Sunday, 30 August 2015

Cats in Fiction: Some Musings

Is it just me, or is a house not a home without a pet?

OK, I admit to being biased because I’m a bit bonkers when it comes to cats, but for me animals give a place soul – and the same is so for animals in books – their presence gives an extra dimension and by seeing how characters react to felines, give extra clues to their character. References to cats in particular can be found in classic literature from Charles Dickens to Henry James, Rudyard Kipling to Emile Zola.

Indeed, I suspect the Victorian novelist George Moore thinks much the same as me as he bemoaned the absence of pets from those most august of novels ‘Tom Jones’ and ‘Vanity Fair’. His reasoning went like this:
“Both books lack intimacy of thought and feeling. No one sits by the fire and thinks…and welcomes the approach of a familiar bird or animal.”

To my view, Charles Dickens was on the right track. He knew that animals are important in making a book come to life. Take for example ‘Bleak House’ which features several cats. There is Krook’s cat Lady Jane who follows her master or perches hissing on his shoulder. Then there is Mr Jellyby’s cat who finishes his morning milk, and finally, Mrs Pipchin’s old cat who likes to purr...   “While the contracting pupils of his eyes looked like two notes of admiration.”

Come to think of it, Dickens has quite an association with cats because he made several references to cat pies…but that’s another story.

Perhaps the master of feline literature is Rudyard Kipling in his “Just So” stories. He wrote a story titled “The cat that walked by himself”. In this tale the cat makes a bargain with the woman that he will accept milk and a place by the hearth, and in return will do only what he wants to do– which deliciously sums up the independent nature of the cats.

In one of my favorite novels, ‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel, there is a delicious evocative passage that describing an interaction with Cromwell’s cat, Marlinspike.

“A cat may look at a king,” he [Cromwell] says. He is cradling Marlinspike in his arms, and talking to Thomas Avery, the boy he’s teaching his trade…
…He puts the cat down, opens the bag. He fishes up on a finger a string of rosary beads; for show says Avery, and he says, good boy. Marlinspike leaps on to his desk; he peers into the bag, dabbing with a paw. “The only mice in there are sugar ones.” The boy [Avery] pulls the cat’s ears, tussles with him. “We don’t have any little pets in Master Vaughan’s house.”

I love to find a reference to an animal in a novel. To see how characters react to it can speak volumes for their personality – things they may wish to keep hidden, leak to the surface when there’s a cat about. Do you have a favorite fictional cat? If so, do leave a comment and share the love. 

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Musings on London's Urban Foxes

I live in suburban London. On Tuesday I went to the shops and stopped on the corner of the street to speak to a neighbour. However, our conversation came to an abrupt halt when a pair of juvenile foxes ambled out of the garden to play on the road. Even though I’ve grown used to seeing foxes at night, this brazen disregard for our proximity was surprising.
Foxes are an increasing problem in our cities, because of the easy availability of food. Some misguided people deliberately feed the foxes, whilst another subset of people leave food litter on the streets which encourages not only foxes but also rats.

A History of Urban Foxes in London
Urban foxes are nothing new, but the high numbers are exceptional. But believe it or not, many of these first foxes were deliberately imported into London from Scotland or Wales. This was because in Victorian times there was a ready market for the sale of foxes to supply the hunt.

If a wealthy landowner’s estate was low on fox numbers, which made the foxhunt unsatisfactory, then a trip to London was the answer. Live foxes could be purchased in bulk at Leadenhall Market, transported to your estate and then released.
Victorian Leadenhall Market

A Most Unfortunate Fox
One exceptionally unlucky fox had an extremely traumatic life. He was sold, released, hunted, and resold, not once, not twice, but three times – and only met his death by the hunt on the fourth occasion. The fox was identified by a slit ear and holes in the other ear which marked him out as unique. He was repeatedly bought by the Duke of Grafton, but on learning of this remarkable tale there were protests.

It was argued in the press that the fox had earnt the right to be hunted no more.
“[His continued survival]…ought to have entitled him to the privilege formerly granted to a stag who had been fortunate enough to escape from his royal pursuers.”

Truly Wild Foxes
The population of truly wild foxes in London started to rise with the advent of the railways. The foxes followed the path cleared by the rail tracks and the burgeoning road network, and found rich pickings in the urban environment.

What constantly amazes me is that many people who put food out for foxes are either own dogs or are dog lovers. Of course I’m a huge animal lover and have nothing personal against foxes. However, feeding the urban fox population is a huge mistake because it encourages them to breed.

