Wild Winds and Inspiration

 

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Wind Measuring Instrument, 1911 Illustration

Last weekend in Melbourne there was a bad windstorm and it’s about to get very windy again this weekend. As we live in a coastal city we often experience storms coming in from the bay, especially in early spring when the temperatures are starting to rise and the winds become more severe. These can be frightening but are also inspirational giving us spectacular views of nature at it’s wildest.

The following is a video taken in 2011 of one such storm over Port Phillip Bay with some beautiful photos and vision.

In 2015 during one of these wind events an extreme gust brought down a huge branch of the African Coral tree next door. It broke a part of the fence and just missed the windows of next doors family room giving the inhabitants a huge fright. The following photo shows the size of the branch. Since then they have had the tree pruned extensively as it really sways in windy weather.

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Storms have long been an inspiration to writers and artists, especially in the days when travelling by sailing ships, which were constantly at the mercy of the elements. Looking in some of our old books I found some illustrations of storms from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some of these are for well-known stories while others are more obscure and it is interesting to see the different ways storms have been depicted. Many stories have begun with a shipwreck in a storm as the basis for the drama to follow.

One such is Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. In our 1904 edition of Shakespeare, the storm is depicted as a scene on the ship with crashing waves and a panicking sailor confronting Prospero. Very melodramatic like the stage play it illustrates but not very atmospheric with regards to a storm. You can imagine the stage hands throwing buckets of water and rocking a stage prop ship.

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The Tempest, The Leopold Shakespeare, 1904 edition

Two other famous stories with a similar beginning are Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Johann Rudolf Wyss’s Swiss Family Robinson (1812-13), also about people stranded on supposedly deserted islands. The frontispiece of our 1905 edition of Robinson Crusoe shows the crashing waves while men are being washed from their overturned lifeboat. In the distance is their floundering ship. It’s a wonderfully energetic drawing and conveys the desperation of the situation. The Swiss Family Robinson scene is very atmospheric with foaming waves almost engulfing the ship, its masts broken, as it smashes against towering rocks. It is from an edition of about 1907.

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Robinson Crusoe, 1905 edition

Illustration at this time relied heavily on the engraver’s art, which reached amazing heights in the 19th century. From our 1895 set of Charles Dickens works is a fantastic illustration by Fred Barnard of the tragic storm in David Copperfield (1850), which sees the deaths of both David’s friends, Ham and Steerforth. In the illustration we see Ham, with a group of seaman, about to go out into the stormy sea where you can see Steerforth’s boat and its wreckage. The figure of Ham is a solid presence surrounded by swirling water and foaming waves. It is a masterly drawing where you can feel the tension of a dire situation.

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The Storm by Fred Barnard, David Copperfield

In our collection we also have a couple of less well-known 19th century adventure stories written for children. The first is the Last Cruise of the Ariadne by S Whitchurch Sadler RN (1877). The frontispiece has a wonderful colour scene on a ship in a storm with a group of passengers being drenched by sheets of water. One of them is unconscious or has perhaps drowned. It is a very beautiful and poignant illustration of the perils of a sea journey in the past. You can almost feel the ship being buffeted by wind and water.

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The second book is A Voyage Around the World, A Tale For Boys by W H G Kingston (1880). It is full of the adventures of a couple of boys on a voyage to far away places. They always seem to be involved in some lucky escape, especially at sea. Two illustrations show the young boys bobbing in stormy seas. One includes their companion dog. Real “Boys’ Own Annual” stuff and it would have been exciting in the days when travel was not easy. By the amount of literature devoted to shipwrecks and storms at sea, it is a wonder anyone willingly sailed at all.

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Many visual artist’s are inspired by the wind and turbulent weather. One of the mast famous is the British artist, J M W Turner, who did many paintings of storms. His are some of the most atmospheric works. Churning seas, wind-driven rain and snow swirl around on his canvases and watercolours so that the viewer is caught up in the storm. With just a little paint and skillful brushwork he could say a lot as the following watercolour sketch of a Storm at Sea reveals.

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Storm at Sea, J M W Turner (1775-1851), Watercolour, Wikimedia Commons

As a child in the sixth grade I did a painting of a storm scene. It was quite unusual for me to do such a gothic work as I usually painted happy pictures and did not like thunderstorms. Maybe I had been watching a scary movie and loved the thought of a castle on “a dark and stormy night.” Or the idea of a windswept sea appealed to me as it has done for countless generations of artists. I have kept some of my childhood art so here it is.

