Animals in Art, at the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery (01273 290900) today to 19 Oct. Then at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston (01772 257112) 27 Oct-6 Dec

The British love animals but they're not so keen on art, so what better recipe can there be for an attractive and popular exhibition than "Animals in Art". Mounted to commemorate the centenary of The Blue Cross, the animal welfare charity, the show includes more than 130 works, mainly paintings. They range from a fine 17th-century oil by Van Dyck and 18th- century sporting studies by George Stubbs, to works by such Victorian drawing- room stalwarts as Sir Edwin Landseer, and pieces by modernists such as Elisabeth Frink, Maggi Hambling and David Hockney.

In the case of Hockney, the show could not have come at a better time as his latest subjects are his dachsunds, Stanley and Boodgie; his Dog Painting 25 (1995) exemplifies all the colour and life that is so characteristic of his work, with the addition of a warmth and, yes, love, for his cute and playful pets.

For "animals" in the context of this show, read "pets", or in the preferred terminology of The Blue Cross, "companion animals". Most of the paintings feature dogs, cats and - especially in the 18th-century works such as John Wootton's remarkable The Bloody Shouldered Arabian of 1724 - horses.

The historically minded can trace the change in the cultural role of animals from the "positional goods" of the 18th- century gentleman, to the symbols of the domestic contentment so beloved of the Victorians. Indeed, Landseer (who was Queen Victoria's favourite artist) regards pets as surrogate family members: Bony and Var (1843) presents two gorgeous puppies gazing longingly at their owner, all shiny coats and eager expressions, adorning a richly upholstered, cosy interior.

These chocolate-box representations have had a profound effect on the popular attitude to pets, and dogs in particular. Could it be the sentimental vision of Landseer and his followers, rather than the dry language of ethics, that provides the real emotional foundation for the contemporary passion for animal rights?

But the more hard-hearted among us shouldn't be put off. "Animals in Art" offers tasty nuggets to the contemporary art lover. While Damien Hirst's pickled sheep may be a little beyond the pale for this show, there is the broad humour of Gordon McHarg's Cow Mad (1997) and The Bull's Bollocks (1997), the vigour and fun of Go Go Bunny (1997) by Liverpool artist David White, and the elegance and beauty of Sophie Ryder's Maquette for Leaping Dog (1993).

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