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39 posts categorized "Animals"

08 January 2020

Mysterious, Fierce and Fragrant: a 15th-Century Encounter with a Civet

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What would you do if you saw an animal in your garden which you’d never seen before? You might say, ‘It had the head like a cat’s and the body of a dog …’

This was the method used by European travellers and writers who had to describe the new fauna of the Indies.

Amongst the most remarkable things at the Indies of Peru, be the vicugnes, and sheepe of the countrie, as they call them, which are tractable beasts and of great profit. … Some thinke that the vicugnes are those which Aristotle, Plinie and others call capreas, which are wilde goats, and in truth they have some resemblance, for the lightnesse they have in the woods and mountaines, but yet they are no goates, for the vicugnes have no horns … These vicugnes are greater than goates and lesser than calves. Their haire is of the colour of dried roses, somewhat clearer (Purchas’s Pilgrims, cited Phipson 120).

Four animals of the Llama family, described as Guemul, Chillihueque, Vicogne and Huanaco
The vicuña and other goat- or sheep-like creatures, from Compendio della storia geografica, naturale e civile del regno de Chile (Bologna, 1776) 9773.aaa.28

Nuremberg physician Dr Hieronymus Münzer, writing in Latin and calling himself Monetarius, described his travels in Spain in 1494-95, including a visit to the palace of Prince Henry (cousin of King Ferdinand the Catholic) in Valencia.

The prince, more given to leisure and enjoyment [otio et voluptate] than to war, has built by St Francis’s Church a house so proud and noble that there is nothing superior. All the rooms are hung with tapestries with coloured figures and the cloths are embroidered with gold.

And there he saw

a ‘gazella’, an animal larger than a fox; its head, mouth and ears are like an ermine’s; it is grey with whitish and dark patches; it has the tail and feet of a dog: a bad-tempered and fierce beast [animal colericum et furiosum est].

We understand what made it colericum et furiosum when we read on:

It was in a wooden cage, on a chain. Its keeper ordered it to be dragged by the head to the cage door, and pulling its hind legs lifted its tail and showed us its ‘priapus’ (for it was a male), and taking its testes, which were large, turned them inside out as one would turn a money bag.

Woodcut of a civet cat with some lines of Latin text describing the animal
A civet, from Icones animalium quadrupedum ... quæ in Historiæ Animalium Conradi Gesneri, lib. I. et II., describuntur ... Editio tertia ... auctior (Heidelberg, 1606)  1505/137.(1.)

(Münzer’s three travelling companions were merchants, so they knew a thing or two about money bags.)

Thus there appeared two cavities, one on each testicle. Into one of them he introduced a small spoon of smooth glass, and three times extracted a quantity of sweet-smelling humour of civet about two drams [duarum dragmarum] in weight and anointed my hand with it, which continued to smell for a number of days.

The prince also showed them a number of birds, including

A starling of the colour of lasuri [lapis lazuli?] and blue, which he said could imitate various sounds, although I never heard it speak the hour we were there.

Münzer doesn’t say where the Prince got his civet from (they’re natives of Africa and Asia), but exotic animals were often used as diplomatic gifts: that was how Alfonso X of Castile-Leon came by a giraffe, a gift from the Sultan of Egypt (Crónica de Alfonso X, p. 28). So perhaps this was such a gift.

A woodcut of a civet, showing a slimmer and less clumsy beast than above
An alternative version of the civet from Icones animalium quadrupedum 

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Collections

References/Further reading:

Emma Phipson, The Animal-Lore of Shakespeare’s Time (London, 1883) 2252.c.1

Hieronymus  Münzer, Itinerarium hispanicum, ed. Pfandl, Revue Hispanique, 48 (1920 ) PP.4331.aea; Spanish translation by Julio Pujol, Boletín de la Real Academia de la Historia, 84 (1924) Ac.6630.

Crónica de Alfonso X, ed. M. González Jiménez (Murcia, 1999) YA.2001.a.20194

27 February 2019

The Cats’ Newspaper: or the Cat’s Pyjamas?

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A month after our current exhibition Cats on the Page opened, its lead curator passed me a donation of a number of issues of De Poezenkrant, or ‘The Cats’ Newspaper’, that came with a letter from its editor, P. Schreuders, who donated the issues as a ‘Thank You’ for the exhibition. These are currently being catalogued and shelfmarked and will be available on our CATalogue ‘Explore’  soon.

This blog is a ‘Thank You’ in return for Schreuders’ generous donation.

P. Schreuders started De Poezenkrant as a sort of newsletter about his family and the family cat R. van Plezier. (The ‘R’. stands for ‘Red’ as in ‘ginger’.)

