BRUNSWICK — Ralph Knowles’ claim to fame is a painting of a cow.
Not just any cow, but the “ideal Guernsey cow,” the model used by the American Guernsey Association to showcase a Guernsey’s best attributes.
Knowles keeps a print of his painting tucked among prayer books and pictures of his family. The original hangs in the AGA headquarters in Ohio, where generations of cattle breeders are encouraged to breed their animals to more closely resemble Knowles’ interpretation of perfection.
Knowles, 85, is a surprising candidate to have created the model that would inspire Guernsey breeders across the country. He grew up in Greene, on a small farm with his grandparents and several Guernseys. He had no formal art training before painting the ideal Guernsey cow.
But he always loved art, he said, and as a young man in his 30s, inspiration struck while he was reading an article in the Guernsey Breeders Journal about how the AGA was seeking to update its “ideal” cow.
By 1960, changing standards had left the previous Guernsey model, painted in 1925, outdated. The AGA wanted a new model that would reflect the new generation’s standard of excellence.
“They wanted a bigger cow,” Knowles said, “something that could eat more … and produce more milk.”
In spite of his lack of artistic expertise, Knowles wrote to the AGA and said he would give them their new model. He was so confident, he told them they wouldn’t be disappointed. Knowles said he was emboldened by the dire economic circumstances on his farm.
“And I have no idea, except that the farm was not big enough to pay all the bills, where I had courage enough to say, ‘I guarantee your satisfaction,'” Knowles reflected.
But his letter must have convinced someone, because soon the AGA was mailing Knowles stacks of photos of cows.
Knowles recalled that AGA leaders pointed out what they liked about each cow in the photos they sent him.
“We like this good head on a cow, and these good feet, so forth and so on, things they were striving to improve in the model,” he said.
After studying the pictures, Knowles made a sketch and sent it in. After many back-and-forth exchanges, eventually the “ideal” Guernsey emerged. It had strong feet for walking on uneven pastures, a big body cavity, and strong muscles to prevent the udder from sagging.
As Knowles described the cow, he gestured toward his copy of the portrait he painted. The animal stands in a pasture, its ribs just visible beneath its brown and white hair. It has no horns – horn removal was just coming into fashion in the early 1960s – and its udder is swollen, but firmly attached to the body.
After nine months of fine-tuning, the portrait was finished. The AGA flew Knowles and his painting to Toronto, where the group’s annual meeting was taking place. They put him up in a fancy hotel – his first night in a hotel, ever – and the next morning voted to officially accept his painting as the new, ideal Guernsey cow.
Things changed for Knowles when he returned to Maine. Guernsey breeders from around the country began to request copies of his painting. Others invited him to their farms to paint portraits of their own cows.
“That was more income,” he said.
But it still wasn’t enough to support Knowles and his ailing grandmother, so he began to plant and sell gladiolas.
“I planted a few one year and I sold them, and I thought, ‘My, this might be a chance for additional income,'” he said. “And within a very short time, a few years, I was planting up to 35,000 bulbs.”
Knowles began to sell flowers wholesale to a shop in Brunswick, now known as Flowers, Etc. After two years, he sold the farm in Greene and moved to Brunswick to work as a florist. And a year later, he was able to purchase the shop, as well as the house next door. Knowles and his wife ran the flower shop until 1997, when she died and he sold the business.
Knowles’ home is filled with objects from each stage in his life. He still keeps chickens in his backyard, and now raises canaries instead of Guernseys. Poinsettias collect in the corners of his living room, and a yellow Narcissus bursts out of a small flower pot on the kitchen table.
He keeps a stack of business cards on a small table in the hallway. Not surprisingly, they identify Knowles as a retired florist. But they also allude to his prior life.
In the corner of the business card, there is a small picture of his famous painting and the words, “Painter of the Ideal Guernsey Cow.”
Ralph Knowles at home in Brunswick with his painting of the ideal Guernsey cow.