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One Dark and Stormy Night, Kat

Wild winds and violent oceans might be dangerous but they can inspire all kinds of art works. What is life without some risk and excitement to get those creative juices freely flowing? But just don’t stand under a tree.

Kat

As the wind picks up around our house what better way to end this post than with Buster Keaton battling a storm in Steamboat Bill Jnr.

 

When a Blob of Glass is not just a Blob of Glass

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Sometimes the things that we hang onto have no intrinsic monetary value. What give them importance are the stories that they can tell. If you don’t write these stories down or tell others it could make an object meaningless so that it will get tossed out because no one will understand the significance. Such stories are also a source of inspiration.

We keep many useless objects because of their stories and not just for their aesthetic value. Often you are the only one who has heard these tales. There are some stories that I knew of which Ellie had no knowledge because she was not there at the time. It would be a pity if the stories were lost because this makes the things interesting.

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Take the blob of molten glass belonging to my grandfather. He told me that it was from the remains of a house up in the hills where his family holidayed when he was a child. Here they rode horses and enjoyed country life. My grandfather remembered being chased by stampeding turkeys that his mischievous younger brothers let out from their pen. The house was destroyed in a bushfire and he kept this bit of debris as a reminder of the place. Embedded in the glass is some mortar and charcoal from the intense heat of the fire. This piece of glass speaks not only about my grandfather’s experiences, but also of the history of our country. Bushfires are responsible for some of Australia’s worst natural disasters but are also needed for the germination of seeds and regeneration of the native eucalypt forests. Most of us or members of our family have been affected by bushfire at one time or another. For me this blob has meaning and I would never throw it out.

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It is also lovely to keep something that was hand-made by a family member whether it is useful or not. Another thing that came from my grandfather is a piece of Mallee Root. These are used as firewood in Victoria because they are slow burning. He polished this fragment of root on one side to see what it would look like and for no other reason. This was typical of a man who was always curious about nature and trying different processes. I think that it is quite sculptural and beautiful and knowing its story makes it special.

 

Objects that tell us something about our forebears are intriguing. One of our ancestors was a sea-captain in the mid 19th century. One of his sons also sailed. We have quite a collection of old tropical shells that were brought back from their journeys. The ones that are not in great condition are in the garden. There are giant tritons, helmet shells and types of univalves. There is also a Black Bean Pod (Moreton Bay Chestnut) that comes from northern Australia. The pod is hard, woody and the seed inside rattles when shaken. I love the fact that these ancestors were combing some beach over 100 years ago and the shells and pod are still with us today. I wonder where they went and what adventures they had on their journeys to and from Australia. The shells and pod are a reminder of our history when the sea was the only way to connect with the rest of the world.

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Some objects are valuable because they bring back personal memories. An old key attached to a long piece of wood belonged to the boatshed at the bottom of our grandparent’s orchard. Before the door fell off it was locked with a padlock. My mother’s family kept canoes that they used on the river in the shed, but these had gone when I was a child. Inside the rickety old building all that remained was a pump that sent water from the Yarra River to water the orchard. As a child I disliked the sound of that machine. It was mechanical and creepy and I tried to avoid it when it was on. The pump fed a giant sprinkler that sent jets a long way across the orchard and you had to run before it could drench you with water. In summer it became a game of dodge with a lot of yelling. Later owners eventually pulled down the boatshed but the key can still unlock the past.

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We often keep utilitarian, unprepossessing things just to remember a person. A rather plain, rectangular lump of heavy metal is something I treasure. It is a metallic sample that belonged to my father. He was an industrial chemist and this was something that was used in his research. To us as children dad’s job was mysterious because it was separate from our lives. Any thing to do with science was like alchemy involving strange processes and smelly chemicals. This sample gave his job a reality and when I use it as a paperweight I remember the rare visits to dad’s work seeing him in a white lab coat, surrounded by all kinds of strange apparatus. Dad’s piece of metal has never rusted or corroded so whatever the sample was for I’m sure it did a good job.

So an object can be more than a physical thing if it has some kind of story that is important to you. It does not need to be earth shattering or epic. Sometimes the most memorable stories are the simple ones. Pass them on or write them down. Use them to inspire. A “blob of glass” without a story remains a blob.