Cover of 'De Poezenkrant' February 1977 showing two cats and a fir tree
Cover of De Poezenkrant Nr 21, February 1977, featuring R. van Plezier, P. Schreuders’ ginger cat. (Awaiting shelfmark)

Schreuders would send the newsletter to a select group of friends, but soon the mailing list expanded to a few hundred subscribers. Now it has fans all over the world. It sure looks like it has nine lives!

In 2015 Het Grote Boek van de Poezenkrant (‘The Big Book of The Cats’ Newspaper.’ ) was published to celebrate the 41st year of the newspaper/magazine. Why 41 years and not 40 is all explained in the book. It has the complete issues 1 -49BIS”A” (1974–2004) and is dedicated to R. van Plezier.

Cover of 'Het Grote Boek van De Poezenkrant' showing a stylised picture of a cat
Cover of Piet Schreuders, Het Grote Boek van De Poezenkrant (Amsterdam, 2015) YF.2018.b.808.

The Cat’s Newspaper is a strange little beast. Is it a magazine, or a newspaper? Is it about cats, or literature? How often does it appear and what will the next issue look like?

Mr. P. Schreuders likes to play a game of cat and mouse with his readers. De Poezenkrant is published irregularly and in ever-changing formats – just as a cat would behave. The cover of issue 62 is a case in point. It says ‘2017 à 2018’.

Cover of 'De Poezenkrant' 2017-18 Showing a woman and cat in a railway carriage
Cover of De Poezenkrant, vol. 44, No 62, 2017 à 2018.

De Poezenkrant has a whiff of Facebook about it. Readers from all over the world (global reach) submit their news, photos and stories (posts) for publication in the newspaper. Well known authors write literary articles for the newspaper, which results in a hugely varied content, in Dutch, English and sometimes other languages. This stimulates endless browsing. Add to that the fact that cats are, of course, one of the most popular themes on social media and you have a social media platform.

Several Dutch authors have contributed to De Poezenkrant over time. One of the most prolific contributors, almost from the beginning, was Willem Frederik Hermans who was a big fan of cats. Schreuders read an interview with Hermans in the newspaper NRC of 20 March 1971, in which Hermans only talked about cats, so Schreuders sent Hermans the next issue of De Poezenkrant. This was the beginning of a long collaboration between the two.

Two picture postcards with images of kittens and writing in Dutch on the reverse
Postcards sent by W.F.Hermans to P. Schreuders in May and June 1974, commenting on De Poezenkrant, reproduced in  Het Grote Boek van de Poezenkrant

On Christmas Day 1975 Hermans sent Schreuders a copy of the famous engraving by J.J. Grandville of the characters in the fable ‘Le Chat, la Belette et le petit Lapin’, by Jean de la Fontaine, from an 1838 edition of the Fables.

Hermans included a short note, in which he states that in his opinion the image deserved a place in De Poezenkrant. He points out the clogs on the feet of the rabbit, whom he compares to a Dutch author he doesn’t like very much. He also expresses his disappointment that the carved mouse heads on the chair of the cat Raminagrobis aren’t lion heads. The note was printed in De Poezenkrant nr 24 of July 1978.

 Typed note from W.H. Hermans to P. Schreuders
Detail of the typed note from Hermans to Schreuders, 25 December 1977, reproduced in  Het Grote Boek van de Poezenkrant

A few years later De Poezenkrant Nr 33 featured a full article on the cat Raminagrobis from La Fontaine’s fable, entitled ‘Op zoek naar Raminagrobis’ (‘In search of Raminagrobis’), in which Hermans’ copy of the Grandville engraving was included. The article discusses various editions of the fable, and their illustrations of the unreliable ‘judge’ Raminagrobis. Gustav Doré and Benjamin Rabier are mentioned, but the verdict is clear: ‘By far the most beautiful illustrations are those in the edition by Fournier Ainé (Paris, 1838) and are by Grandville’; this is indeed the edition on display in the Library’s exhibition.

Illustration from the Fables of Lafontaine showing a weasel and rabbit standing before a seated cat
Ms Weasel and the little Rabbit before Raminagrobis, published in Fables de La Fontaine. Édition illustrée par J. J. Grandville. (Paris, 1838) C.152.g.7.

Neither the exhibition, nor De Poezenkrant would be complete without the Cheshire Cat. The cover of issue 30, Autumn 1982 is in the style of 18th-century book title pages, but with modern concepts. The Cheshire Cat sits in the centre of the page, almost like a printer’s device. It is taken from the engraving by Sir John Tenniel made for the ‘dream play for children in two acts’ (London, 1886) adapted by H. Savile Clarke from Lewis Carroll’s Alice books

Cover of 'De Poezenkrant' issue 30 with an image of the smiling Cheshire Cat
Cover of De Poezenkrant Nr 30, reproduced in Het Grote Boek van de Poezenkrant

De Poezenkrant has an online presence, too and several issues are available on ISSUU.

Go and have a look; curiosity won’t kill the cat!

Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections.

