His Master’s Stout?

We all know Nipper, the HMV dog, forever captured with his snout down a gramophone trumpet – but did you know he also advertised beer?

Nipper was born in Bristol in 1884 and died in 1895. His first owner was Mark Barraud, a theatre scenery designer; his second was Francis Barraud, a painter, who immortalised him in the image we all know today.

But on another occasion, Nipper was painted investigating not a gramophone but a glass of stout – and that image was famous, too, in its day.

As always, piecing together chronologies is difficult, but what we think happened is that Nipper became an early example of a meme.

First, in around 1900, Nipper became the trademark of the His Master’s Voice and Victor gramophone companies.

Then, at some point in the following decade, Watney, Combe, Reid & Co. (hereafter just Watney’s) came up with the slogan ‘What is it master likes so much?’ From bits we’ve been able to piece together, we think this was supposed to be in the voice of a household maid, purchasing bottled beer on behalf of the man of the house.

Then, in around 1910, Watney’s bought, or more likely commissioned, two paintings from Barraud, mashing up the HMV trademark with their slogan to create this campaign:

A dog sniffing a glass of stout.
SOURCE: Watney’s/American Radio History.
A dog slinking away from spilled stout.
SOURCE: Watney’s/American Radio History.

This campaign apparently ran for months with posters up all around London, on trams, and on tram and bus tickets, and seeped into the national consciousness.

One national newspaper felt justified in saying in 1914 that Watney’s was primarily ‘familiar to the man in the street by that famous poster, What is it Master likes so much, which is undoubtedly one of the most successful pictorial advertisements on record.’ (Globe, 27/02/1914.)

We doubted that at first until we discovered the music hall song and this account of a particularly weird-sounding theatrical performance at a village not far from Land’s End in 1910, as reported by the Cornishman:

On Saturday a very successful entertainment was given at Cliff House, Lamorna, by kind permission of Mr and Mrs Jory, in aid of the Buryan District Nursing Society. The principle feature of the entertainment, which was organised by Mrs Alfred Sidgwick, was a most artistic series of living pictures designed and arranged by Miss Barker of London… The second picture, ‘What is it master likes so much?’ suggested by a well-known poster, had a clever fox-terrier, Jimmie, as its central figure, investigating his absent master’s luncheon table. Jimmie proved himself an actor of rare gifts of facial expression, and greatly amused his audience…

There were lots of parodies and pastiches of Barraud’s Nipper paintings, including this by Philip Baynes from the Bystander for 14 February 1912, which brilliantly highlights the oddity of having the same dog advertising two quite distinct products:

A dog in a smashed gramophone.
‘I still don’t know what it is master likes so much – or am I the wrong dog?’

For all Watney’s seemed proud of these early forays into modern advertising, when the Red Barrel and What We Want is Watney’s came along between the wars, Nipper got sent to the pound.

The campaign is mentioned in both official company histories, from 1949 and 1963 respectively, but only in passing.

If you know more about this campaign, do comment below.

One thought on “His Master’s Stout?”

  1. “What is it master likes so much?” was quite the catchphrase. In one form or another it seems to have run and run – the BFI records that there was a film of that name in 1905, and here’s P. G. Wodehouse dropping it in (for no particular reason) in 1906. (The music hall song – which doesn’t actually use the phrase but riffs on it – is from 1911.)

    There may be another beer connection. Google Books finds the poet Edward Thomas, in a letter written in 1912, describing an inn sign – the “Dog and Bacon” – which he assumes is what Watney’s based the image on (although he gets the brewer wrong and refers to Worthington’s).

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