I’m Obsessed with This Painting of Looty, the Famous Pekingese

Ysabelle Cheung
Sep 23, 2020 3:52PM

Friedrich Wilhelm Keyl, Looty, 1861. Courtesy of the Royal Collection.

In a recent published letter exchange, the writers Lina Mounzer and Mirene Arsanios, from their respective places in Lebanon and the United States, ruminated on the aftermath of the Beirut explosion. They discussed, among many topics, how proximity to trauma affects the day-to-day; cyclical injustice; the communities “living politically fraught lives”; and dogs, or more broadly, animals, in the wake of disaster.

Mounzer posits that we always center trauma on human lives—as we should—but we often disregard the ways in which these ruptures affect animals, plants, and the land. I thought of this as I remembered the little-known fate of a tiny white and nut-brown Pekingese in an 1861 painting by German artist Friedrich Wilhelm Keyl. The dog, named Looty, appears bright in an obedient upright sit, her strawberry tongue flicked out, face adorably flattened. A nearby vase and collar of bells loom large around her; velvety reds and navy blues evince the opulence of her surroundings. But I am perplexed by her expression, which appears untroubled, neutral. There’s no indication of her recent, harrowing journey—from the ransacked halls of Beijing’s Summer Palace to Queen Victoria’s home—or her role as a symbol of colonial propaganda.

I first came across Looty a few years ago and was instantly taken with her story, which begins with the introduction of her breed in ancient China. (It should be noted that although Looty is referred to as female in this essay, due to the sparse information surrounding Looty’s life, it is unconfirmed what gender the dog actually was.) The Pekingese carry several origin stories: In one more rooted in myth, a lion fell in love with a marmoset and begged the gods to shrink him in size but retain the spirit of his generous heart; in another (more likely) story, it was Buddhist monks who bred wild fleecy dogs to look like tiny lions—symbols of strength and wisdom in the religion. Because of these sacred origins, they were considered revered companions of the Imperial Palace, where they were cared for by eunuchs and slept on silken cushions. Legend has it that anyone who dared to steal or harm them would be killed; court servants had to bow whenever they walked past.

When Anglo-French invaders stormed, looted, and burned the Summer Palace during the Second Opium War in 1860, they found five of these Pekingese dogs guarding the corpse of a lady who had committed suicide upon hearing the pillaging taking place outside. The dogs were brought back to England, the tiniest of them—historians note she weighed around three pounds—was gifted to Queen Victoria, who renamed her “Looty” in reference to the spoils of war.

The renaming sealed her fate as a stolen object of intense fascination. London Illustrated News called her “the smallest and by far the most beautiful little animal in the U.K.” Harpers Weekly noted that she “was a very lonely little creature, the other dogs taking exception to [her] Oriental habits and appearance.” None of these clippings mention that she was among the many artifacts plundered from a flaming palace of corpses. Instead, they promote her as the ultimate symbol of colonial propaganda: cute, harmless, an object that bridges two worlds.

Friedrich Wilhelm Keyl, detail of Looty, 1861. Courtesy of the Royal Collection.


In Keyl’s painting, which was commissioned by Queen Victoria, I can clearly see these ideas perpetuated. Looty appears as ornamental and posed as the Japanese Kakiemon-style vase in the background, reminding me of aspects of Anne Anlin Cheng’s theory of ornamentalism—of flesh being objectified and rendered inanimate. In contrast, a 1865 photogravure by William Bambridge—subsequently procured by Danh Vō and shown at his solo exhibition at the Guggenheim—reveals a more somber reality. Here we see Looty in her fourth year in England lying on an ornate chair, her figure recessed and listless against curlicued crown motifs, a sense of longing and hiraeth permeating the image. She died in 1872, having never returned home, her body lost in an unmarked grave.

The question of why I am so haunted by a dog who died over a century ago is complex. One (obvious) reason is that I cannot imagine life without canine companionship. (As I write this, my small poodle—who is around Looty’s size and stature—sits dutifully next to me.) But there’s something more to Looty. When I look at Keyl’s painting, I see England’s troubled postcolonial identity; the cyclical patterns of displacement and migration; and the traumatic histories of European colonization in Asia that still affects us today. In short, I see myself: a U.K. citizen of Chinese descent who is now grappling with the future of postcolonial Hong Kong.

In Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1985 fiction story “She Unnames Them,” Eve helps the animals give back all their names to Adam and God. Once the deed is done, she notices that “they seemed far closer to me than when their names had stood between us.…The hunter could not be told from the hunted.” Although I can’t bring that little Pekingese back to life, I mourn for her and wonder how I can help her reject the name that mocked her fate as a stolen object. I return to Keyl’s painting again and again as I think of her first days in England; how she adjusted (or perhaps she never did); how small she must have felt in those large, lonely halls of the palaces filled with people unfamiliar, far away from home, being called a name that was not hers.

Ysabelle Cheung