The British Library’s free exhibition Cats on the Page and the accompanying events season continue until 17 March.

08 February 2019

A Cat may Counsel a King: the Colourful World of Czech Cats

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Appropriately for a culture famous in later years for its lively animated films, talking animals were not slow to make themselves heard in Czech. Indeed, one of the first cats to find a voice expresses itself in that very language – in Smil Flaška’s Nová rada, written in the late 14th century. In this allegorical poem, the young king (the lion of Bohemia, symbolizing Václav IV), summons a ‘new council’ of birds and beasts to advise him how best to rule. Each of them offers advice appropriate to its natural qualities, including a wily and subtle cat who suggests that every king requires a cunning spy capable of seeing by night and keeping a watchful eye out for the criminals and murderers who perform their nefarious deeds under the cover of darkness – and who could be better suited to this important role than the cat?

 Wood engraving of a cat, dog and ram from Smil Flaška z Pardubic, Nová rada

 Wood engraving by Antonín Strnadl from Smil Flaška z Pardubic, Nová rada, translated into modern Czech by František Vrba (Prague, 1940) Cup.502.aa.12

Although this urbane courtier is a native Bohemian cat, many of the most appealing and characterful examples in the long tradition of Czech illustration were created to accompany works by foreign authors. Among these, one of the most delightful is a very French cat depicted by František Tichý on the frontispiece of a Czech translation of Marcel Aymé’s Les Contes du chat perché, draped over the branch of an apple tree with a languid and knowing air.

Illustration of a cat draped over the branch of a treeIllustration by František Tichý to Marcel Aymé, Co vyprávěla kočka na jabloňové větvi (Prague, 1939) RF.2000.b.66 

A few years earlier, Marie Majerová had published Veselá kniha zviřátek (‘The Jolly Book of Animals’), a collection of children’s stories based on English material. However, the cats depicted by Josef Lada, famous for his illustrations to The Good Soldier Švejk, bear a decidedly Czech stamp in the scene where a small boy named Jenda, in the middle of a dull afternoon when his brother and sister are suffering from colds and disinclined to play, finds himself transported to the magical Kingdom of Cats and becomes its king.

Illustration depicting Jenda as king of the Kingdom of Cats

Jenda becomes king of the Kingdom of Cats. Illustration by Josef Lada’s from Marie Majerová, Veselá kniha zviřátek (Prague, 1933) X.998/3707

Like their English counterparts, where kittens lose their mittens and cats play fiddles and go to London to visit the Queen, Czech nursery-rhymes frequently feature cats in a starring role:

The cat took a husband,
The dog took a bride;
As groomsman our gelding
Limped at his side;
With him, as the bridesmaid,
There walked our old mare;
She gave him a nosegay
And kerchief to wear.

(This translation © Susan Reynolds 2019.)

Lada’s illustration for Karel Jaromír Erben’s Národní říkadla (‘National Nursery-Rhymes’) shows a demure white cat in wreath and veil stepping out on her bridegroom’s arm while the farm animals look on in admiration. In another picture, while their father and mother tuck into bowls of porridge and peas on top of the stove, three kittens sit in a row beneath them wearing their best bows and expressions of marked annoyance at being given nothing to eat. With a few skilful strokes Lada captures their disgruntled air as adroitly as he does the dumb insolence of Švejk and the unmistakably Czech features of the peasants who people his almanacs.

Illustration of cats eating porridge while their kittens look on in annoyanceIllustration by Josef Lada from Karel Jaromír Erben, Národní říkadla (Prague, 1921) LB.31.b.12138.

Dressed in bridal finery, advising the king of beasts or conferring royal honours on their newly-crowned human sovereign, all these cats are creatures of the imagination with very human features. One of the most charming portrayals of a cat in modern Czech literature, however, is taken directly from life. To English-speaking readers Karel Čapek may be most familiar as the creator of robots in his play R.U.R., but he was also a keen gardener and a great animal-lover (like another famous Czech author, Bohumil Hrabal, whose country home was a haven for cats). In his 1932 collection Devatero Pohádek a ještě jedna od Josefa Čapka jako přívažek (‘Nine Fairy Tales: And One More Thrown in for Good Measure’; 5th ed. 1946 at X.990/4608), he too conjures up a world in which cats enjoy adventures equal to any of those previously described.

It is in a later work, though, that Čapek reveals his true understanding of animals – Měl jsem psa a kočku (Prague, 1939; YF.2005.a.31524). Like the earlier book, it was translated into English within a short time by Robert and Marie Weatherall and became popular among British readers because of its dry, understated humour and affectionate depiction of the author’s pets. Like E. T. A. Hoffmann, the creator of Kater Murr, and his wife, Karel and Olga Čapek were childless, and it is tempting to assume that for them too animals represented surrogate children. Yet there is nothing mawkish about the ironic amusement with which Čapek describes the behaviour of his dog and cat, to which he brings the same detached, quizzical approach that he applies to the English, the Spanish or the Dutch in his various travel writings. Whether chronicling the wooing of his pet by caterwauling tomcats or the antics of the resulting litter of kittens, Čapek’s light and laconic style is perfectly partnered by that of his brother Josef’s drawings.

