HomeAll postsKatherine Kovacic talks about Australia's Dogs

Katherine Kovacic talks about Australia’s Dogs

Australia's Dogs cover features a family of dogs looking over the side of an antique vehicle

Australia’s Dogs was a long time in the making. It took about five years of research and work for me and the team at the National Library of Australia. However, it was more than a century of work by enthusiastic photographers – professional and amateur – and ardent dog lovers that made this book.

I worked as a veterinarian but, through the various twists and turns of life, I ended up with a PhD in Art History, and Australia’s Dogs came about through a merging of those two worlds.

Having worked closely with dogs for many years, I’ve always been fascinated by dog behaviour and the human-canine bond, and I’ve spent a lot of time exploring that relationship in art. Dogs in art are fascinating for many reasons. The way they interact with humans in paintings. The way some artists use dogs to convey meaning about the action within a painting. And even if the furry subject is all alone, we can look at body language.

Then there are the breeds! Looking at dogs from the Renaissance through to the twentieth century is both an education in breed development and a study of popular tastes through history. Why, in the portrait by Titian, is Federico II Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, (1500-1540) caressing a small white dog rather than a large, noble hound?

Art historians, historical figures, and dogs

Art historians have always wanted to assign meaning to dogs in paintings – they stand for loyalty or marital fidelity or, in a very contradictory twist, sexual lasciviousness!

I approached the topic as a dog person knowing that, sometimes, yes, the dog is a metaphor, but, more often than not, the dog is there because the artist or the patron loves dogs. In the case of Federico Gonzaga and his little Bolognese dog (a breed that still exists today) the Prado Museum suggests that this portrait “has been related to Federico’s matrimonial intentions in 1529 and the need to whitewash his dissolute past. The portrait, in which he is shown as affable and pious while retaining his aristocratic dignity, would thus form part of this strategy, which was brought to a successful conclusion with his marriage in 1531 to Margherita Paleologa, heiress of the Marquis of Monferrato.”

But Bolognese were fashionable among the aristocracy and elite of the period. Leonardo da Vinci was a Bolo parent, the Medici family bred them and, importantly, so did the Gonzagas. I suspect Federico’s little dog has nothing to do with matrimonial intentions and everything to do with the fact that he was proud of the dogs he bred and loved the canine companions who shared his life.

Woman with Becky the dog at Tara station, New South Wales, ca. 1915 by E.C. Kempe. Collection National Library of Australia.
Woman with Becky the dog at Tara station, New South Wales, ca. 1915 by E.C. Kempe. Collection National Library of Australia.
The National Library of Australia and dogs

This was the sort of art historical study I’d been working on when I turned my attention to the National Library of Australia. My intention was to explore the paintings in their collections as part of a broader study of the importance of dogs and other domestic pets in Australian art of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There were a number of paintings that fitted into my research. But I also found a vast and incredibly rich collection of photographs that feature dogs.

And I was hooked.

So many dogs, in so many aspects of Australian life!

Dogs that were special enough to be taken with their humans for expensive studio portraits in the 1880s, dogs hanging out with their people, dogs working on farms, dogs providing comfort to ANZAC soldiers in the First and Second World Wars, dingoes in the wild, dogs in Antarctica and dogs adventuring across the outback. They were all there, a canine history of Australia.

I knew right away that other people would like to see these images, and immediately began cataloguing and categorizing them. I made (pre-2020) a couple of trips to Canberra to access material that wasn’t digitized or had vague or ambiguous descriptions to determine if there were more unseen dogs hiding in dusty corners of the collections. There were! And I also began researching the stories behind some of the dogs and people pictured.

Most of all, what I was doing was smiling. Looking at pictures of dogs for hours on end, seeing the way they transformed their people was an absolute delight. And that is the essence of Australia’s Dogs.

A picture is worth a thousand words

There is so much I could have said about dogs, but really, the pictures speak for themselves. So I wrote to support the images. To tell readers a bit more of the backstory of the dogs in the pictures. The story of Australia’s Antarctic huskies, the contentious role of the dingo in the Australian ecosystem, the development of our own breeds… And the quirky tales of individual dogs and their humans. But perhaps the most important thing is the bond we share with our dogs. And the joy they bring to our lives.

Whether it’s a poodle with its people on the beach at Narrabeen, NSW, in 1964, a rare early photograph of an Australian coolie, c.1906, or just a person and their four-legged friend sharing a moment (whatever the era) Australians love dogs. And we have the pictures to prove it!

Find Australia’s Dogs

So many people love our four-legged companions that this book created quite a sensation. The Canberra Times (owned by either Murdoch or someone similar) wrote about it and the history of canine bonds. (I didn’t know canines were into the stock market? ). Australia’s national broadcaster posted about our love affair with our four legged friends.

We at DMZ met Katherine around the launch of her revenge murder thriller, Seven Sisters. Way back then (was it really only January this year?) she was a guest on our podcast. Katherine returned for DMZ’s International Women’s Day 2023 podcast as part of a panel of feminist writers. We talked about their various crime-focused books for a fun discussion and no one was murdered or even kidnapped!

These aren’t the only books she’s written; you can find the full list on her website.

Find Australia’s Dogs

So many people love our four-legged companions that this book created quite a sensation. The Canberra Times (owned by either Murdoch or someone similar) wrote about it and the history of canine bonds. (I didn’t know canines were into the stock market? ). Australia’s national broadcaster posted about our love affair with our four legged friends.

We at DMZ met Katherine around the launch of her revenge murder thriller, Seven Sisters. Way back then (was it really only January this year?) she was a guest on our podcast. Katherine returned for DMZ’s International Women’s Day 2023 podcast as part of a panel of feminist writers. We talked about their various crime-focused books for a fun discussion and no one was murdered or even kidnapped!

These aren’t the only books she’s written; you can find the full list on her website.

Woof, woof

Seeing eye canine Silkie approves of Katherine’s book and hopes you’ll read it. Silkie wants all the pats from all the people. But she doesn’t mind sharing, as long as she can play chasings on the beach.

I haven’t shared many of my Silkie stories on DMZ lately although daily she does something endearing or funny. Or the cats do. Or Silkie hides down the side of the couch, pushing her nose up at me for attention. Meanwhile, in the opposite direction, Aurora (a cat) is on the kitchen bench looking for breakables to push off. I’ll try to do better because we all need a laugh and the warm fuzzies, now more than ever. But here’s a post about Silkie and I learning to work together back in the day. (Last year.)

Nalini
Nalinihttps://www.darkmatterzine.com
Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.

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