The things we keep

Their stories silent

It’s up to us to make them speak

Kat

One of the best songs ever written about Australia is Ganggajang’s Sound of Then from the 1980s. It is evocative, nostalgic and fun.

Midwinter Chills: Ghastly Ghosts and Comical Phantoms

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It’s the middle of winter in Melbourne and there have been icy winds, frosts and dull days. A good time for ghost stories as these are so much more enjoyable when it’s dark and cold. Reading a modern ghost story has brought back memories of the classic old spooky tales, which I have always loved. Not all are serious and a bit of humor is needed when it is chilly. These stories stimulate the imagination and have led to endless interpretations of this intangible world.

Belief in the supernatural has provided plenty of material for artists and writers over the centuries. Shakespeare gives a chilling account of a ghostly apparition in the form of Hamlet’s murdered father, which has given visual artists inspiration for some beautiful illustration.

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In the 19th century ghost stories were very popular. They were so much more convincing at a time without electric light. In winter one could imagine terrible spectres lurking in the dark of night. Some of the stories are quite creepy, like those by the Irish author, Joseph Sheridan le Fanu, who wrote some truly disturbing tales. A couple about haunted houses, like An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Anger Street (1851) and An Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House, are full of terrible apparitions and shadowy figures on the walls (click on titles to read stories). Read these late at night when the wind is howling for full effect.

Ghostly legends can also be very funny. The Ingoldsby Legends (1840) by Thomas Ingoldsby (Rev Richard Harris Barham) contains many humorous stories and poems about ghosts. Tales such as The Spectre of Tappington; The Ghost; The Legend of Hamilton Tighe; and The Dead Drummer are accompanied by quirky black and white illustrations (click on titles to read stories), which include skeletal spectres, headless figures and phantoms done by well-know artists of the time. These stories are wonderful parodies of ghostly folklore.

Another writer and illustrator who dealt with ghosts in a humorous way was W S Gilbert, the lyricist of Gilbert and Sullivan operetta fame. His collection of poems, Fifty “Bab” Ballads (1884) contains a nonsensical poem that I have included below called The Ghost, the Gallant, the Gael and the Goblin, complete with Gilbert’s (Bab) delightful drawings. It’s about competitive haunting that does not go to plan. A very quaint story with the witty use of words you would expect from the man who wrote, “I am the very model of a modern major-general, I’ve information vegetable, animal and mineral…etc.

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Probably the most famous ghost story of the 1900s is Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol. We have a copy from the 1890s that has drawings by Fred Barnard, who was one of the illustrators of Dickens works. The grotesque depiction of Marley’s ghost became the prototype for many film versions of the tale. Michael Hordern as the tormented Marley in the 1951 version of Scrooge starring Alistair Sim, seems to have stepped out of the illustration. Below is a colourized version of the scene.

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The magic of film has made it possible to depict transparent ghosts and ghastly hauntings. From the earliest days of film we can see attempts to bring the spectral world alive for the viewer often with unintentionally hilarious results, as for example in George Melies The Haunted Castle, 1896.

Since then there have been some very terrifying movies, such as The Haunting (1963), with its horrifying haunted house. You would not want to watch this one alone on a dark winters night. It uses sound to a frightening degree (warning: even the trailer is really chilling). Often films that leave much to the imagination are scarier than those with lots of special effects because of the mystery.

There have also been many entertaining comedy films about ghosts, such as Topper (1937) starring Cary Grant and Constance Bennet, a hilarious story about a dead married couple haunting a crusty old bachelor that lead to some ridiculous situations.

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Plains of the Darling, NSW, detail by Edward Officer

In Australia there are old bush ballads about ghosts, such as the swagman who haunts the billabong in Waltzing Matilda (Matilda was his swag, not a woman). Like Washington Irving’s story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the idea of a ghostly horseman riding through the countryside has also peaked Australian writer’s imaginations. One of my favorites is the poem Rafferty Rides Again (1940) by Thomas V Tierney about a bushranger’s ghost that is seen riding in the bush on moonlit nights. As it is still in copyright click on title for a link to the poem. The song Ghost Riders in the Sky is in this tradition and Johnny Cash does a great version.

Whether you believe in ghosts or not, in wintertime it is fun to read or watch spooky stories, especially when you are inside near a fire or heater and you know you can turn up the lights any time you like.

And what better way to end this post than with Australia’s Kransky Sisters, singing Talking Heads Psycho Killer as only they can.

