The Story Behind His Master's Voice - Ooh, Interesting! Fascinating Facts

July 26, 2019

It’s been a while since we posted a blog in this series because in truth, there are only so many fascinating facts to go around but this is one such fact that we came across again recently and felt that it had to be shared.

His Master’s Voice is a famous painting from the 1890s that focuses on a dog looking down a phonograph, presumably listening to his master’s voice. Painted by English artist Francis Barraud, it Is not just an imaginative painting; the dog, a Jack Russell Terrier named Nipper, was owned by Francis when he inherited him after his brother Mark’s death. He would look into the cylinder phonograph upon hearing recordings of Mark’s voice. Is there a sadder tale in all of entertainment? We don’t think so.

So how did the image end up as one of the most iconic of the 20th century? It all started when Francis decided to paint Nipper listening to one of the recordings and applied for copyright of the image under the hugely imaginative title ‘Dog looking at and listening to a Phonograph’. Nice one Francis! Unable to sell the work to a phonograph company, the work caught the attention of Barry Owen, founder of the Gramophone Company, who offered to buy the painting but only on the condition that the phonograph could be adapted into a gramophone to showcase one of their machines. Barraud agreed and the first time the image was printed in the company catalogue was in December 1899, perhaps one of the last significant moments of the 19th century.

Here, things get even more interesting because the inventor of the gramophone. Emile Berliner, saw the picture in London and attained a US copyright on it in 1900, the painting being adopted as a trademark of the Victor Talking Machine Company the very next year. The US company decided to use the image throughout their branding – not just on company catalogues but actually printing a simplified version on the label of the discs – and from 1902 were instructing customers to “look for the dog”.

Whilst all this was going on in the US, the UK’s Gramophone Company only began using the dog on its record labels in 1909, ensuring that every disc had Nipper on its covers by 1910 throughout the British Commonwealth. They were still known as the Gramophone Company but because of their own branding – marketing the logo with the phrase ‘His Master’s Voice’ – they rapidly became known by the term, which was then shortened to HMV by customers and businesses alike.

With the image continuing to be used on both sides of the Atlantic independently of one another, one might think that a legal case was sure to follow. Impressively, it never really happened; the Radio Corporation of America purchased Victor in 1929 and with it the trademark to use Nipper in the US, Canada and Latin America, whilst the Gramophone Company continued to use the logo throughout the British Commonwealth, ultimately becoming a subsidiary of EMI. Because of the trademark’s rights being dispersed throughout numerous companies and countries worldwide, it is in effect a somewhat frustrating trademark to hold. How can one gain brand value if the brand a customer sees on holiday isn’t actually your brand? Interestingly the rights in Japan are owned by JVC, the Victor Company of Japan, a subsidiary of the RCA Victor Company that was span off to become independent in the 1960s due to hostilities between the two countries.

Because of the division of rights of the picture, EMI ultimately turned away from the logo as CDs became huge in the 1980s and a globalised market was becoming ever more prominent, instead preferring to use the name EMI Classics, which they could use throughout the world unhindered. As we all know, Morrissey is known for being stubborn and the logo was actually revived solely for his recordings with EMI between 1988 and 1992.

Ultimately the logo became ever less valuable as the years rolled on; EMI transferred the logo to the retail chain HMV in 2003, five years after it had been sold off from the record label, whilst in the US, the image is only now used on RCA Records’ radios and radio phonographs. With that one exception, the image is in the public domain, its trademark having ran out in 1989 (for sound recordings), 1992 (for televisions) and in 1994 (for records).



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By Henry Fosdike