Cats

I looked after a pair of cats for a friend of a friend. They scrabbled around a lot and were generally ready for their Instagram close-up. Having spent a large portion of university writing about cats (specifically, eighteenth-century cats, in eighteenth-century poetry - an approximation of some of those ideas is in this post), it was a strange experience to actually have two around. I'd never actually looked at them in any detail before.

Someone once said to me that the reason cats are hard to draw is because they are simultaneously long and thin and small and round. I think that's about right. They're also always moving.

So I've found my most successful attempts to draw them are those that kind of abandon any hopes at true accuracy:

I was interested to see the truth of many of Christopher Smart's observations on his 'cat Jeoffry' but I actually think the poem that most sums up these cats' attitude (as they sharpen their claws on my favourite chair and cause strange crashing sounds at night) is 'The Retired Cat' by William Cowper, published in 1803, and reproduced below.

Both Smart and Cowper suffered from that strange eighteenth-century malady known as 'religious mania', which today probably sounds like a form of manic depression, with a peculiarly religious bent. I've also been interested to note that - alongside the drawings of 'cat artist' Louis Wain - the Bethlem Royal Hospital Museum's archives have a disproportionate number of cat-mentions in the work and correspondence of many artists who were former service-users. There are even theories about why this might be, but I'm not sure a scientific answer is the right one here.

Strangely enough, despite the popularity of cats today (and particularly the rise of the lolcat - a meme that even has its own exhibition), they were not always so popular. Lots of people know about the idea of the witch's 'familiar', but it's less widely acknowledged that in parts of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe cats were routinely tortured and killed as part of quasi-religious rituals and simmering class resentments or simply for fun. They only really became widely accepted and loved in the eighteenth century, when the middle classes - and intellectuals such as Samuel Johnson - started keeping them as pets. Though, that said, the word 'pet' is not cited in its meaning as 'favourite' until the early nineteenth century.

I'm starting to gather some of these scraps at the moment in preparation for some zine-making when I get a moment.