How a little Jack Russell terrier became the mascot of a record label and the symbol of the now closed flagship HMV shop in London
Sad and shuttered, the HMV store on Oxford Street now has only echoes of past musical glories. This was the shop opened by Sir Edward Elgar in July 1921 – the start of a long and illustrious history of record selling that saw millions of families fall in love with all kinds of music, whether on vinyl, tape or CD.
By the time the shop opened the Gramophone Company was already thriving, as music lovers found that the invention of the record player in the 1890s gave them access to wonderful music. As he opened the shop, Elgar expressed the hope that every school would have a gramophone with a selection of good music. And he hoped that amateur pianists would learn from the recording artists and moderate their “wild and virulent piano playing”.
While rival recording companies jockeyed for sales, The Gramophone Company had a commercial edge, thanks to the little mixed-breed Jack Russell terrier who became their trademark. The world famous Nipper was painted by his owner Francis Barraud, listening to an Edison cylinder phonograph.
The Edison company had rejected the offer of the painting on the grounds that “dogs don’t listen to phonographs”. But The Gramophone Company recognised the potential of the image and asked Barraud to paint a gramophone in place of the original image of the phonograph.
He put his brushes to work at 126 Piccadilly – and the famous painting is now commemorated on the building with a blue plaque. The picture became the company’s official trademark and, while The Gramophone Company was never actually called His Master’s Voice, the famous dog on the records meant it was how the public knew the label. As a result, it was a natural choice of name for the company’s first store in Oxford Street.
Barraud painted Nipper from memory – the little dog had died of natural causes some years before the artist had the idea for the picture. It was unlikely that the lively terrier, who had earned his name by nipping the ankles of visitors, would have posed for very long anyway.