Sunday, 28 February 2016
Cats as People in the 19th Century
In earlier posts we learnt that in the 19th century dogs’ embodied masculine superiority and cats’ feminine promiscuity. The Victorian’s liked people to be neatly pigeon-holed within society and kept nicely in their place. This even extended to the images in popular culture which reinforced the message that people were happier when they accepted their proper rank. To emphasize this message, there was a fashion for vignettes of animals depicted as people, looking civilized, content, and happy because they had decided to conform to human standards.
A typical example is the work of Walter Potter, an hotelier by day and a taxidermist by night (he ran a hotel in Sussex and used his wages to finance his hobby.) He started small by stuffing birds and worked his way up to large-scale scenes depicting animals engaged in human activities.
His tableaus may seem bizarre (and even repulsive) to modern tastes but at the height of his popularity Potter’s scenes attracted 30,000 visits a year. It was the human-like qualities of the stuffed animals which made them so popular, of which perhaps one of his best known exhibits was “The Kitten’s Wedding”. (Sold in 2003 for £21,150!)
In the modern age it is entirely distasteful to think of kittens being killed to provide corpses to put on display (but before getting too irate, don’t forget the numbers of pets which are killed each year because shelters can't house them. OK we don’t display their corpses, but modern society isn’t above killing for convenience.)
It is perhaps the execution (taxidermy) we find unpleasant, rather than the images themselves. Think of Beatrix Potter (no relation to Walter), Louis Wain, and Aesop’s Fables and animals acting out human adventures becomes more engaging than repulsive.
What we also have to remember is that in the 19th century cats had a more conflicted popular image than today. Memories were long and cats were still associated with witchcraft and devilment, and thought of as dangerously independent (at a time when obedience was prized) and sexually promiscuous (scandalous and totally unacceptable). Cats were linked to behaviors which were frowned upon, such as being independent and promiscuous, and therefore seeing them ‘civilized’ in humanized vignettes made the average Victorian feel self-righteous, masterful, and triumphant.
The message in scenes such as ‘The Kittens’ Wedding” was seen and understand by the Victorians. It rather amused them to see cats standing upright like people and engaged in ‘polite society’ activities such as being guests at a wedding.
By having the kittens participate in such a human activity, it emphasized the difference between human civilized society and the behavior of cats. This amused the Victorians and made them feel superior to see animals successfully integrated (or redeemed from their base nature) in this way. Clearly, if you wanted to be accepted in the 19th century this meant conforming – no quarter given to individuality and instinct, especially if you were a cat.