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The Independent Culture
Portraits of obese farm animals, barely supported on their spindly legs, were boringly common in the 18th and 19th centuries. Unsurprisingly, it is often assumed that they are the product either of a poor understanding of perspective on the part of a naive artist, or a desire to appear more wealthy on the part of the owner. But no, such animals actually existed.

A fascination with these bizarre portraits led art historian Elspeth Moncrieff to research the little-known origins of what we know today as intensive farming. In the latter part of the 18th century, a farmer by the name of Robert Bakewell began his efforts to breed cattle that fattened more quickly and produced more meat. His success led to a country-wide fashion for paintings of the fattest animals farmers could produce.

The Old English cow, previously a multi-purpose animal, came to be bred solely for meat. To some extent, Bakewell's motive seems to have been altruistic. During the 18th century, Britain's population almost doubled; the Enclosure Acts allowed large areas to be cultivated by one owner, evict-ing people from the land on which they had sustained themselves and forcing them into towns. Cheap food had to be found for them.

In order to produce the biggest animals on the least amount of food, Bakewell needed cattle with small bones, that fattened quickly. Although it was considered immoral, he in-bred his animals, mating mother with son, father with daughter and brother with sister. His exact methods remain unclear, probably because the disapproval of the church made it necessary for him to be secretive. But they were certainly effective; and other farmers quickly followed his example. In 1710 the average weight of cattle sold at Smithfield market was 370lb. By 1795, when Bakewell died, it was 800lb. The heaviest of the "improved" breeds of cattle were said to weigh as much as 2,300lb (164 stone).

These distorted animals not only provided much cheaper meat for the general public (gentlefolk still preferred leaner cuts, both healthier and tastier); they were also displayed as freak-show-style entertainment. They lived in great discomfort: their vast bulk meant they often died in the heat or had fatal respiratory problems. Mean-while, Bakewell's experiments with high-yield sheep created animals whose bellies were so massive they could hardly walk. Contemporary observers noted that their stomachs were so close to the ground that their young had difficulty suckling.

Pigs eventually experienced a similar fate. One of the paintings that most intrigued Moncrieff shows a pig with a wooden pillow under its head to prevent its folds of flesh from suffocating it while it slept. "Most animals were brought to live indoors," she says, "tied up and fed all day. The then famous Durham Ox suffered from terrible jaundice because he never saw daylight." Breeders eventually paid the predictable price for their distortion of native breeds. In their search for finer and finer bone they produced animals susceptible to disease and, ironically, poor at reproducing. Yet the portraits, commissioned in their thousands, often show a great affection for their subjects. Moncrieff says that even Bakewell, effectively the founding father of factory farming, "lavished great care and attention on individual creatures". How could these farmers have imagined that what they saw as progress would ultimately lead to the BSE disaster?

The three oil paintings reproduced here are all from the 19th century. The main picture, entitled Prize Sheep being fed Turnips, by WH Davis (1838), is to scale and shows a Leicester sheep. Depicted below are two famous cows, The White Heffer which Travelled and Red Rose, painted by Thomas Fairburn Wilson in 1808; above is Old-fashioned Chinese breed Sow, by James Clark Senior (c1870).

The animals we eat today may look less obviously distorted, but the philosophy behind farming methods is little changed. "Growth" is still all-important. Selective breeding for rapid weight gain remains popular, and the use of growth hormones in feed means that many broiler chickens, for example, cannot support their own weight.

Many of the breeds that were popular subjects of paintings in former centuries are now rare or extinct. Those that survive are kept on free- range rare breed farms monitored by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. These herds are reared organically and are much more resistant to BSE than other cattle. "In four of the breeds there have been no recorded cases of BSE at all," says Moncrieff, "so if our Friesian herds can no longer be used, they will be incredibly important genetic stock." Perhaps the original victims of intensive farming will finally demonstrate to us the error of our ways.

'Farm Animal Portraits in Britain 1780-1900', by Elspeth Moncrieff (Antique Collectors' Club, pounds 35). 'Prize Pedigree Portraiture' exhibition at the O'Shea Gallery, 120A Mount Street, London WIY 5HB, 12 Sept to 5 Oct.