Kat

Invasion of the Ants

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Illustration from Chambers Encyclopaedia, 1895

Sometimes what creeps us out can also inspire creative works. Under normal circumstances I don’t mind ants, especially Australian native black ants and even stinging bulldog ants provided they keep their distance. But when ants start to invade our inside space that is a different story.

Invasion of the Ants

Ants

A lone scout appears

Crawling on the computer

Then more

On kitchen benches

In cutlery drawers, floors

Feelers touching, foraging

Finding crumbs

On they come

Swarming

 

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Form long brown trails

Relentless lines of raiders

Appalled

We follow the horde

Down halls, up bathroom walls

Madly squashing, spraying

A futile stance

Against advanced

Invasion

 

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Man-created super colony

An immense insect alliance

Inundate

Swamp local species

Can’t placate, annihilate

Terrain taking, attacking

Argentine ants

Small chance

Of victory

©theartistschild.com 2017

Normally ants are benign, beneficial insects when they are part of their home eco-system. Their organization, co-operation and industry as a group has inspired stories since the time of Aesop’s Fable, The Grasshopper and the Ants.

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The Grasshopper and the Ants by Arthur Rackham, 1912

Outside of South America, because of their sheer numbers, argentine ants have become a huge problem in the world (How the World became a Giant Ant Colony). Accidentally transported in ships, they now infest every continent except Antarctica. These transported ants are all genetically related and do not have the biodiversity of their species at home. Separate nests do not compete or fight one another and instead have formed into super colonies that span kilometers. Melbourne has one that stretches for at least 100km (discovered in 2004), California has a 900km super colony along the coast and in Mediterranean Europe, 6,000km (The Ant Super Colony) ). They kill and take over the territory of native ants and are causing damage to whole eco-systems. The following is a short Australian documentary that explains how these ants are so successful around the world using amazing wildlife photography.

Early attempts to eradicate the ants were quite basic. In 1960s Sydney small boys were encouraged to find nests and were paid $10 for their trouble by the government. This would have seemed a huge amount of money to children at the time. A 1967 Pathé newsreel tells the story.

We have had argentine ants in our garden for a long time but when the house next door came down last year, the ants from next door moved into our place. Their numbers have swelled considerably. The weather has been quite mild, without much rain so there has been no help from nature to control them. If there is just one crumb on the kitchen bench the ants will find it and they are attracted to any water in the bathroom so cleaning is endless. When an ant appears next to you on the bed sheet you know there is a problem. Looks like we will need professional assistance to reduce these pests. There are now products that are reasonably safe to spray outside if you keep your pets out of the way during the operation. This invasion has brought back some unsettling memories about ants.

There is something about a huge plague of creatures that can both repel and fascinate us. This is often the basis for horror stories and movies. One of the first scary films I remember watching as a child was The Naked Jungle (1954) starring Charlton Heston based upon a short story, Leiningen Versus the Ants by Carl Stephenson. In it an Amazonian plantation owner has to contend with the threat of ravenous army ants destroying his crop. I watched this late at night with some friends at a sleep over and we all screamed during the scene where an unlucky worker is eaten by the ants (until the host’s little brother started doing a mock reenactment that made us laugh). I hope the actor was paid well for having so many ants crawling all over him. Not for squeamish.

Although the premise is exaggerated for dramatic purposes, the idea of unstoppable, carnivorous ants plays on our primal fear of the uncontrollable powers of nature. We create the nightmare in our minds.

In the horror film Them!, also made in 1954, ants have become huge monsters. I saw this movie late at night as an adult and it still has the power to disturb, although modern computer graphics produce more believable monsters. The trailer gives a good idea of the horror-inducing mood created by the filmmakers. The giant ants were meant to be the result of exposure to radiation from the atomic bombs. At a time of cold war tensions it played upon everyone’s paranoia surrounding the nuclear threat, which became terrifying ants.

Because ants work together this makes them seem like us on the one hand, but being insects, quite alien on the other. I’m sure many sci-fi alien societies are based upon ants. As invaders, ants are worthy opponents and will continue to inspire, frighten and mesmerize us in works of fiction and artworks.

Kat

Of course the appropriate music for this post after all the apocalyptic doom is Ant Music by Adam and the Ants. This live version was filmed on the Australian TV show Countdown in 1980. The sound is better than the official video. He also did a song called Ants Invasion but it is not as catchy. “Don’t tread on an Ant, he’s done nothing to you….” Huh! Obviously Adam Ant had not experienced argentine ants in 1980.