Illustration by Josef Čapek of a cat with its kittens

  Illustrations by Josef Čapek to Karel Čapek, I Had a Dog and a Cat (London, 1940) 7294.de.34

Illustration by Josef Čapek of kittens climbing a person's legs

For all their baffling and sometimes maddening idiosyncrasies, it is clear that for Čapek his feline friends were the cat’s whiskers – and who are we to disagree?

Susan Halstead Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services.

 

29 January 2019

Kater Murr at 200: ‘the cleverest, best and wittiest creature of his kind ever beheld’

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Visitors to the British Library’s current exhibition Cats on the Page may have caught sight of a curious creature who first saw the light in Prussia 200 years ago – Kater Murr, the famous tomcat created by E. T. A. Hoffmann and based on his own much-loved pet, a handsome striped tabby. While British audiences may be more familiar with works by Hoffmann which provided the inspiration for the ballets The Nutcracker and Coppélia and for Offenbach’s opera Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Murr himself is no mean performer – a worthy companion for his master, the gifted but reclusive musician Johannes Kreisler, who inspired Robert Schumann’s Kreisleriana.

Titlepage of Lebens-Ansichten des Katers Murr, 1820

 An early edition of Lebens-Ansichten des Katers Murr  (Berlin, 1820) 12548.bbb.17

Lebens-Ansichten des Katers Murr nebst fragmentarischer Biographie des Kapellmeisters Johannes Kreisler in zufälligen Makulaturblättern was first published in two volumes in 1819-21 (a third volume was promised but never completed). The author claims that Murr taught himself to read by perusing books and papers in the study of his original owner, Master Abraham, and went on to learn calligraphy from the manual compiled by Hilmar Curas. This enabled him to compose such masterpieces as a political treatise entitled Mousetraps and their Influence on the Character and Achievement of the Feline Race, the tragedy Cawdallor, King of Rats, and the ‘philosophical and didactic novel of sentiment’ Thought and Intuition, or, Cat and Dog. By a publisher’s error Murr’s ‘life and opinions’ (not for nothing was Hoffmann influenced by Laurence Sterne) were interleaved with a biography of Kreisler himself and bound into a single volume.

The resulting narrative is an inspired parody of the Bildungsroman, charting Murr’s development from a kitten rescued from drowning by the kind-hearted Master Abraham to a cat of letters and high culture – at least in his own eyes. In the tradition of Wilhelm Meister and his like, Murr encounters a wide variety of characters and falls into some highly dubious company. He joins a cats’ Burschenschaft, a fraternity of the kind so popular among German students in the era of ‘Turnvater’ Jahn (whom Hoffmann defended in court), engaging not only in gymnastics but in rowdier pursuits such as drinking, duelling and caterwauling songs.

Cover of an edition of Kater Murr with an illustration of the cat
Cover of Lebens-Ansichten des Katers Murr in an edition with illustrations by Maximilian Liebenwein (Zurich, 1923) X.958/995. Currently on display in the Cats on the Page exhibition

Naturally, his sentimental education is also chronicled; he has an emotional encounter with his long-lost mother, (though he absent-mindedly devours the fish-head which he had intended to offer her), and enjoys an ‘instructive’ friendship with Ponto, a poodle (irresistibly evoking thoughts of Mephistopheles’s disguise as a black poodle in Goethe’s Faust). He then embarks on a ‘personality-forming’ love affair with the charming Miesmies which comes to an abrupt end when she falls for the blandishments of a war veteran, a swaggering striped tabby cat sporting the Order of the Burnt Bacon for valour in ridding a larder of mice. Murr’s friend, the black cat Muzius, opens his eyes to the betrayal, but Murr comes off worst in the duel which ensues, and escapes with bleeding ears and minus a considerable quantity of fur.

Kater Murr endpapers with illustrations of cats
Endpapers by Maximilian Liebenwein for the 1923 edition of the novel pictured above

In a lively and graceful fashion Hoffmann makes fun of the conventions of polite society and its members’ cultural pretensions; Murr scans the pages of Ovid’s Ars Amatoria for ploys to capture the heart of Miesmies or free himself from his obsession, and invites her to sing. This succeeds: ‘Ah! Am I still upon this earth?’ he cried ‘Am I still sitting on the roof? […] Am I still Murr the cat, and not the man in the moon?’ To his request for a song, Miesmies responds with the aria ‘Di tanti palpiti’ from Rossini’s Tancredi. Murr, a veritable homme des lettres très renommé (as he terms himself), is conversant with all the notable authors of the day, quoting freely from Schiller’s Don Carlos and Die Jungfrau von Orleans, Adalbert von Chamisso’s Peter Schlemihl, and, of course, Ludwig Tieck – not only his translations of Shakespeare but also his play Der gestiefelte Kater (Puss in Boots). This story runs parallel to the unhappy tale of Kreisler’s failure to achieve social success and romantic happiness in a petty principality, recounted on pages torn from the printed biography which Murr uses as blotting-paper and which are inadvertently included in the book.

