide homogenization of a breed. The prize Holstein
bull, Alsopdale Sunbeam II, died in 1979, but not before providing
214,293 first inseminations and leaving another 200,000 doses
of semen in cryogenic storage (Klinkenborg, 1993).
thirty-five years of selective breeding, Canadian Holstein farms
were graced with cattle remarkably similar to Butler's true
type. In 1971 it was time to do the inevitable, Butler produced
a new ideal type. The race began anew, only now with yet another
weapon in the arsenal, genetic improvement. The modern Holstein
"milk machine" produces an average of 13,000 pounds
of milk per annum, triple the amount that their ancestors produced
at the turn of the century (Rath, 1987). Today's standard of
perfection even has teats in a form to better fit milking apparatus.
The average "improved" Holstein is
to live only 4 1/2 years...[i]f they lived any longer their
legs would begin to give way, as would the sinews supporting
their udders, which may weigh as much as a full-grown man....they're
industrial animals, no more fuel efficient than a mammoth
tractor, suited to the richness of an industrial economy (Klinkenborg,
feels that his new ideal will be obsolete before 1995 (Webster,
organizing category of "breed" is a social construct
spawned from the ruling metaphor of animal-as-artifact. Tracing
the historic thread of cattle domestication and the subsequent
development of recognized breeds illustrates the culpability
of graphic representation in the process of social construction.
In essence, the animals have become what we wanted them to be.
Ideal types are established and breeding programs strive to
meet the standards. The standards, however, are a moving target
that change often to reflect the ideals (fashions) of the day.
They are the physical embodiment of our ideals, our creations
of "improved" nature. They are simplified cultural
artifacts that have come to replace the complexity and diversity
of the natural world.
Please address correspondence to the author at Faculty of Environmental
Studies, York University, 4700 Keele Street, North York, ON,
Canada, M3J 1P3. This work was supported in part by a Natural
Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada Doctoral
Fellowship. I am grateful to Rebecca Raglon, the late dian marino,
two anonymous reviewers and the editor for their encouragement
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