Inspiration from the Sea

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Physalia Utriculus (from The Ocean World by Louis Figurier, 1872 Edition)

The natural world is full of many bizarre and fascinating creatures, especially the sea. For us land lovers who do not venture far out beyond the sand, anything living in the ocean seem most mysterious and more alien than a science fiction monster. One such life form is the “The Pacific Man of War” (physalia utriculus), cousin to the larger “Portuguese Man of War,” that inspired the following poem:

Physalia

Floating, bloated Physalia

Sails the waters of Australia

Buoyant, Blue Bottle, bather’s hell

Weapons submerged in ocean swell

Tentacles, twisting, clutching bite

Stun the prey of hermaphrodites

Stealthy, Pacific Man of War

Stingers loaded, washed ashore

A stranded, congealed, deflated mess

No armistice with final rest

©Theartistschild.com 2017.

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Illustration by F Seth from A Sketch of the Natural History of Australia by Frederick G Aflalo, 1896

Lately I have been looking at some 19th century natural history books that came from relatives. I was particularly taken by a couple of illustrations of “The Pacific Man Of War,” and its scientific name.  Not many words rhyme with Australia.

These are commonly known as “Blue Bottle” jellyfish in Australia, although they are not a type of jellyfish. In fact they are related to corals. The Physalia are actually a large colony of separate polyps carried under the floatation bag, itself an individual life form. The polyps perform various functions such as catching prey (the tentacles), waste disposal and reproduction.

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Stranded Physalia Utriculus (Wikimedia Commons)

Blue Bottles can become stranded on ocean facing beaches along the east coast of Australia. They are more common the further north you travel and are considered a hazard when they wash up in large numbers. Physalia can give a very painful sting to any swimmer who bumps into their tentacles, which also remain active when lying on the beach.

Although not a frequent visitor to Victorian beaches the occasional individual can drop in as the following video demonstrates. Despite their bad reputation, seen in close-up physalia are beautiful and mesmerizing creatures.

Kat

A Window to the Past

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An old book can be seen as a window into the past and is a way to learn about the lives and interests of previous generations.  In our household library we have an original copy of The Universal Self Instructor (1883) that was a popular book for the home in the 19th century in Australia and America.  In it’s day this book would have given anyone who had basic schooling some kind of further education.  What I find fascinating about this book are the sections related the to the visual arts and crafts, particularly with regard to women.

The frontispiece depicts a goddess figure holding a torch with the words “knowledge is power.”  It was a way to improve your life whether you lived in a city or the country.  This book contains all kinds of information about business, law, agriculture, the domestic domains, leisure activities and general knowledge on many subjects, as well as social etiquette.  It is full of detailed black and white illustrations and is very much a depiction of the ideal life more than a century ago.

There is a whole section in The Universal Self Instructor devoted to handwriting.  It was considered important to be able to write well.  The cursive script is beautiful and would have taken pains to master.  Flourishes and images were added to documents so it was a real art.  Today, unless you are a calligrapher, many people’s handwriting has definitely deteriorated probably due to the constant use of keyboards and the ballpoint pen.  Inside the Self-Instructors cover is a beautiful example of handwriting done by it’s first owner.

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The book is all about rules and shows how restrictive it must have during that period. There are whole sections on social etiquette.  Life was a minefield of manners that included etiquette for introductions, visiting, conversation, public places, clothes, marriage, birth and death, the carriage trip, riding, debuts into society and entertaining. Nothing was relaxed.

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The situation that amused me was the visit to an artist’s studio or gallery exhibition. Artists had reception days when ladies could “pay their respects” to artist friends and were to be on their best behavior.  Pushing in front of others to view a work (something that is really annoying today), talking loudly and laughing were all considered extremely rude and you must never ask if a work is for sale unless you wish to buy it, which seems a bit stupid given that artists are not always great at selling their creations.  In galleries negative comments about the works should be kept to a low voice in case the artist is nearby and you should not linger in front of a work for too long.  Adherence to such etiquette today would make visits to crowded exhibitions a lot more enjoyable and artist’s would feel more comfortable if they did not have to listen to any uniformed criticism.  So not all etiquette is obsolete and without merit.