Not only social but also literary conventions fall victim to Hoffmann’s pen; Murr’s directions about ‘how to become a great cat’ satirize the contemporary trivialization of the ideals of the Bildungsroman, and his Biedermeier-like complacency and liking for comfort contrast sharply with the uncompromising attitude of the tormented genius Kreisler. In a postscript, the ‘editor’ notes that ‘that clever, well-educated, philosophical, poetical tomcat Murr was snatched away by bitter Death […] after a short but severe illness’ without completing his memoirs: ‘A genius maturing early can never prosper long: either he declines, in anticlimax, to become a mediocrity without character or intellect […] or he does not live to a great age’.

Picture of Kater Murr by Christian Friedrich SchielePicture of Kater Murr by Christian Friedrich Schiele from the first edition of the  novel, reproduced on the cover of Anthea Bell’s translation, The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr (London. 1999) H.2001/426.

Whatever the reader may feel about the self-congratulatory comments of the egregious Murr, he can hardly be accused of mediocrity. A near kinsman of Tybalt, the cat of mediaeval beast fables, and Perrault’s White Cat and Puss in Boots, he would become the ancestor of a whole line of talking cats, many of whom feature in the exhibition – Gottfried Keller’s Spiegel das Kätzchen, Christa Wolf’s Max in Neue Lebensansichten eines Katers, and perhaps even Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat. Hoffmann, the ‘editor’, assures the reader that he has met Murr personally and found him ‘a man of mild and amiable manners’, and by her accomplished translation Anthea Bell has enabled English-speaking readers to make the acquaintance of ‘the drollest creature in the world, a true Pulcinella’.

Susan Halstead, Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services.

The British Library’s free exhibition Cats on the Page continues until 17 March 2019, with a series of accompanying events for all ages and interests.

25 January 2019

‘Tom Puss, conjure up a trick!’

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Our ‘Cats on the Page’ exhibition features several items on clever and cunning cats. It is probably fair to say that the most famous amongst them is Puss in Boots. He is represented in a charming pop-up book by Vojtěch Kubašta,  published in London in 1958 (W.E.d.692)

But did you know that the Dutch cherish an equally clever, cunning and cool cat? His name is Tom Poes, created by Marten Toonder (1912-2005)

Portrait of Marten Toonder standing in front of some trees Portrait of Marten Toonder by Kippa, from Was Tom Poes maar hier (Amsterdam, 2006) YF.2008.a.18079.

Toonder may never have guessed that the doodles of various animal figures he made one day out of sheer boredom would lead to 45 years of newspaper cartoons, cartoon strips, books, films, merchandise, illegal copies of his works, as well as to a statue of his little cat hero in the Rotterdam street where he was born.

Drawings showing the first incarnation of Tom Poes The first incarnation of Tom Poes, reproduced in Marten Toonder Heer Bommel en ik (Amstelveen, 2017) YF.2018.a.15780.

The doodles were filed away in a drawer where they lay forgotten, until a Dutch national newspaper, De Telegraaf, asked Toonder to write and illustrate a daily cartoon. Looking for inspiration he found the drawings and decided to give the little cat a try. His wife Phiny Dick, pen name of Afine Kornélie Dik, suggested the name ‘Tom Poes’ and it was she who wrote the first Tom Poes story, Het Geheim der Blauwe Aarde (‘The Secret of the Blue Earth’), which was published on 16 March 1941. However, she soon handed the whole enterprise over to Marten.

Very soon, during his third adventure (‘In the Magic Garden’, 1941) Tom Poes met the brown bear Olie B. Bommel, a ‘gentleman of standing’, for whom ‘money is of no importance’. Tom Poes and he become inseparable and Bommel became more popular than Tom Poes during their many adventures.

Illustration of the brown bear Olie B. Bommel Olie B. Bommel, detail from the cover of a publisher’s flyer for Marten Toonder: Alle verhalen van Olivier B. Bommel and Tom Poes

Bas van der Schot compared the couple to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in Was Tom Poes maar hier (‘If Only Tom Poes Were Here’), a homage to Marten Toonder, published in 2006, a year after his death.

Illustration of Tom Poes and Olie B Bommel as Yin and YangTom Poes and Olie B Bommel as Yin and Yang, by Bas van der Schot, from Was Tom Poes maar hier (Amsterdam, 2006) YF.2008.a.18079.

