Elizabethan guinea pigs

It’s official: guinea pigs have been household pets in Britain since at least 1580  when this anonymous, wealthy seven-year-old girl was painted with hers.

Portrait of three Elizabethan children, including possibly the first portrait of a guinea pig

It’s a gorgeous portrait, contrasting the children’s brightly coloured and expensive clothes (which must have been horribly uncomfortable to wear) with the paler colours of their prematurely serious faces, and it offers a weirdly personal link to me. I went guinea-pig mad after helping look after my cousin’s pets, and nagged for months until my parents gave me a handwritten ‘voucher’ for two animals of my choosing for my seventh birthday. The guinea pig in the portrait would have been imported from the newly ‘discovered’ South America as exotic pets; I got my pair for £5 from the local (very humanely run) pet shop.

As if being raised for food in its native Peru wasn’t bad enough, the guinea pig has to put up with the indignity of being misnamed in several languages. It’s not from the African guinea region; it’s not, as the French name cochon d’Inde (‘pig of India’) seems to suggest, from India; and, despite being called das Meerschweinchen (‘little sea pig’) in German, it’s certainly not a marine animal – or a pig at all.

Guinea pigs are endlessly stoic in the face of such indignities. They are certainly not, as Morven Crumlish rather unforgivably suggests in this article for the Guardian, ‘substandard pets’. She goes on to suggest that guinea pigs are disappointing pets because they’re too slow to supply “fun evenings spent playing the equivalent of hunt the hamster”. Morven Crumlish must live a very dull life if she longs for her pets to enliven it by running all over the place. My Dad shudders to this day at the memory of petsitting our neighbours’ psychotic rabbit, which escaped and dug its way under two fences, forcing him to climb after it at seven in the morning.

Guinea pigs are fairly easy to look after, yes – although like any living thing, it takes care to make sure they’re well-fed, clean and healthy – but that’s not what makes them the perfect pet. I find them preferable to everything else small and furry – rats are disgusting, hamsters boringly nocturnal, rabbits plain evil (another of my cousins had a rabbit which attacked everyone.) Guinea pig’s herbivorous natures allow them to take life at their own pace, grazing your grass in their run and slowly mowing your lawn for you, in a way that can be soothing for a busy owner.

I owned two sets of guinea pigs. The seventh birthday present was two girls, Hazel and Rebecca (who surprisingly turned out to be pregnant.) When they eventually died, I fostered two boys after the original couple who owned them broke up. I called them Patchy and Cino (so called because his brown and white spotted fur looked like a cappuccino – unfortunately I don’t have any photos on this laptop, but he looked quite like the guinea pig in the painting). All four brought me a lot of joy, whether by playing King of the Castle on a cardboard box in their run or sitting in my lap while I confided my problems. I like to think that the girl in this portrait – facing far more than I ever had to, including, most likely, enforced marriage at an early age and a high risk of death in childbirth – gained a similar comfort from her pet.

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