The Deadly Threat of Lungworm
A larger fox population means a greater reservoir of hosts for the deadly parasite, lungworm. This is a fox parasite, and when it infects dogs can cause death. If lungworm goes untreated the dog develops vague symptoms such as a cough or tummy upset. But far worse than this is that lungworm interferes with blood clotting.

Seemingly healthy dogs can die in the space of 24 hours from a minor cut which refuses to stop bleeding. Or some dogs bleed internally and collapse, much to the distress of their owner (who co-incidentally may have been attracting foxes into the garden with food).

Avoiding Lungworm
If you are a dog owner then don’t encourage foxes. In addition, to protect your pet take the following steps:

·         Your vet can recommend a product licensed to prevent lungworm. Use it regularly
·         Don’t leave toys or water bowls outside. This is because slugs and snails act as an intermediate host and have larvae in their slime. Dogs can become infected by contact with the snail trail
·         De-slug your garden
·         Don’t encourage foxes

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Medieval LOL Cats: Why the Victorians may not have invented cat memes after all

Last week we looked at how the Victorians were way ahead of the internet, and did in fact invent the LOLCat  (The 19th Century Origins of theCat Meme). But is that correct? Delving deeper into the wonderful world of feline imagery I find funny images of cats that predate photography and date back to medieval times. 

The above shows an illuminated letter “O” taken from a German document dating back to the late 12th century. It shows a dog catching a cat catching a mouse. An allegory perhaps on the nature the predator becoming prey.

Whereas in the modern meme it is the cat who has at last assumed their rightful place (comment if you disagree!) as the superior species. It only took from nearly 900 years of meme development for this to truth to be realized. 

This image is rich with comedic irony, as the cat is assailed by his dinner, the mouse. This cat in his castle dates to around 1320 and a Book of Hours, from London, England.

Whereas the modern way is reflect on the fickle nature of felines and how their role protecting crops from vermin has evolved over the centuries (or something like that.)

Then of course we had this marginalia drawing, which went viral on the internet under the title “Cedric is not a cat lover”.  A classic meme if ever there was one.

And of course, cats have never forgotten it. Over the intervening centuries they evolved into the ceiling cat to protect their furry brethren by keeping man under constant surveillance at all times.

 Last but not least there is a profusion of comedic drawings of cats washing their nether regions. Quite why monks skilled in calligraphy and illumination should find this amusing is not known.

 However, the final word goes to our LOLCats who have mastered the art of reflecting ridiculous behavior back to the originator.
[Post inspired by a post on the Medieval Manuscripts blog: lol cats ofthe Middle Ages

Sunday, 2 August 2015

The 19th Century Origins of the Cat Meme

Love cat memes?

Of course you do. After all it’s why the internet was invented. But when do you think the cat meme was first invented?

It may surprise you to know that it was the Victorian’s who came up with the innovation of cute cats pics with a funny caption.

Harry Pointer

Harry Pointer is arguably the earliest master of the cat meme. Englishman Pointer was born in 1822 and an early adopter of kitten photography. He started out taking naturalistic photographs of cats, until in the 1870s he realised there was a niche to be had in pictures of kittens in ludicrous poses. He wasn’t wrong.

Pointer completed around 200 early memes, which he called is “Brighton Cats”. However, he went on to hand the baton another later photographer, Harry Whittier Frees.

Harry Whittier Frees

The term “LOLCats” was coined in 2006, but as this picture shows the first LOLcats (cute pictures of cats with a humours caption) appeared in 1914. Harry Whittier Frees specialized in taking funny photos of cats. An American born in 1873 he made a living selling his images as postcards of live animals dressed in human clothing. Posing living animals was a new idea, because previously similar photographs had been of stuffed animals.

Henriette Ronner-Knip

Born in Amsterdam in 1821, Henriette made her reputation painting cutesy pictures of animals, especially cats. She had a special studio space with a glass front so that she could watch the kittens at play without disturbing them, in order to choose the sweetest poses.
Although not a meme as such, there had a similar effect on the viewer, of making them go “Ahhh” and want to share the image with their friends.

Cornelius Raaphorst

Another person of Dutch origin Cornelius was born in 1875 and maxed out on paintings of cute kittens. Typical titles included “Kittens at Play” and "The Birdcage", the subject of which is self-explanatory.

