Printer Friendly

Purr'd applause; Richard Edmonds discovers a fitting tribute to Walpole's friends, acquaintances and his cat.

Byline: Richard Edmonds

Horace Walpole's Cat, by Christopher Frayling (Thames & Hudson: 14.95) Paris Patisseries, by Pierre Herme (Flammarion: 24.95) Horace Walpole (18th century dilettante, writer, connoisseur and reputedly the wealthiest man in England) also had a favourite cat, which he groomed and worshipped daily at Strawberry Hill, his house near Twick-k enham.

Sadly, in February 1747, Selima fell into a large Chinese porcelain goldfish bowl while trying to hook some lunch.

And thereby hangs a tale. Selima was drowned - Walpole was inconsolable (although he apparently loved dogs quite as much as cats) and it was left to his close friend, the poet Thomas Gray - of Elegy in a Country Churchf -h yard fame - to write a poem in order to d console him.

Not that it was much of a consolation, as Christopher Frayling points out: "Its tone was more that of gentle mockery, exaggerating the accident into a tragedy with a moral lesson: 'All that glisters is not gold'."

Gray also wanted to know from Walpole in his letter of condolence (the two were intimate friends who had been on the Grand Tour together) what name Walpole used to distinguish the cat from other cats in the house: was it Zara or Selima - or was Selima also known as Fatima? Such nonsense between these affected men, who were very much part of Walpole's circle, could go on for days, months or even years. Walpole's life could well have been underlined by Oscar Wilde's famous bon mot: "Treat light things seriously and serious things lightly."

Strawberry Hill, the Gothic folly which Walpole built with such love, clearly went into mourning after Selima was fished out and Gray's poem followed.

He called it Ode on the Death of a Fat -a vourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Gold-d fishes and it gradually became one of the s best-loved poems in the English literary canon, whilst conferring immortality upon the unfortunate Selima (or Zara or Fatima - take your choice).

But, with admirable literary dexterity, Frayling has turned out one of the most elegant books I've reviewed in a long time. It is beautiful to handle, it is unbelievably modest in its price and clearly his research is impeccable.

Obviously, Walpole i the central figure, bu Frayling has thrown h net wide and his researches brin in Thomas Gray (sensitive, reti cent and often in collision with the breezier Walpole), Richard Bent-t ley (a gifted dilettante, childish, clever and a successful book illustrator, whose rococo designs for the Selima ode are shown here in all their beauty) and even William Blake comes into this book with some beautiful colour illustrations.

Blake admitted many years later that he was seduced by Thomas Gray's Ode and, half a century later - long after the accid - produced a set of watercolours for that other wizard, the artist John Flaxman, who gave them to his wife, Nancy, as a present.

ake dispenses with the celain tub and chooses his setting a watery oreline where Selima (or tima or Zara) battles unuccessfully with aroured fish, mostly reembling devils with scaly atwings. Blake was nothing if not in a trance when he was making his drawings.

Clearly, it doesn't end there. The friendship between the rather fawning but clearly affable James Boswell and the alarming (and pungent in a physical sense) Dr Johnson needs no outlining here.

At one point, Boswell was in Switzerland on an improvised Grand Tour doing a bit of hero worship at the feet of the French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Rousseau had written a book on the origins of social inequality and the illustrated title page showed Liberty personified as a woman with her personal cat sleeping beside her.

Twenty years on, Boswell would have known of Walpole's cat and Gray's Ode and that was the subject of a talk with Rousseau, who said you could tell a great deal about people from their attitude to cats. Boswell was not convinced. He had no fondness for cats. Yet Dr Johnson, his mentor, thought otherwise, particularly in his book, Hodge and His Cats, which contain dozens of quotes from Shakespeare and others on the subject.

However, as it turned out, Selima became a very celebrated pussy after he Ode.

Christopher Smart, another 18th entury poet who later went totally mad, also praised cats in a rambling oem, Jubilate Agno, which eulogised mart's own special cat, Jeoffrey, not-t g that "every house is incomplete thout one".

homas Gray thought his Ode was e best thing for all time and he did not admire Smart. Amongst the smart set who hung around Strawberry Hill and Walpole, Christopher Smart's Jubilate was seen as vaguely silly.

But the thing goes on and on and on like a shaggy dog story. Benjamin Britten ignored Selima and found inspiration in Jeoffrey, setting Smart's eight "cat" verses into his musical piece, Rejoice in the Lamb.

Incidentally, I should imagine Walpole would have doted on Flammarion's Paris Patisseries. Walpole went to Paris frequently to buy French porcelain and doubtless would have collapsed with delight at Laurent Duchene or Les Deux Abeilles in the Rue de l'Universite amongst others given in the book, where innovative gateaux quickly take you up to a gourmet paradise.


Horace Walpole's cat, like most felines, have a fascination with fish. Below: Cakes at Laurent Duchene in Paris
COPYRIGHT 2010 Birmingham Post & Mail Ltd
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Mar 4, 2010
Previous Article:In harmony; Peter Bacon gets down to bass-ics with the organisers of a new jazz festival coming to Birmingham.
Next Article:Day to celebrate joy of reading; Children's Books.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters