‘Dogs are wonderful, but they’re naughty too… then again, there’s not much fun in a dog sitting quietly’

Inspired by Country Life's search for Britain’s naughtiest dog, illustrator John Holder tells Katy Birchall why he’s dedicated a delightful new book to mischievous mutts.

‘Dogs are wonderful, but they’re naughty, too,’ declares illustrator John Holder.

‘They do terrible things. They slobber, they sniff bottoms, they always seem to go to the loo at the wrong time and they tear things to bits — but, then again, there’s not much fun in a dog sitting quietly, is there?’

This summer sees the release of No Dogs on the Bed, a joyful and humorous collection of illustrations by Mr Holder, celebrating the misdemeanours of Man’s best friend and exhibiting scenes that will be embarrassingly familiar to the nation’s dog owners — from the inevitable destruction of furniture when a pampered pooch is home alone, to a gundog’s sudden development of selective hearing in the shooting field. Yet, in spite of the chaos and frustrations, the book captures the way in which we dote on these mischievous mutts, forgiving their foibles in return for their steadfast loyalty, unparalleled companionship and natural ability to make us laugh.

‘I thought it might be a good idea to have quotes from public figures accompanying the illustrations in the book, but almost all of them go on about how marvellous dogs are. It took a lot of hard work and research to find some that mentioned the other side to them,’ laughs Mr Holder.

Illustration by John Holder from ‘No Dogs on the Bed’.

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The idea for the book was sparked when Country Life launched a nationwide search to find Britain’s naughtiest dog in 2019, four years after Wiltshire terrier Rabbit first claimed the esteemed title. From hundreds of applicants, Jack Russell Pici was crowned the winner, featuring in the magazine alongside the runners-up, and Mr Holder proudly illustrated the top tales from the competition. ‘My publisher spotted the piece and asked if I’d create an entire book of badly behaved dogs, so away I went. I’ve done almost 100 illustrations for it.’

With a career spanning more than 50 years, Mr Holder can’t remember a time when he wasn’t drawing, coming top of his art class in school — ‘I was probably bottom in everything else, so there wasn’t much choice in my career’ — and going on to study at Cambridge School of Art for five years.

As well appearing in Country Life, his illustrations have featured in numerous books, magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times and The Telegraph. He was awarded an honorary doctorate of Arts by Anglia Ruskin University in 2011.

John Holder’s cover for ‘No Dogs on the Bed’.

Working from the studio of his 17th-century home near Cambridge, Mr Holder’s distinctive style is created using pens and watercolours. ‘I have a huge collection of 19th- and early-20th- century dip pens and thou- sands of nibs — I’ve collected them all my life. I scribble a drawing in pencil first, then I get on with the finishes of the pen and paints.’ He works quickly, often completing a smaller illustration within a day, but admits that, as a perfectionist, there are times he will finish a piece of work, scrap it and start all over again. Luckily, this is a rare occurrence and, when it comes to portraying dogs, he’s had plenty of practice.

‘I suppose I really started drawing dogs when Country Life commissioned me,’ he recalls. ‘Drawing dogs is the same as drawing anything — observation and thinking, seeing and not merely looking. I draw people, so to anthropomorphise dogs isn’t difficult. To give them expressions simply means having a sense of humour.’

Illustration by John Holder from ‘No Dogs on the Bed’.

The tricky part of the book process was coming up with the idea for each scene — the illustrator knew the breeds, but he needed the mishaps. ‘Talking to people when I was working on it inspired ideas, because anyone with a dog understands that they don’t behave perfectly all the time,’ he says. ‘Even after I’d finished the book, someone mentioned a story they’d heard on BBC Radio 4 — a dog walking on MoD property cocked its leg on what it thought was a bush. It turned out to be a soldier. I had to add that in.’

Should he need it, Mr Holder can find inspiration closer to home in the form of Murphy, a scruffy little schnauzer from the farm down the lane. ‘I see him every day and, together with the farmer, I share him with a lovely student of mine. She takes him home, washes him and dresses him up — she’s a seamstress and made him some beautiful coats for winter. Between us, we take care of this great little character. He’s supposed to help with ratting on the farm, but he’s yet to get one; he hardly tries. I’m not sure he can see anything through all that hair on his face.’

Having grown up with spaniels, Mr Holder insists he isn’t biased when it comes to breeds, but takes great pleasure in drawing ‘wackier’ ones. ‘I’ve done very serious projects; but, these days, I’m doing comedy more than anything. I like the idea of making people smile with all these daft dogs,’ he admits. ‘They are terrors. When Murphy behaves badly, he looks at you as if he’s completely innocent. He always gets away with it, too.’

‘No Dogs on the Bed’ by John Holder will be published in July (Quiller, £12.95)