Anna Volska and Georgia, 2015, by Nicholas Harding. Photo: National Portrait Gallery

In the park, from the series Walking the dog, 2005 by Robyn Sweaney. Photo: National Portrait Gallery

Won't Scenes from a Dog's Life, 2016, by Kristin Headlam. Photo: National Portrait Gallery

Taya with Billie, 2016 by Anna Culliton. Photo: National Portrait Gallery

Daniel and Chopper, 2013 by Darren McDonald. Photo: Tim Gresham

Cat at table, 2015 by Noel McKenna. Photo: PhotoStudio

Spotty and I walking around the rocks I, 1992 by Ken Done. Photo: PhotoStudio

Pets get top billing in Popular Pet Show at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra

Article as it appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald, November 4, 2016

Click here to see original article

Do people look like their pets? We’ve all seen the lady with saggy cheeks and droopy eyes that looks like her cocker spaniel. And the muscular middle-aged man with the same boofy head as his Staffordshire Bull Terrier with the studded collar. Or the delicate well-coiffed softly-spoken lady with her fluffy, Himalayan cat. But what about famous people? Do they look like their pets too?

You’ll soon get your chance to find out. The Popular Pet Show is a new exhibition coming to the National Portrait Gallery in November this year. There will be a line-up of pictures of pets of all sorts, from dogs and cats, to sheep, chickens, horses, and native animals. You’ll see works by fifteen Australian artists, including Ken Done, Nicholas Harding, Kerstin Sweaney, and others. A great array of paintings, drawings and sculptures of man’s best friend and cats who rule the world.

It’s the first time the gallery has exhibited portraits of animals. So why has it taken so long? Especially when our pets are so important to us? Is it because the world of high art as seen animals as beneath us and not worthy of being displayed? But pets are part of our lives. They recline on our couches, sleep on our beds, and curl up on our laps. So it’s timely to have a show of this kind: one that reflects our relationships with animals.

Sarah Engledow, curator of the exhibition, has a pet too: a happy, smiling Labradoodle who has permanent part-ownership of her couch. Engledow is excited about the broad public appeal of The Popular Pet Show. She’s hoping to pull in people who don’t normally go to galleries. “(They) will come because they love animals and pets,” she says. “This will help them engage with the artworks.” She’s optimistic that this initial interest might turn into a deeper contemplation of artistic techniques and the way different artists have shown the connection between people and pets. But first, you have to get people through the door. And pets should be a good draw-card.

There’s a good reason we’re so attached to our animals. Pets stick with us through tough times and they don’t judge. That’s why some of us prefer them to humans. Recent figures from the Bureau of Statistics report 25 million pets in Australia. And seven out of ten of us own at least one pet. Dogs are the most common, in 39% of households, and cats come in slightly behind at 29%. This simply confirms that an exhibition like this is long overdue.

And it looks like it’s going to be fun. There’s a series of colourful Ken Done paintings, featuring Done walking his dog Spotty along the Sydney foreshore. Sometimes they are together, sometimes apart. Spotty checks in briefly then goes off on his own, as dogs do, discovering the world by nose. Done has made himself into a block of Sydney sandstone. Whereas Spotty definitely looks like a dog, painted in Done’s typical style.

Done has also created individual portraits of his dogs in which the dog’s body (sorry) is very basic and it’s all about the face. The almost-human eyes, the doggy smile. Done has nailed this. It’s exactly how we communicate with our pets: through facial expressions. Dogs are telling us stuff all the time. It’s just that we often miss the messages.

Famous people love their animals too, and the exhibition features a series of Nicholas Harding’s paintings of Australian celebrities and their pets. When our pets are present, we can’t help responding to them – it’s part of who we are. You can see this in the paintings: the way the owner sits to accommodate their pet, who is boss, who is comfortable and who is not. Harding found that having pets present changed the dynamic between artist and subject. Apparently he admitted to feeling a little left out.

Robyn Sweaney from Mullumbimby, has painted portraits of people from her home town out walking their dogs. You can only see the owners from the waist down. But luckily you can tell a lot about people from their shoes, clothes and feet. You’ll quickly work out the season, and you will even be able to tell what sort of relationship exists between owner and dog, simply by the dog’s behaviour. Animals are much more transparent than people if we take the time to look.

There are plenty of cats in this exhibition too, often snuggled up on laps or beds. Cats know the best places to sit, and it has been said that if you want to find the warmest place in the house, you should look for the cat. Noel McKenna obviously understands cats and their weird fascination with bathrooms and dinner tables. He’s painted a cat standing in the bathroom sink to examine itself in the mirror. Didn’t you know that cats prefer water from the basin or shower? Another of his paintings has a cat sitting at a neatly set table waiting to be served. What’s that other saying? Dogs have owners, but cats have staff. The dogs in McKenna’s paintings are far more subservient.

Of course, dogs and cats aren’t the only pets. Birds, rabbits, chickens and sheep can make good pets too. Anna Culliton is a potter with a passion for dogs and native animals. She shows her family’s affection for unusual animals through a set of “family photographs” made from clay and ceramics. That’s how it is these days. People often have photographers shoot family portraits that include their pets. How much would you be willing to pay?

But back to people looking like their pets. In The Popular Pet Show, you’ll see a self-portrait of William Robinson with his pugs, and this will answer the question once and for all. Man and dogs have identical shiny round eyes, furrowed brows, and puckered mouths. They even sit the same way, leaning forward with legs/arms extended. Imagine looking like a pug.

So, do you look like your pet? Maybe you should stand in front of the mirror and search for similarities. Or maybe not. Perhaps you can visit the Portrait Gallery instead to make your own decisions.


Karen Viggers is a veterinarian and novelist. Her latest book The Grass Castle is about local history, friendship, Canberra and kangaroos.