Four sure signs you’re at a book launch: polite murmurings, air kisses, indecipherable canapés, and clinking glasses of bubbly. Four other signs: staccato barking, butt sniffing, dog biscuits, and the slurping of metal water bowls against the floor. The launch party of illustrator Jean Jullien’s adorable new book Under Dogs, published by Hato Press, warrants such an unusual heralding into the world. It’s a sweet little illustrated romp around the cute (and occasionally gross) world of canines and the people who love them. “Stinky mess, long walks, mood swings,” reads the book’s tagline. “Under Dogs celebrates the best, worst, and downright comical canine moments and reminds us to never underestimate our furry friend.”
The wryly satirical bent of the book lends itself to such a ludicrous launch, one where dogs are the guests of honor at Jullien’s “performance,” in which he creates live portraits of dogs. “Performativity” and a raft of small dogs makes it all so incredibly east London (we’re in Shoreditch, of course, at the downstairs space of creative agency Mother); Jullien’s wit means that even the most lolling of panting tongues are firmly in cheeks. Dog biscuits, for instance, are literally biscuits in the shape of dogs. House rules? “No pooping. No excessive barking. No fighting.” Here’s how the night panned out.
6:37 p.m. A large blonde reclines on the sidewalk. I think it’s a labrador. He’s part of a rapidly growing queue of dogs and their humanfolk. All parties seem equally hot and bothered, and silently fretting about how this might impact their closeup.
6:49 p.m. I meet Sprout, a charming eight-year-old cockapoo owned by Pippa, the co-founder of Mother’s new “brand and product incubator,” Broody. Sprout seems very composed, almost regal, and slightly smug at being the second hound to be immortalized by Jullien’s brush this evening.
6:55 p.m. Our first minor scuffle as the pooches enter the building. A lithe black-and-white dog seems to have some beef (not literally, surely to his disappointment) with a hirsute brown chap. It’s all resolved quickly, and I realize how similar dogs are to angry yet easily placated drunk people.
7:01 p.m. In the queue and I meet Pops, a statuesque labrador who’s here with Olly. I tell him I’ve never seen a ginger labrador before. “He’s fox red,” I’m told.
7:05 p.m. I see a small pup with very large ears making a move on a rather aloof dog at least three times her size. The petite lady’s name is Bella, and she’s a French bulldog cross. She’s utterly charming, and here with Derek and Gemma. “I’m a huge fan of the illustrator,” says Gemma, who works in fashion. “I had to sign her up.”
7:08 p.m. Pops is spotted high-fiving any human who’ll offer their hands. If this was a red carpet, he’d be sashaying his fox-red booty all over it.
7:10 p.m. The queue now stretches right down the street—it seems dogs and Jean Jullien are an irresistible combination. At the front, we meet Kira, a delightful four-year-old sporting a navy neckerchief that matches her owner Alessandra’s shirt. Both style it out with the utmost grace and dignity.
7:11 p.m. A sense of urgency as Hato Press’ project manager Elaine Hsu asks the assembled crowd, “Have we got any more RSVPd dogs here?” A spritely Harrier strolls in looking proud as punch.
7:15 p.m. The dogs are very much in party mode now. A Cavapoo (that’s a cross between a Poodle and a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, FYI) named Cocoa loses her shit (again, metaphorically, thank god) at a Lhasa Apso called Rocco. Come on guys, surely there’s room for more than one petite, flaxen-haired beauty at the ball? They part on friendly terms. May, Cocoa’s companion, tells me she thinks Cocoa is perhaps “a bit excited. Maybe she has a problem—she always needs attention.” Don’t we all, dear, don’t we all.
7:18 p.m. Staff place water bowls strategically around the room. Yup, dogs are like small furry drunk people.
7:25 p.m. A few guests seem to be flagrantly disregarding the “no excessive barking rule.” It really makes you think, what does excessive barking constitute? When does an ordinary bark become extraordinary?
7:35 p.m. The live drawing is due to start in ten minutes, but there’s already a completed pooch portrait on Jullien’s easel. It’s an amazingly faithful rendering of Swiper, a dog with one helluva story. He’s here tonight with Andy Medd, strategy partner at Mother, who explains that Swiper was found by his then 16-year-old son as a tiny abandoned puppy somewhere by a road in Spain. By hook or by crook, Swiper and the Medd family returned to England. In an extra twist to the fairytale, Medd’s daughter, an illustrator, is a massive Jean Jullien fan who will soon be getting his portrait of Swiper tattooed onto her ass. I’m heartily recommended a show on BBC London Radio called Barking Hour, 60 minutes of airtime created especially for dogs. Begin to wonder if this is all a dream.
8:02 p.m. Pops sits patently as Jullien draws him, big black eyes first, then colored in ginger/“fox red.” He returns to his people, who look so proud they’re on the verge of tears.
8:10 p.m. A handsomely scruffy chap called Paddy is up next. Again, Jullien begins by painting the eyes, then a little ear, the outline of a nose, and a generous daubing of whiskers. According to his owner, Paddy is half Jack Russell and half Bulldog. Sounds like a very English, very boisterous combination. “He’s a bit older now, so he’s calmed down,” I’m told. “He used to be such a nutter.”
8:19 p.m. Some French-accented dissenters in the crowd, pals of Jullien’s, reckon he’s being “too shy with color—he’s only using brown!” Before one of the pair has the chance to utter “off the record,” the other tells me “a secret” about their famous illustrator mate: “You want a tip? He hates cats.” We imagine much of the wet-nosed crowd here share those sentiments.
8:22 p.m. The aforementioned Rocco takes to the stage. He’s here with Claudia, and it turns out he’s Mother’s very own reception dog. He’s depicted with a brilliant little grimace, resplendent with generous blonde bangs. Rocco’s named after the patron saint of dogs, Claudia tells me, recalling her own Italian heritage. “He gets very excited with other dogs, but he’s not a very good mixer,” Claudia confesses. “He likes to have a sniff and then walk away and just observe.”
8:19 p.m. Wow, this dog looks like a cross between Doge and a Disney Robin Hood fox. He poses legs akimbo, the saucy devil.
8:34 p.m. Just seen a dog offered a Camden lager. She refuses.
8:42 p.m. A quick scan of the room reveals a disappointing lack of dogs who look like their owners.
8:58 p.m. Alessandra and Kira admire their portrait. This is the most sensitively drawn yet—it’s very beautiful, and somehow for all the gestural brushstrokes, very realistic. I’d love to see this one as part of a painted tableau of dogs playing pool. Why don’t they make art like that any more?
9:04 p.m. The final sitter is Hato’s very own dog Whiskey, who’s also the Under Dogs cover star. A fitting finale for a very surreal evening that proves that puppy love is stronger than most, and that Jullien is a supremely talented artist under what must be some strange circumstances indeed.
So what have we learned here? Pretty much everyone likes dogs. Pretty much everyone likes Jean Jullien. Maybe it’s not such a bad idea to combine the two in an tattoo on your ass.