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.


Sunday, 5 July 2015

18th Century Propaganda Linked Old Maids to Cats

I dedicate this post to Charlotte – a loyal follower of “Fall in Love with History”. 
Widget - looking utterly adorable
Regular readers of "Fall in Love with History" (like Charlotte!) will have twigged the two things that interest me most are history and cats; so it’s high time for another post melding both together. As part of my ongoing research into all things feline, let's look at how cats were perceived in the past.

Old Maid

No I’m not talking about myself, (my ambition is to become a mad-cat-lady in later life, rather than an old maid). But when it comes to cat ownership in the 18th century, the image consistently linked to cat ownership is the older single woman, usually portrayed with warts and a burgeoning moustache i.e. the “old maid”.
Old Maids Attend a Cat's Funeral.
Courtesy of Wellcome Images
Face Value?
This is why history is so fascinating, because you can take things at face value: ugly older women kept cats…although this seems rather harsh. But in reality, this stereotype was another example of how the ruling male class kept women in check.

In the 18th century, success to a woman wasn’t about a career, but marrying well, being a good wife, and raising children. Anything that detracted from a woman devoting her life to making men happy was perceived as a threat to the very fabric of society.


Society Crumbles
Where might it end, if women no longer looked to their husband’s for affection, but sought comfort from pets instead? This bowel-churning prospect for the Georgian male was something that needed stamping out – and what better way to do this than ridicule. Or rather, by making a connection between ugliness and pet cats, by linking loneliness and isolation to pet keeping, so that the young and beautiful were not be tempted to follow the same path.
[The eagle eyed will spot the pet clutched to the lady's breast
is a small dog, not a cat.]
Bad Press
At this time cats had a bad press anyway, after previous links to witchcraft and devil worship (largely a result of manipulation of feline reputation by the Catholic Church). Cats were considered a pet of the poor, rather than a luxury. Indeed, their very character was portrayed as treacherous, self-interested, and vicious – not something any young lady in search of a husband wanted to be linked with.  The subliminal message was that spending your affection unwisely, i.e. not dedicated to men, led to a lonely, unfulfilled life.

All in all, if you were an older woman in the 18th century who loved cats, society was going to take the mickey. Not enough time had passed from cat’s being vilified as the devil’s familiar, and the prevailing view that woman were there to serve men could not cope with a women spending her affection elsewhere.

Just as well I’m a 21st century gal ….

Sunday, 28 June 2015

"My First Experience of Hades": The London Underground in Hot Weather

June gives way to July, and the weather forecast is for hot weather. This is welcome news for it seems here in the UK we are to get summer weather for a change. However, my husband and son are less keen on the heat because they have a commute into London.
The Underground was devised as an alternative to the busy streets.

I have every sympathy with them. Last week, I found a short trip on the Northern Line to be airless, humid and uncomfortable –was enough to make me grateful to get back up into the fresh air. And it seems some things never change is the experience of one Victorian gentleman is anything to judge from.

An excerpt from the diary of R D Blumenfeld, writing in 1887, describes his trip on the underground in terms of a visit to hell.
“I had my first experience of Hades today…I got into the Underground railway at Baker Street …I wanted to go to Moorgate Street in the City.”

So far so good, but then the unaccustomed heat struck.
“It was very warm – for London at least.” 

Now our Victorian passenger discovers an additional discomfort.

“The compartment in which I sat was filled with passengers who were smoking pipes, as is the British habit, and as the smoke and sulphur from the engine fill the tunnel, all the windows have to be closed. The atmosphere was a mixture of sulphur, coal dust and foul fumes form the oil lamp above. So that by the time we reached Moorgate Street I was near dead of asphyxiation and heat.”

Hot as the modern underground is, at least smoking is not permitted and the tunnels are not filled with smoke and soot from the steam engines. Perhaps Mr Blumenfeld would be surprised to learn the Underground has survived to the modern day, given his prediction based on his experience.

“I should think these Underground railways must soon be discontinued for they are a menace to health.”


Half right then! 

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Did Louis Wain's Cat make him Mentally Ill?

Louis' Wain
Cat artist
In the 1900’s the work of artist Louis Wain was as popular as ‘Wallace and Gromit’ are today. Louis drew cat caricatures; anthropomorphosised creatures with huge staring eyes.
“Louis Wain invented a cat style, a cat society and a whole cat world. English cats that do not look like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves.” 
H G Wells.
Demand for his work was insatiable; guaranteed to sell any calendar, card or magazine in which it appeared. Cat lover Louis doted on his pets and it was his favourite black and white moggie Peter that inspired his style. However Louis’ success dwindled with a slide into mental illness and the artist ended his days penniless in Bedlam.
A timeline of Louis' work
Showing the increasingly disturbed nature of his art
as he descended into mental illness
In the 1950’s scientists postulated that Louis Wain had suffered from brain cysts caused by a toxoplasmosis infection and pointed the finger at the very cats that were his inspiration.
Toxoplasma is a tiny parasite, in fact it’s made up of a single cell. Cat owners, especially pregnant women should be aware of the parasite, because it can cause birth abnormalities in the unborn child (through contact with infected cat feces).

