A cat among the collection

30 July 2014

Take a look through Wellcome Collection’s clowder of cat-related material: from scientific accounts to witchcraft, as well as Henry Wellcome’s very own felines. Russell Dornan explores some of the ways cats are represented in our collection.

 Henry Wellcome's cat, Pip, with one of her kittens.
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Henry Wellcome’s cat, Pip, with one of her kittens.

Henry’s Cats

It seems fitting to start this post with the very cats owned by Sir Henry Wellcome, especially as they had a mansion all to themselves next to Regent’s Park in London. Although he didn’t live with them all the time (preferring to stay in a hotel in Portland Place) he was an attentive owner who recognised his cat’s very particular needs.

As an “archetypal cat owner, with the eccentricities to match”, Wellcome made sure Pip and his other cats were well looked after whether he was there or not. He left detailed instructions and all the relevant phone numbers or addresses their caretaker might need. Read more about Wellcome’s pampered pets in the Wellcome Library’s post.

In the wider collection, cats are represented in many guises and for many different reasons. This post aims to give you a taste of these and to illustrate the variety of ways cats have been portrayed across our collections. We’ll be sharing more of these on Twitter.

 An example of Henry Wellcome’s holiday care instructions for those looking after his cats.
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An example of Henry Wellcome’s holiday care instructions for those looking after his cats.

In the wider collection, cats are represented in many guises and for many different reasons. This post aims to give you a taste of these and to illustrate the variety of ways cats have been portrayed across our collections.

Black Cats

 Paper amulet in the shape of a black cat. England, 1914-1918.
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Paper amulet in the shape of a black cat. England, 1914-1918.

Depending on where you are in the world, a black cat may still inspire a superstitious reaction (both good and bad). In Japan black cats are considered lucky; this is the case in Scotland, where they also symobolise prosperity. In the rest of the UK and some parts of Europe, black cats are deemed lucky if they cross your path from left to right; however, beware if they pass from right to left as this is a terrible omen. Others took it even further, saying that a black cat walking towards or away from you, or entering and then leaving a ship all carried their own meanings.

Some British soldiers used black cat amulets as good luck charms during the First World War as they were considered by some to provide good luck and protection against illness and danger. Many soldiers were based on the Western Front, where conditions in the trenches could seem hopeless. The men had seen friends killed in action, been close to death themselves and felt they had little control over their survival. Spanish soldiers in the late 1800s wore more literal amulets with the inscription ‘Détente, bala!’ – ‘Stop, bullet!’

 This black cat amulet was carried for protection and good luck by a British soldier during the First World War.
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This black cat amulet was said to have been carried for protection and good luck by a British soldier fighting during the First World War.

Witchcraft

 Big black cats howl as naked witches ascend into the night, by T.A. Steinlen.
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Big black cats howl as naked witches ascend into the night, by T.A. Steinlen.

For USA Today, the aptly named feline geneticist, Dr Leslie Lyons, says “I think most superstitions about cats came from people’s fear of them. They’re uncanny animals. They’re aloof, but then they suddenly appear and startle people. They’re also great climbers and can jump three or four or five times their own heights. It’s surprising and maybe frightening for people to see them on the ground and then suddenly up on the wall. Also their eyeshine is interesting and strange – their eyes have a reflective layer that is dramatic in darkness.”

Is their sometimes unsettling presence to blame for cats being seen as or linked to unholy creatures? One theory for the strong historical dislike towards black cats and, subsequently, cats in general is their association with witches and witchcraft. Black cats were thought to be the familiars of witches or cunning-folk, assisting them in their practice of magic and were often killed as a result. It has been said that simply owning a black cat was an offence punishable by assault or even death.

In around 1232, Pope Gregory IX supposedly issued the Vox in Rama condemning a form of devil worshipping. Part of the ritual described included the worship of a diabolical black cat known as the “master”, leading to the vilification of black cats across Western Europe for centuries. Although the Pope may not have directly condemned black cats nor ordered their extermination, claiming they were used in devil-worshipping rituals may have led some people to fear and kill them.

Whatever the reason for their persecution, some argue that the massacre of cats across Europe in the Middle Ages played a big part in the Black Death: with a dramatically reduced population of mousers, rats carrying the infected fleas were able to spread further and faster, rendering the plague even more catastrophic. It is still unclear whether or not the Black Death was spread by fleas via rats or whether it was spread from person to person (or a combination of both). Either way, it’s an interesting thought.

Science

 Illustration of cat terrified at a dog from The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin, 1872.
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Illustration  from The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin, 1872.

The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals is a book by Charles Darwin, published in 1872. In this book, Darwin looks at the animal origins of physical human characteristics when displaying emotions. It is also an important landmark in book illustration. Several of the plates in the book feature cats exhibiting various behavioural responses, such as “terror” or “affection”:

We will now turn to the cat. When this animal is threatened by a dog, it arches its back in a surprising manner, erects its hair, opens its mouth and spits. But we are not here concerned with this well-known attitude, expressive of terror combined with anger…

Let us now look at a cat in a directly opposite frame of mind, whilst feeling affectionate and caressing her master; and mark how opposite is her attitude in every respect. She now stands upright with her back slightly arched, which makes the hair appear rather rough, but it does not bristle; her tail, instead of being extended and lashed from side to side, is held quite stiff and perpendicularly upwards; her ears are erect and pointed; her mouth is closed; and she rubs against her master with a purr instead of a growl.

 Illustration from The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin, 1872.
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Illustration from The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin, 1872.

Cats also featured in the studies of Eadweard James Muybridge (1830 – 1904). Muybridge was an English photographer important for his pioneering work in photographic studies of motion and early work in motion-picture projection.

 A cat running by Eadweard Muybridge, 1887.
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A cat running by Eadweard Muybridge, 1887.

His work contributed substantially to developments in biomechanics and is still used as a reference by artists, animators and students of animal and human movement.

 An animated version f Muybridge's cat photographs.
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An animated version of Muybridge’s cat photographs.

The extensively illustrated and rather large book of osteology, Osteographia, by William Cheselden (1688 – 1752) was published in London in 1733 and features life-like skeletal poses of  animals alongside the illustrations of human bones and skeletons. A landmark in anatomical illustration, Cheselden chose the poses of the skeletons himself and was involved in every stage of its production. Read more about this extraordinary work and the man responsible for it over at The Public Domain Review.

 The skeletal structure of a cat shown in fright and a dog in attack mode. Osteographia by William Cheselden, 1733.
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The skeletal structure of a cat shown in fright and a dog in attack mode. Osteographia by William Cheselden, 1733.

For more awesome cats from museum collections all over the world, follow the conversation on Twitter. And for suggestions of the best cats in art history check out this list and see if you agree.

Russell Dornan is the Web Editor at Wellcome Collection and has a black cat called Kubrick (below).