Louis Wain

Another supremo of LOLCats was Louis Wain. His paintings of anthropomorphic cats were hugely popular. His amazing pictures adorned postcards, greetings cards, calendars and posters and were the late Victorian equivalent of Wallace and Gromit.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Cats of the Tower of London: Sir Henry Wyatt and the Caterer Cat

In this our second post about cats and the Tower of London, we look at Sir Henry Wyatt and the “Caterer” cat.
Sir Henry Wyatt in later life (he was in his 20s when imprisoned)
Note the cat dragging a bird through the window

Born in 1460, Sir Henry Wyatt was a Yorkshireman and attended Eton with Henry Tudor. Unfortunately for Wyatt at the time of our story, it was not Henry Tudor on the throne but Richard III, and the later was distinctly twitchy about anyone who might support the Tudor line of accession.

Richard decided to limit any damage Wyatt might be tempted to do by imprisoning him in the Tower of London. Just to make sure he felt completely unwelcome, Wyatt was tortured, and kept in squalid conditions sleeping on straw on a stone floor and with his clothes in rags. Given very little food, he was also starving.
The Tower of London

“He [Wyatt] was imprisoned often, once in a cold and narrow Tower, where he had neither bed to oie on, nor clothes sufficient to warm him, nor meat for his mouth.”
But at this his most desperate hour an unlikely angel came to him. This angel had four-legs and a furry coat, and was actually a cat.
Earliest known surviving portrait of
Richard III

“A cat came into the dungeon with him, and, as it were, offered herself unto him. He was glad of her, laid her in his bosom to warm him, and by making much of her won her love. After that she would come at diverse time, and when she could get him one, bring him a pigeon.”

The pigeon was then duly cooked by a friendly jailor, providing much needed nourishment. Indeed, such was the cat’s provision for hm that she became nicknamed as “the caterer cat”.

In later years when Wyatt was free, and Henry Tudor on the throne, Wyatt was notorious for having a fondness for cats. Papers belonging to the Wyatt family, written in 1727, remark how:  “Sir Henry always made much of a cat, and was always to be found with a cat beside him.”

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Cats of the Tower of London: Trixie and the Earl of Southampton

Do you love cats and history? Then this post is for you.

Our history concerns the gentleman in the portrait with a fine head of hair. He is no lesser person than a Tudor aristocrat, Henry Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southampton. This dashing looking fellow was notorious for a number of reasons, not least being that he was Shakespeare’s patron and rumoured to have romantic attachments to the great bard.
But our tale concerns his political machinations, and the inspiration behind the portrait. So look closely and what do you see?

A well-dressed nobleman with bows on his cuffs. A wood-panelled chamber. A black and white cat perched on a window ledge. But look again. Did you spot behind Wriothesley’s left shoulder the painting of the Tower of London?

Wriothesley did indeed spend time imprisoned in the Tower. He chose his friends poorly, and fell in with a group of noblemen who in 1601 rebelled against the elderly Queen Elizabeth I.
Queen Elizabeth I

The aim of their insurrection was to force the Queen to name, her cousin’s son, James VI of Scotland, as her heir. They feared if she did not, there would be civil war when the Queen died. However Elizabeth believed naming a successor would number her own days – after all she had ordered the execution of James’ mother, Mary Queen of Scots.

James VI of Scotland,
in younger life

The rebels were led the Earl of Sussex, Sir Robert Devereux, and the Earl of Southampton. But their attempts to rouse London’s inhabitants one Sunday failed miserably. They had fatally underestimated the lethargy thought prosperity induced. They were captured and Essex executed.

However, Wriothesley was left to think on the folly of his actions whilst incarcerated in the Tower. His mother and wife pleaded with Elizabeth for clemency and to not execute him. For her part Elizabeth had lost her appetite for blood and agreed to let him keep his life but languish in the Tower of London at her pleasure.

Wriothesley in 1594

And this is where the cat comes in. Apparently, bereft of company and comfort, Wriothesley was pretty miserable and had an unhappy time of his imprisonment. Legend has it that Wriothesley missed his favourite cat, Trixie. In turn, she missed her master and contrived break into the prison by climbing down the chimney.
“After he [Wriothesley) had been confined there [The Tower of London] a small time, he was surprised by a visit from his favourite cat, which had found its way to the Tower.”
Thomas Pennant, 1793 “Some Account of London”.

However, a less romantic explanation exists as to how Trixie came to be there. It was muttered that Wriothesley’s wife brought the cat along on a visit.

And finally, the portrait is hugely interesting in its own right. It was painted in a rush shortly after the death of Queen Elizabeth I in March, 1603. The painting was completed in just six days and nights, and then rushed to Edinburgh for James to see. It is rich with code and appealed for the new King of England to set him free.

The code hidden within the picture includes:
·          He is wearing black, a sign of mourning for the Earl of Essex (and a hero to James).
·         A pane of glass is smashed, a reminder of the violent nature of Essex’s death.
·         His hair is shown loose around his shoulders, much like a brides – as if inviting James to become his sovereign lord.
·         The exact date of the start of his sentence is recorded on the portrait, but the date of release is left open, as if inviting James to set him free.