However the link between toxoplasmosis (infection with toxoplasma) with brain symptoms has largely been overlooked, but Louis’ history raises the question of whether indeed his is a case history of brain infection with Toxoplasma.
Louis Wain at his drawing table - with cat - in 1890
Toxoplasmosis and mental illness
Louis illness manifested itself as erratic behaviour increasingly violent paranoia and agitation. Where as once he had been a gentle, caring man who had nursed his sick wife, he became suspicious of everything and everyone around him; even shouting at a flickering cinema screen for stealing the electricity from his brain.

            Studies in the 1990’s (Flegar et al, Lindova et al.) point to chronic infection in people causing subtle behavioural changes, such as slower reaction times and having more car accidents. Holliman’s study of rodents found infected mice had changed behaviour. They had higher dopamine levels; a neurotransmitter associated with novelty seeking and neurotic behaviour. This disinhibited their fear of cat odour and they behaved erractically. Post mortem analysis showed the amgydala to be the most likely site of toxoplasmid cysts, this part of the brain governs social behaviour and emotion, the implication being that brain cysts in humans could indeed present as mental instability and erratic behaviour.

A 2008 study in America surveyed schizophrenic patients and found them to be 25% more likely to test seropositive for toxoplasma than the general population. The significance of this data remains unclear and is currently under further investigation.

Perhaps it is too simple to suggest that toxoplasmid cysts were the sole cause of Louis’ mental illness, but more likely a contributing factor. How likely is it then that his beloved cats were the source of infection?


Did ‘Peter the cat’ infect Louis Wain?
            To find an answer lets consider contemporary studies into cat ownership and incidence of toxoplasma infection.

            Two American studies looking at cat-owning pregnant women and HIV patients, found no statistical link between cat ownership and positive toxoplasma serology.

Zoonosis occurs under certain conditions; namely ingesting sporozoites that have had 24 hours to develop from oocysts in cat faeces. Stroking the cat is an unlikely source of infection since most are too fastidious to let faecal contamination persist for long. In addition cats only shed oocysts for a limited time after eating their first infected mouse, and repeat shedding is rare, even in immunocompromised cats.  Theoretically there is just a small window of a few weeks after the cat eats his first diseased rodent when his master is at risk from sporozoites in that animal’s faeces.

So whilst not wishing to belittle the very real danger of infection from a cat, especially to pregnant women, the risk from a pet maybe lower than perceived and sporozoites in contaminated soil is a far greater source of possible infection. (Obviously no risk is worth taking for a foetus in the womb and so advice must always remain that pregnant women do not empty litter trays and wear gloves for gardening.)

Other sources of Infection.
Apart from cat faeces other sources of infections are contaminated soil and water, and raw or undercooked meat.

A Canadian study (Phillips, 1998) showed an alarming 25% of fresh commercial pork and lamb contained microscopic toxoplasmid cysts. If this was the case in the 20th century with modern meat inspection, how much higher the infection rate in Victorian / Edwardian times? It must have been common for cattle and sheep grazing infected pasture to ingest oocysts, form bradyzoites in their muscle and the contaminated meat enter the human food chain.

Could it be that Louis Wain’s wife Emily, who he nursed faithfully through her final illness, served her husband undercooked meat? Could she unwittingly have left her husband a legacy that triggered his descent into mental illness? Was ‘Peter the cat’ innocent after all?

“To him [Peter] properly belongs the foundation of my career.” Louis Wain.

What became of Louis Wain?
            Unkempt and confused Louis was found wandering the streets of London. An admirer of his work, Mrs Chesterton, started a campaign to raise money and save the once popular artist from destitution. Two hundred and thirty eight pounds was raised by the public, which was sufficient to buy Louis a bed at the ‘Bethlem Royal Hospital,’ also known as ‘Bedlam,’ (after the noise made by the in-patients.) so he could end his days with dignity.

            As an aside it was here a century earlier, that one Doctor William Battie made his name. Unlike his contempories Dc Battie believed mental illness could be treated and it is from the good doctor that the slang term ‘batty’ (for a mad idea) was derived.

“The whole of Great Britain and Ireland have combined to help us… relieve the famous cat artist.”
The Daily Graphic.