Campus mourns passing of beloved art history icon

Last Wednesday, the College lost an honorary member of the art history department with the passing of Soane, the English springer spaniel of E.J. Johnson, professor of art history. For 14 years, Soane was a staple of Johnson’s Art History 101 lectures at the College, and his presence beside the podium will be dearly missed.

“I used to joke that Soane has heard more art history lectures than any other dog that has ever lived and if I could teach him to talk, I would turn the lecture over to him,” Johnson said. “It’s more fair to say he has slept through more lectures than any other dog.”

Named after the English architect Sir John Soane, the canine Soane came to the Johnsons at the age of 10 months and began attending art history classes soon after. “He was a gawky teenager then,” recalled Johnson, “with big paws and short legs.”

“He wanted to do what you wanted him to do, and he actively tried to learn to obey,” Johnson said. “I’ve never had a dog like that before.”

Eva Grudin, senior lecturer of art history and long-time professor of Art History 102, remarked on Soane’s gentle personality and outstanding effect on the atmosphere of the department.

“Soane wasn’t at all demanding. He never pushed for attention. Perhaps that’s why we all paid so much attention to him when he entered our orbit,” Grudin said. “I had dog biscuits at the ready, in hopes that Soane might pay a call at my light table in Lawrence Hall. His ears were the softest I’ve ever felt. They centered me.”

Born May 5, 1996, Soane came from a rescue society in Bennington, Vt. soon after the family had returned a different springer spaniel to the shelter after the dog had bitten one of Johnson’s sons.

“We weren’t sure we were going to get another dog, but then we got a call from the representative in Bennington saying, ‘I think we have just the dog for you,’” Johnson said. “So we went there and sat down on the couch. Soane crept over to the couch and sat in my wife’s lap, and that was that.”

At the College, Soane was known for faithfully following Johnson across campus throughout the day. Johnson recalled years past when dogs were not just allowed but also very welcome in student spaces like the old snack bar in Baxter Hall. “It was a friendlier campus,” Johnson said, and besides, Soane himself was “amazingly well behaved” and “as dangerous as a piece of Kleenex.” Johnson’s art history lectures, however, allowed for a particularly meaningful point of connection for students.

“Sometimes I’d forget to tie him up and he’d get bored and start to wander around,” Johnson said. “[When] he got out into the auditorium, I could tell where he was because as he went up and down the rows I could see people’s heads go down to pet him, you know, a sort of wave of heads going up and down.

“I think he made a lot of students feel happy. I can’t tell you how many times students said to me, ‘I miss my dog.’ He became a wonderful substitute for missed dogs left at home.”
For many students, Art History 101 would not have been complete without Soane.

“Soane was E.J.’s perfect companion. E.J. would come into lecture wearing his trench coat and hat, and Soane would always be happily following a few steps behind,” said Robert Khederian ’12. “His presence by E.J.’s side is something that I will always associate with Art History 101, and I’m deeply saddened to know that future classes won’t have the experience that I had.”

Annelise Hewitt ’11 remembers Soane from her first year introduction to art history. “At the beginning of [Art History 101] classes, [Soane] would pose on the stage of Brooks-Rogers – strategically where the aisle meets the stage – with an air of nobility and grace. He was impossible to ignore.

“It was aggravating to see him sit outside of Paresky after they stopped allowing dogs inside the building,” Hewitt added. “Soane was here before Paresky, so he should have been exempt from that rule.”

Soane offered something special in office hours as well for “students who were unhappy about a grade or something,” Johnson said. “He would go up and put his head in the student’s lap … and the anger would evaporate. He was a calming influence.”

For Soane’s part, Johnson believed the academic lifestyle suited the dog as well as he suited the classroom.

“Soane had no interest in other dogs – he had one dog friend who passed away some years ago, and he never had another one. He much preferred people,” Johnson said.
Ultimately, Soane succumbed this past Wednesday to dementia that had begun developing last fall.

“He changed his behavior over the last year,” Johnson said, “and got worse and worse to the point where he couldn’t stand up to eat and drink anymore. He wasn’t himself at all.”
Johnson and his family have decided that Soane will be the last in the long line of dogs in their home. “It would be impossible to have another dog as good as Soane,” he said. “I think I would feel that I was being unfaithful or committing infidelity.”

Grudin, at least, agreed. “It centered all of us – students, faculty – to have Soane near,” Grudin said. “I believe he’s the last of the legendary campus dogs. And perhaps that’s right. No other could live up to him and they ought to retire the number. The perfect dog. I said that 14 years ago, from the start. And I say it again and again.”

For anyone who wishes to remember Soane, Johnson suggests a video created by his sons titled “Soane Chasing Ducks,” hosted on YouTube.