Olie B. Bommel may be fantastically wealthy, but he is not very clever, nor is he in touch with the ‘real world’. It is Tom Poes who has the brains, always keeps his cool, and gets them out of many a pickle. ‘Conjure a trick, Tom Poes!’ is another phrase that has entered the Dutch vernacular, which almost literally means the same as Baldrick’s ‘I have a cunning plan’.

Cover of Marten Toonder,Verzin toch eens een list

Cover of Marten Toonder,Verzin toch eens een list (Amsterdam, 1973) X.990/6049

De Telegraaf insisted Marten Toonder used the format of the text cartoon by which the text is printed underneath the illustrations, rather than in speech balloons. This format had been invented by the Swiss teacher, author, artist and cartoonist Rodolphe Töpffer, who was famous in the Netherlands for his Histoire de Monsieur Cryptogame, which was actually the very first cartoon to feature in Dutch newspapers. In Calvinist Holland speech balloon strips were frowned upon well into the 20th Century, but text cartoons were just about acceptable.

Example of text strip in the newspaper De Telegraaf. Example of text strip in newspaper De Telegraaf. Reproduced in Marten Toonder, De Andere Wereld (Amsterdam, 1982) X.958/14755.

Toonder perfected Töpffer’s format by treating text and illustrations as equal, so the reader needed both to make sense of the story.

Right from the start Tom Poes was translated into various languages: Swedish and Czech were the first, published in 1941, soon followed by French, Spanish and some British titles. The Loch Ness Monster, published in Tom Puss Comics is one example.

Cover of Tom Puss Comics featuring the different charactersCover of Tom Puss Comics (London, 1949) 12831.g.31.

Over 45 years Toonder wrote 177 Tom Poes / Olie B. Bommel stories. The newspaper strips became known as the ‘Bommel Saga.’

A sign of its popularity is the Toonderstripkatalogus (‘Toonder cartoon catalogue’), meticulously detailing all manifestations of the Tom Poes stories; in newspapers, in weekly magazines, in book form, in translation and in other media, accompanied by a history of Toonder and his creations.

Title page of H. R. Mondria, Bommelbibliografie with an illustration of Tom Poes and Bommel  Title page of H. R. Mondria, Bommelbibliografie. 2nd ed. (‘The Hague, 1974) X:908/80234

In his study of Toonder and the Bommel Saga, Henk R. Mondria discusses whether Tom Poes can be considered to be ‘Literature’. He answers in the affirmative. His arguments are that Olie B. Bommel is a rounded character, Toonder is a language virtuoso and the stories always have deeper layers than just the plot line. Furthermore, literary critics wrote polemics about this burning question, which is a sure sign of the literary value of Tom Poes.

Then, in 2008 the publisher De Bezige Bij embarked on a project of re-issuing all Tom Poes stories in a series Marten Toonder: alle verhalen van Olie B. Bommel en Tom Poes, plus commentary, in 60 volumes. The last volume was published in 2018: Als dat maar goed gaat (‘What could possibly go wrong?’). That settles the discussion once and for all; Tom Poes is well and truly part of the Dutch literary canon!

Front cover of a publisher’s flyer for Marten Toonder: Alle verhalen van Olivier B. Bommel and Tom PoesFront cover of a publisher’s flyer for Marten Toonder: Alle verhalen van Olivier B. Bommel and Tom Poes

Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections

References / Further reading

Wim Hazeu, Marten Toonder: biografie (Amsterdam, 2012) On order.

Marten Toonder, Vroeger was de aarde plat: autobiografie. (Amsterdam, 2010) ZA.9.a.5120

Marten Toonder, Alle Verhalen (Amsterdam, 2008-2018). 60 vols. Individual volumes held at various shelfmarks.

The British Library’s free exhibition Cats on the Page continues until 17 March 2019, with a series of accompanying events for all ages and interests.

14 January 2019

Pan Kotsky

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Pan Kotsky, or ‘Mister Cat’, if we translate his name literally, is the most famous cat in Ukrainian folklore. You will find him in virtually any anthology of traditional children’s tales . What does the story tell us about the Ukrainian way of life?

Opening of the story featuring an illustration of Pan Kotsky
Opening of the story of Pan Kotsky from Boris Hrinchenko, Ukraïnsʹki narodni kazky vybrani dlia diteĭ (Kyiv, 1907) 12209.aaa.47.

The tale tells how a cat was too old to be able to do his job properly – catching mice - and his master decided to dump him in a forest. A dark and horrible future was waiting for the cat: he would slowly die of hunger and loneliness. But all of a sudden, our poor puss was given a second chance. A Lady Fox met him in the wood and became interested.

“What’s your name?" She asked.
“Pan Kotsky.”
“Great! Be my husband!”
“What a kind proposal!” thought the cat and agreed.

