Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Dogs, Fish, Cats by Steven Miller

Last year I published a book on dogs in Australian art. 

I never imagined that the topic would generate such enthusiasm. Art lovers and dog lovers wrote to me, breeders and show judges, vets and animal therapists, along with university students working on their dissertations. I was interviewed on the radio and invited to the Sydney Writers’ Festival. 

Arthur Murch (1902–89) Suzanne Crookston 1935
Oil on canvas, 76.0 x 60.0 cm. Collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney (15.2006)

This was not my first book, yet nothing I had written before stirred up such interest, including a book that won the Premier’s History Award in 2006. In some ways, I should not have been surprised. Australians love their dogs. With nearly 3.5 million dogs registered, we are said to have one of the highest rates of dog ownership in the world. 

Leigh Astbury, who wrote two major articles on dog art for Art and Australia in the late ‘90s, warned me: ‘I have never had as much feedback on anything I have written as I did when they were first published. I received invitations to exhibitions, messages from dealers spruiking their artists' pictures of dogs and messages from a few artists quietly reminding me that I'd overlooked their (significant) contributions on the subject.’

People ask me why I chose this subject. The main reason is that I love dogs. They were always a part of my life growing up and today I still get joy and companionship from my Welsh Terrier Finbar. Initially my idea was to write something cheeky and light hearted. I wanted to tell the tale of Australian art from the viewpoint of the underdog, so to speak. 

Australians are renowned for their support of the underdog. In sport as well as other areas, they will traditionally barrack for the unlikely contender; for David rather than Goliath. Against the prevalent view that Australia’s art was shaped by epic factors like the landscape, light or technology, I wanted to argue that dogs were the real shaping force. Of course I knew that I would have to be a little imaginative with the truth to make my argument.

Yet as I worked on the book, I became convinced that this cheeky line of argument had some real substance to it. I saw that a focus on dogs in art could throw up new insights. I was reminded of the many books I read as a child that had animals as their main characters, books like Wind in the Willows, Fantastic Mister Fox, Orlando the Marmalade Cat, Charlotte's Web and Winnie the Pooh. Even though these books were great fun to read and immersed me in a magical world, I also learnt some important early lessons from Ratty, Moly, Toady, Mister Fox and the gracious Charlotte.

Kenneth Clark once confided that his favourite part of the Vatican Museums in Rome was a room of animal sculpture. After winding through galleries of popes, princes and saints, he found it refreshing to come upon this collection of unselfconscious animals running, playing, feeding and preening. Some of these sculptures were clearly made with a moral lesson in view, illustrating the virtues of courage, loyalty and the like—just as many of the animal books I loved as a child taught similar virtues—yet it is somehow much more palatable to be instructed by our furry friends.

We humans so often feel and act as though we stand at the pinnacle of creation, with the destiny of the planet in our hands. It is good to be reminded of our interdependence with the whole of creation. The environmental movement does this and I think it is wonderful that children are made sensitive to these issues at school. 

Environmentalism has become a genuine form of spirituality for the modern world. Yet many of the insights of environmentalists are not entirely new. They can be found in the legends of the past. I particularly love the story of St Anthony of Padua preaching to the fish. They lined up in rows to hear him, with the whales at the back and the small whitings at the front; for fish—if you didn’t already know–have exquisite manners. The English poet Christopher Smart would not have been surprised to learn this about fish. After all he tells us that a ‘mouse is a creature of great personal valour. For the mouse is of an hospitable disposition.’

I seem to have drifted away from the subject of my doggie book. But when I was writing it I had people like St Anthony of Padua and Christopher Smart very much in focus. Whether people recognise it or not, the book is a tribute to their world view. Smart was a great artist, a visionary and mystic, although he was eventually committed to a lunatic asylum in 1757. Locked away, alone and rejected, he did not write about his wife and family, but about Jeoffry:

For I will consider my cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the living God.
Duly and daily serving him.

For at the first glance
Of the glory of God in the East
He worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body
Seven times round with elegant quickness.
For he knows that God is his saviour.
For God has bless'd him
In the variety of his movements.
For there is nothing sweeter
Than his peace when at rest.

For I am possessed of a cat,
Surpassing in beauty,
From whom I take occasion
To bless Almighty God.

 About the author

Steven Miller has worked in commercial and public art galleries in Sydney since the late 1980s. He is currently head of the Art Gallery of NSW Research Library and Archive. He has published widely on Australian art, including a monograph on the artist Weaver Hawkins. 

The book he co-authored on the first blockbuster exhibition of modern European art to visit Australia (1939), Degenerates and Perverts, won the NSW Premier's award for history and was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier's Literary Award in 2006. He published Dogs in Australian art: A new history of Antipodean creativity in 2012.

He is currently reading Mr McCool by Jonathan Tulloch, narrated by Daniel Coonan. This records an Odyssean journey by the cockney polar bear Mr McCool with his three animal companions and the 11-year-old Willum. Kansas is a prairie dog with a great sense of humour. Friend is a cow and Kingsley Tail a well-groomed cat, who can sew, cook and navigate.


  1. Little Black Hen21 May 2013 at 22:20

    I didn’t already know that fish have exquisite manners but so glad I do now. Thank you Steven lovely piece

  2. Thanks, Steven. I like your observation - and agree - that it is "somehow much more palatable to instructed by our furry friends".

    I can't help but feel, however, that Christopher Smart's family might have visited more if he'd written poetry about them rather than about his cat.