Nipper – Bristol’s most famous musical icon?

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Neil McKim goes on the trail of ‘Nipper’, the HMV dog, in Bristol

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HMV NipperBristol has a motley mix of musical connections. There’s the Methodist hymn-writer Charles Wesley, piano-entertainer Russ Conway, trad-jazzer Acker Bilk, or even trip-hoppers Massive Attack. But it can also claim to be the former home of one of the most famous musical icons in the world. The HMV dog ‘Nipper’ – whose image is recognised as one of the most well known (if sadly troubled) brands on the high street – used to live here in Bristol.

One lunchtime I was surprised to notice a blue plaque, just up the hill from our office, on one of the Bristol University buildings, saying that Nipper the dog (1884-1895) was born and lived in Bristol with his owner, ‘a scenic designer’ Mark Barraud. And just around the corner is a little statue above a door (pictured) – which you could easily miss. Nipper’s owner used to work at the now-demolished Prince’s Theatre, nearby on Park Row. And this was notable for its pantomimes, where unruly audiences would occasionally throw food around – which must have been great news for a back-stage hungry dog…

A bit of rooting around reveals that there’s a bit of dispute about what breed Nipper exactly was, a Fox Terrier or a Jack Russell seem to be the top suggestions. And he apparently got his name because he liked biting the heels of visitors. After his owner became destitute and died in 1887, his brothers (including painter Francis Barraud) stepped in to look after the dog, taking Nipper to live in Liverpool, before he finally died in Kingston upon Thames in 1895.

Nipper’s worldwide fame is thanks to Francis Barraud’s painting from 1898 which shows the dog listening to a phonograph, later changed to a gramophone. This image, which was registered as a trademark by HMV in 1900, has remained in use (in various forms) ever since. And Sir Edward Elgar, himself a dog enthusiast, must have appreciated it, during his long association with the company. He notably opened HMV’s first store in Oxford Street in 1921.

The exact site of Nipper’s London resting place has proved tricky to pinpoint, despite an attempted exhumation, organised by HMV in 1950. But a commemorative plaque has since been erected on a Lloyds TSB bank in Kingston upon Thames and he even has a nearby street ‘Nipper Alley’, named after him.

Nipper’s image can be found in an up-to-date tribute displayed over in East London’s Shoreditch – created by another fellow Bristolian. Graffiti artist Banksy has updated the HMV image to show Nipper holding a bazooka. Maybe that would have come in useful at those rowdy Bristol pantomimes…

Neil McKim is production editor of BBC Music Magazine