And they form a ‘typical’ Ukrainian couple often depicted in Ukrainian folklore: a clever and active woman with a kind and passive man. The Lady Fox cherishes her husband and presents him to the community. The Hare is the first to come to the house, and the Lady Fox announces her new situation: “Beware of my husband, Pan Kotsky, he’s fierce and will easily tear you to pieces!”

And the Hare believes her! The same happens with the other villagers: the Wolf, the Bear and the Boar. All of them are afraid of the new master of the forest.

“Let’s prepare a supper and invite him!” they decide. But nobody has enough courage to invite the fearsome Pan Kotsky personally, and so the Hare has no choice but go to the Lady Fox’s house. She plays her role awesomely well: “I’ll come with him, but hide away! Or he will tear you to pieces!!!” The others have no reason not to believe her, so the Bear climbs a tree, the Wolf hides behind a bush and the Boar finds a hole in the woodpile…

The table is full of tasty food and drink, waiting for the guests to dine. Pan Kotsky is a simple fellow and does not have good manners; he is just a peasant. He climbs on the table and starts to gorge himself on the meat. All of a sudden a mosquito decides to bite the Boar, who moves in his hiding place. Our cat does not forget his instincts and catches what he thinks is a mouse - but it is the Boar’s tail! The Boar roars and terrifies Pan Kotsky who promptly jumps into the tree, where he accidentally disturbs the Bear… What a row! The surprised Bear falls on the Wolf and hurts the Hare, and all of them think they are going to die…

The image of Pan Kotsky as the most dangerous creature in the wood is well established now!

Illustration of Pan Kotsky with the bear and fox by the Ukrainian illustrator Kost Lavro

Pan Kotsky as seen by prominent Ukrainian illustrator Kost Lavro. Reproduced in: 100 kazok (Kyiv, 2005) LF.31.b.6371

 

Illustration of Pan Kotsky and Lady Fox
Pan Kotsky and Lady Fox as seen by J. Hnizdovsky.  Reproduced in Ukrainian folk tales, translated by Marie Halun Bloch (London, 1964). X.990/127

A conwoman and a conman, sly, dishonest and manipulative? Yes! In real life characters like them often succeed beautifully. The Lady Fox had her ‘LOL’ moment, and she and her husband do not seem to be punished in this tale for what they’ve done. They are the winners. It is a story of what the French call ‘être et paraître’, ‘to be and to appear’. A good image is more effective than actual status: fake it until you make it! It’s perfectly understandable in our own era of Instagram domination.

But we can see a different interpretation here, from Pan Kotsky’s point of view. Even if you are old and apparently useless, do not give up! You may still get a second chance. Maintain a positive attitude in life, stay open to opportunities…

The tale of Pan Kotsky inspired the Ukrainian composer Mykola Lysenko to compose an opera of the same title in 1891, and the writer Borys Hrinchenko  to write a version of the tale in 1904. In 1969 an animated film of the story, The Scary Creature, was created by a Kyiv animation studio - and many Ukrainian children are lucky enough to see Pan Kotsky on the stage!

Postal stamp of Ukraine from 2002 depicting Pan Kotsky
Postal stamp of Ukraine from 2002 depicting Pan Kotsky (From Wikimedia Commons

Olena Yashchuk Codet, Artist, Author, Cultural Events Organiser, and creator of Katou-Matou Cat character

18 December 2018

Russian cats 3: Muri in Search of his Kingdom

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Although this cat was created by a Russian author who made him live in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, this is a universal cat, because what can be a more cat-like name than Muri? Muri, invented by Ilia Boiashov is quintessence of cathood. The title of this book, Put’ Muri, can be translated as ‘Muri’s Way’ or ‘Muri’s Path’. Published in 2007, this is not the first book by Ilia Boiashov, but it is the one that brought the author the National Best-seller award.

Put Muri
Ilia Boiashov, Put’ Muri (St Petersburg, 2007) YF.2008.a.8579

The publisher marketed Boiashov as “Russian Kusturica”, probably because of the Yugoslav and cats connections. I would also say that this book will probably appeal to Paulo Coelho’s fans.

The story is a classic example of a philosophical and allegorical travel novel. We first meet Muri as a young imprudent cat from a Bosnian village who thinks that he is a master of the world (or at least the house, the garden, the barn and the storehouses) and the universe revolves around him. As his peaceful life comes to an abrupt end due to the war, the cat starts its quest for “his armchair and warm blanket”. Muri travels around Europe in search for his owners, or rather his servants in his own view, a family of father, mother and two children. On his way Muri, as prescribed by the genre, meets other characters – people, sprites, and animals – who are either on the move too or static. Unlike other travel stories this one is not interested in the characters as such, but in their destiny.