The new king of England was mightily impressed:

“The great and honest affection borne to us by the Earl of Southampton…we have written to the Lieutenant of the Tower to deliver him out of prison presently.”  James VI of Scotland, James I of England

Sunday, 12 July 2015

The Double Life William Powell Frith: a New Breed of Victorian Artist

Looking back at the past we judge what we see by what we know now. To the modern eye, the crowd scenes painted by William Powell Frith are delightfully detailed and evocative of a bygone age, but they are anything but controversial.
Self portrait of Frith in his 80s.
However, to the Victorian eye, when Frith’s “new type” of painting was first revealed it was lambasted as “a tissue of vulgarity” and “a piece of vulgar Cockney business unworthy of being represented even in an illustrated paper.” Ouch!

So what was it that caused such a volley of offence? The scenes which the Victorian critics found so disturbing were those showing ordinary people enjoying themselves. The critics disliked the paintings on so many levels: they depicted the hoy-polloy, the pictures could be read like a story, and many believed them in bad taste.

In short, the choice to not paint wealthy people looking their best, but to mirror real life was nothing short of revolutionary – and didn’t meet with instant approval.

Ramsgate Sands

Indeed the picture which triggered this reaction was Frith’s “Ramsgate Sands”. Here he showed a lot of middle class Victorians enjoying a day out on the beach complete with Punch and Judy Show, donkey rides, children paddling, women reading newspapers, and a boy with a mouth organ.

Life at the Seaside, Ramsgate Sands
by Frith
The scene Frith recorded was a relatively new innovation, the day trip – brought about by the new railway allowing ordinary people to escape for a day to a pleasant location. But the big question was: Is ordinary life worthy of art?

Fortunately for Frith, it seems Queen Victoria approved (despite the critics). Perhaps because she remembered Ramsgate from her childhood, she fell in love with the picture and bought it.

So a fashion began for “gazing” or recording the ever more mobile antics of the ordinary Victorian person.

Derby Day

As a leader in his field, Frith decided to tackle a crowd of epic proportions in his painting “Derby Day”. The race on the Epsom Downs had become an unofficial public holiday and Frith was fascinated by the “kaleidoscopic aspect of the crowd”.  Aristocrats, ordinary people, gypsies, pickpockets, prostitutes, tricksters, and politicians all rubbed shoulders at this spectacular event and Frith was determined to capture it. As the Illustrated London News described the event:
“[The upper classes] positively to hob and nob with those palpably of inferior to them in station.”

Or as one French visitor put it,
“[Derby Day was] an outlet for a year of repression.”
Derby Day

Unlike Ramsgate Sands, this picture was a commission, and Frith was encouraged to hire models for his work. His patron had extensive contacts and reputedly asked Frith about the models:
“What is it to be this time? Fair or dark, long nose or short, Roman or aquiline, tall figure or small?”

The picture took 18 months to complete, but was an instant success. When exhibited at the Royal Academy, the crowds had to be held back behind an iron screen. Indeed, Queen Victoria and her husband, Albert, visited. Both praised the work but whereas Victoria was effusive in her enthusiasm, Albert was constructively critical and suggested ways to improve the painting!

The Railway Station

Frith strode forward with his next work which depicted travellers at Paddington Station, London. On the right of the painting two detectives arrest a pickpocket, the former based on two actual policemen of the day who posed for Frith. For this painting Frith used his family (or one family…more of this shortly) as models. The lady with a paisley shawl, seeing off her son, is actually Frith’s wife Isabella.
The Railway Station
Double Life

However, Frith was not all he seemed. A seemingly devoted husband to Isabella and father to their twelve children, what his wife didn’t know was that Frith kept a mistress.
Just a mile or so distant from the family home, Frith had a duplicate family with his mistress Mary Alford, with whom he had seven children. (It is believed Mary was the model for Frith’s painting, “The Rejected Poet”.)
Frith's mistress was the model
The story goes that for years Isabella was ignorant of this arrangement. But one day she spotted her husband posting a letter – and the game was up. How come?

Well the letter was a loving letter from her husband saying how much he was enjoying himself on a short break by the sea. He was rumbled. Society became aware of the double standards of the artist, and whilst a blind eye was turned, his misdemeanours meant he was never officially recognized by one of his biggest fans, Queen Victoria.

When eventually Isabella died, Frith went on to marry Mary, but his lasting legacy was the abundance of paintings which laid open for all to see, the wide and varied nature of Victorian life.