Bitten by the Nipper bug: John Windsor looks at the enduring appeal of the HMV dog

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The Independent Online
RUTH EDGE paid pounds 715 at Christie's South Kensington last week for a three-inch silver model of Nipper the fox-terrier in familiar pose, ear cocked, listening to his master's voice on a hand-cranked gramophone. Mrs Edge is guardian of Nipper's memory - and memorabilia - at EMI's headquarters in Hayes, Middlesex. At the auction there was strong competition for the model (estimated at pounds 300- pounds 500) from a British collector - a sign that, after 93 years, Nipper is still the best- loved animal in the advertising and logo business.

Unlike the Dulux sheepdog or the Andrex labrador puppies, Nipper has always been surrounded by mystery. Who was the 'master' in the famous His Master's Voice trade name? Surely a recording star or owner of a recording studio?

The truth is curiouser. The painting from which the Gramophone Company took its famous image and name showed Nipper listening to an Edison cylinder phonograph. Such talking machines were early dictaphones, both reproducers and recorders. Unlike gramophone discs, their wax cylinders were indeed likely to contain recordings of their owner's voice.

The artist Francis Barraud - owner of both Nipper and the phonograph - painted out the phonograph when talks to sell his painting to the Edison Bell Company faltered. The company's founder, James Hough, a Yorkshireman, barked, 'Dogs don't listen to phonographs.'

While Edison Bell shilly- shallied, Barraud visited the Gramophone Company in Covent Garden, London, in search of a brass horn to brighten up the picture. His photograph of the painting was pounced on by the manager, Barry Owen, who paid pounds 50 for the repainted picture and pounds 50 for the copyright. Nipper's first appearance in Gramophone Company advertising was in 1900 - five years after his death at the age of 11.

The Gramophone Company's managing director, Alfred Clark, wrote: 'The whole world saw it and succumbed to its charm. It seems to have touched a human chord.' The painting's subtle selling point seems to be the quality of fidelity - essential in both dogs and gramophone records. The only countries which did not warm to Nipper were Italy, where bad singers sing 'like dogs', and Egypt, where dogs were considered impure.

Barraud insisted that Nipper did actually listen to his phonograph: 'I often noticed how puzzled he was to make out where the voice came from.'

Speculation that the recorded voice might have been that of Barraud's brother Mark, who died in 1887, added to the sentimental appeal. Mark, a scenic stage artist, had brought Nipper home as a three-month-old puppy. The dog followed him everywhere, even on stage when he took his call.

Nipper, said Barraud, was 'really a very clever little dog . . . most original'. He was not thoroughbred, having a bit of bull terrier in him. When he fought other dogs it was hard to prise him off. He poached pheasants in Richmond Park and lost an eye on a thorn bush while ratting. The Barraud family used to tease him by putting a cardboard cat in his basket, which he invariably rushed at. They filled his drinking bowl with soda water, which he barked at but always drank. His greatest enemy was a stuffed toy camel. The first time he found himself alone with it, he shredded it.

In 1950, 55 years after Nipper's death, there was a bizarre attempt to exhume him from his supposed last resting place under a mulberry tree at a house once owned by Barraud in St John's Wood, north London. The bones unearthed were probably lamb chops. Further research was done and, in 1984, the centenary of Nipper's birth, two commemorative plaques were erected in the car park behind Lloyds Bank in nearby Clarence Street.

A guide to 'Nipperie', compiled in 1984 by Ruth Edge and Leonard Petts, a former EMI archivist, lists 707 collectables - limited-edition models, badges, brooches, trade signs, window displays. An updated edition is in preparation.

The record auction price is the pounds 1,210 paid for a papier-mache model at Christie's South Kensington in 1990. There is a ready market at fairs organised by the City of London Phonograph and Gramophone Society. Nipper gramophone needle boxes can fetch up to pounds 60.

EMI merchandising, including The Story of Nipper and the His Master's Voice Picture ( pounds 5.25 inc p&p), Ruth Edge, EMI Archives (081-561 8722). London Phonograph and Gramophone Society (Ruth Lambert, 0604 405184).

Answer to last week's music quiz: Paul McCartney.

(Photograph omitted)

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