By the look of the accompanying illustration it was assumed that the professional artist was a man.  Women and girls were expected to keep to the domestic circle.  Girls were to be discouraged from being idle. To quote:

“Girls are very apt to fall into a habit of lounging about doing nothing, gaping out of the windows or napping on the sofas.”

Sounds a lot like teenage boy behavior as well but there is no mention of this.

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To keep them busy, Girls (and boys) were encouraged to learn drawing and painting for pleasure.  It was also a way to decorate the home.  Suitable activities for girls were to paint china, greeting cards, furniture, book covers, and silk for clothing.  Many ordinary women must have produced some beautiful creative artworks, often as a way to save money.

One of our female ancestors was a talented painter who took oil painting classes for young ladies at an artist’s studio in the 1880s.  She did some large paintings of landscapes.  I have included a photo of a small oil painting that she did on glass and a large seascape of Cape Schanck in Victoria (my photo does not do the latter justice as I was teetering on a ladder and kept wobbling).   Unfortunately after she was married and had children she did not continue with her art.   She was probably not taken seriously or encouraged to become a professional artist.  There are a couple of tiny painted china plates in the first photo that were probably considered a more acceptable pursuit for women in that era.

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Needle point items, pressed flowers and moulded bread dough flowers would have been typical crafts of the period

There are all kinds of suggestions for appropriate craft activities for women and girls. Of course there is embroidery, lace work, knitting, crotchet, patchwork and dressmaking, all  popular textile crafts.   There are also crafts such as creating scrapbooks, molding coloured wax flowers and fruit and the making of trifles (not the dessert).  Trifles were attractive but fairly useless little novelty gifts made to pass the time.  Inside the Self-Instructor, which is quite a tome, I found some dried flower petals pressed by a previous owner.  I wonder if they were for the creation of some “trifle.”

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Pressed flowers found in our copy of The Universal Self-Instructor

Another craft mentioned and probably long gone is “wall pockets,” decorative baskets lined with odds and ends of fabric, filled with dried flowers and foliage, tied with ribbons and attached to the wall (more like dust traps and spider homes to me).   Such gentille activities would have only been possible for middle class women and girls who were not forced by their circumstances to work long hours in underpaid jobs.

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A beautifully illustrated poem by Longfellow

Poetry is included in the book.  There are a few by women poets, like American Magaret E Sangster, and this would have been an inspiration to young girls who loved to write poetry and demonstrated that they could also become writers.

The Universal Self-Instructor conveys an idealized view of the period, but for ordinary people who did not possess many books or have the means for further education, it would have been a valuable asset.   It was like having access to the Internet in its day and opened up a world of possibilities in all kinds of fields for many people.

It’s a fascinating book and I hope it inspired some girls, as well as boys, to pursue their dreams in the arts despite the social restrictions.   With all our modern freedoms, resources and technology there is nothing to prevent us from living an artistic life.

Kat

An Artist’s Best Friend

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Our Two Fox Terriers

I had just written the first draft of this post and showed it to Ellie.  She read it and said, “no one wants to read about someone’s dog. It is too personal and boring.”  Of course she is right.  Anyone who has a dog thinks that theirs is the smartest, funniest dog in the world and they don’t want to hear about other people’s dogs unless it is an interesting story.  Taking on board what Ellie said I had a rethink and decided to write about dogs as a source of inspiration for artists and writers and how they have influenced my own creativity.

Dogs have inspired many works of fiction.  For example Jack London’s The Call of The Wild (1916), about the adventures of the Alaskan Klondike sled dog, Buck, Eric Knight’s 1940 novel, Lassie Come Home and Dodie Smith’s 1956 novel the 101 Dalmatians to name a few.  And who can forget one dog’s life story in Marley and Me (2005) by John Grogan.  These books were all made into popular and enjoyable movies.

Dogs as companions have produced entertaining characters like Scooby Doo from the cartoon TV series and Snowy in The Adventures of Tintin by Belgium cartoonist George Remi (Herge).  Generations of children have loved reading about the dog Timmy in Edith Blyton’s Famous Five books.  The French movie The Artist  (2011) benefited from the wonderful antics of the Jack Russell, Uggie and Eddie (Butch) provided many hilarious scenarios in the TV series, Frazier.

True stories about the incredible feats of dogs are also inspirational.  The Maremma Sheepdog used to trial their use for guarding Fairy Penguins against predatory foxes on the coast of the Victorian town of Warnambool, inspired the Australian film Oddball (2015).  There is also the successful Australian movie Red Dog (2011) based on a true story with a sequel in production.

Google songs about dogs and there is a long list.  Often they are used as metaphors that are not always flattering to dogs but more about human nature.  From old classics like Hound Dog (Elvis Presley) to anthems like Who Let the Dogs Out (Baha Men), these songs have kept our feet tapping.  Some beautiful songs have been written about dogs.  Cat Steven’s I Love My Dog, and Nick Drake’s Black Eyed Dog from the 1970s are just some of the many.  I have written a couple of songs about my dogs.  They are very personal and were a way of dealing with their loss.

There are so many stories, television shows, movies, songs and about dogs I could go on for pages and I have only mentioned a few.  But you get the point.  Dogs are popular subjects because they trigger strong emotions, whether in a story or as a symbol, that can generate creativity.

Our connections with dogs makes it hard to resist drawing and painting them.  Visual artists have created wonderful depictions of dogs to illustrate books.  I have a couple of early twentieth century children’s books with some lovely illustrations of dogs.  Tattine by Ruth Ogden (circa 1901) is full of sweet black and white paintings of a little girl, many with her puppy.  The frontispiece has a lovely watercolour of some puppies pulling at her night-clothes that has used typical behavior.  In Country Favorites (circa 1901) is a charming colour picture of two terriers watching a hedgehog.  As the owner of a terrier, I know this is in the realm of fantasy as they are hunting dogs and would not be leaving the poor thing alone.  But then again the hedgehog’s spines could be a deterrent and a realistic image would not be great in a children’s book.

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Greeting Cards Clockwise from top: Hide and Seek by Arthur Elsley (1869-1952); Dignity and Impudence by Edwin Landseer (1839); To School Well Fed on Grape Nuts, advertisement lithographed on tin (1917); The Girl With the Dog, Theodore Robinson (1852-1896).

Amongst my greeting card collection, I have several with images of children and dogs from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  A dog is a popular subject because anyone who has owned or loved dogs can relate to these works.  There is nothing like having the devotion and loyalty of a dog.  In fact in Medieval Flemish paintings dogs were included as symbols of faithfulness.

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Detail Justice of Emperor Otto III (1470-75) by Dirk Bouts

The actions of our own dogs have given both Ellie and me ideas for artworks.  We both like to do drawings of our two Fox Terriers.  Usually you can only get them to pose when they are asleep as they are in constant motion.  Ellie did a watercolour pencil sketch of her current dog that I really like and have included it below.

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Ellie’s Watercolour Pencil Sketch

You hear all kinds of stories about dogs rescuing people from dangerous situations.  One day when I was upstairs, our previous two Foxies started barking furiously at the side gate.  I went down to have a look and got to the front of the house only to see that someone had broken a window and the door was ajar.  The intruder must have heard me coming.  I saw a leg disappearing around the corner and yelled some rather strong language before calling the police.  I had not heard the door knocker and if the dogs had not barked so loudly and in such an agitated manner I would not have known there someone was breaking in to our house.  This episode became a tapestry design and I have included one of the working drawings in this post.

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Drawing for Tapestry Design by Kat

It is obvious that I love dogs.  Dogs have always been important in my life and I could not be without one.  I think it is essential to have a dog (or cat) if you work at home. Talking to your pet is a good way to work through an idea.  Better than talking to yourself which can look strange if someone catches you doing this.  But with a dog it is perfectly normal because they listen intently. You just know when they think your idea is rubbish.  Dogs do sneering well.  But when your enthusiasm for something is conveyed to them they take up the good feelings and go with it.  You know you are on a winner when your dog smiles and wags his tail like crazy.

Dogs can be heroes, counsellors, entertainers and best friends amongst their many traits and this makes them perfect subject matter for creative work.  If you work at home and spend a lot of time on your own it is so easy to get caught up in your work and a dog keeps you connected to reality.  We benefit in so many ways from our relationship with our dogs and should never take them for granted.  Dogs are always an inspiration.

Kat

The following video shows a compilation of clips from 1930s films starring the wired-hair fox terrier Skippy.  Skippy starred as “Asta” in The Thin Man films with William Powell and Myrna Loy, as “George” in Bringing Up Baby with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn and as “Mr. Smith” in The Awful Truth with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne.  This delightful dog’s actions are put to the song Who Let the Dogs Out performed by Baha Men.