Apart from Muri and the characters that he meets, there are quite a few other stories illustrating different scenarios of personal paths in life. A sheikh makes several attempts to circle around the planet in a small plane; a whale travels around oceans; a Serbian driver is on his way to his dream home. All the stories are framed by an academic argument between two rival groups of scholars divided by their attitude to the philosophical concept of movement and their views whether animals are capable of conscious decisions. While the philosophers debate the question of Super-significance of the True Being, Muri circles around Europe and through Austria, Belarus, Russia and Finland finally reaching Goteborg, where his universe has been preserved by his Bosnian family who are staying in a barrack for refugees in the outskirts of the city. Neither Muri, nor his servants-masters are surprised to see each other. Muri takes his milk as given and goes to sleep planning to explore this new kingdom tomorrow.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

The British Library’s free exhibition Cats on the Page continues until 17 March 2019, with a series of accompanying events for all ages and interests.

07 December 2018

Russian Cats 2: The Hermitage Cats

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I wonder whether you were suitably confused by the first post about Russian cats that didn’t make it to the British Library exhibition Cats on the Page. Now, I want to tell you a story about more Russian cats on the page. No, I’ll start again: they are not all quite Russian, but they live in Russia. And they do not live quite on the page or in libraries, because the heroes of this blog live in museums. To be precise, in one particularly important and beautiful museum – the Hermitage in St Petersburg. In 2009, curators who work in the Hermitage, published a book about the cats in their collection – cats on canvas, cats on lithographs and prints, in other words, all drawn, painted, photographed and sculptured cats.

Image 1
Cover of N. Gol’, M.Khaltunen, Koshkin dom v Ermitazhe (St Petersburg, 2009) YF.2011.a.360.

The book tells how cats were sacred in Ancient Egypt and how cats’ lives were worth more than human lives. Readers would also learn how Ancient Greeks smuggled cats in amphorae and how having a cat as a pet was a sign of wealth in the antiquity.

Image 2
Fragment of a red-figure vase, South of Italy, 4th century B.C., reproduced in Koshkin dom v Ermitazhe
.

In mediaeval and early modern Europe cats were believed to possess demonic power and attributes. But later cats became just naughty. For example, they were portrayed numerously by a Flemish painter Frans Snyders to animate his game still lifes.

Image 3
Detail (above) from Frans Snyders, Cook at a Kitchen Table with Dead Game, 1634-37 (below), reproduced in Koshkin dom v Ermitazhe

Image 3a

Cats in China are believed to be descended from the Sacred Tiger. While the Tiger was busy safeguarding good men by protecting them from evil, he found it very difficult to maintain his responsibility to protect fields from rodents. Once, accidently touched by a mouse, escaping from him, he sneezed a cat out of his nostril and thus – delegated his responsibilities.

Image 4
This Chinese picture from the Hermitage collections (late 19th/early 20th century) shows cats scaring mice who are enjoying a wedding procession. Reproduced in Koshkin dom v Ermitazhe.

Cute Japanese okimono of waving cats bring luck. Legend has it that one poor woman said goodbye to her cat because she could not feed it any more. The loyal cat, instead, gave her a good advice to make a clay figurine of him waving his paw. And so she did! And her figurine sold well. And so were more figurines. So we can conclude: always listen to your cat and do what he says.

Image 5
 Okimono and netsuke from the Hermitage collections. Reproduced in Koshkin dom v Ermitazhe.

The first cats came to the Old Rus’ and Muscovy in the 13th century and for the next 200 years remained an expensive curiosity. Since then cats in Russian folklore have occupied their place next to babies’ cots mewing lullabies, as ‘pioneers’ first entering newly built houses and showing the best and the worst corners, and in the kitchen forecasting the weather: curled-up cats mean frost the next day, while stretching cats predict a nice day ahead and pleasant visitors. And of course, like in many other countries, they are in confrontation with mice. One of the most popular stories presented on cheap prints sold for home decoration in the 19th century, shows a funeral procession where mice are taking their cat neighbour to the cemetery. We are still not quite sure whether the cat is dead or alive. We can treat this story as we feel fair and depending where our sympathies lie: the cat is trying to give the bothersome mice a lesson, pretending to be dead and then suddenly scaring them away (or worse, if you like!), or being naughty and greedy he indeed had fed on mice and died of surfeit (awful!).

Image 6
Russian popular print (lubok) showing mice burying a cat 
(1879), reproduced in Koshkin dom v Ermitazhe.

And, of course, I don’t need to remind you about the pussy-cat who visited the Queen.  Some lucky Russian cats not only visited Tsars and Tsarinas, but were courtiers. The book tells us about the rules how palace cats were catered for. Catherine the Great imposed people’s social structure on cats, who were divided into two uneven categories: general palace cats (business class) and room cats (first class).

Image 7
Dasha Chernova made this picture when she was 8 years old. Reproduced in Koshkin dom v Ermitazhe.

 

Image 8
These well-fed cats eating asparagus in a palace garden came to Russia from France on Princess’s Dagmar of Denmark’s fan and settled down in the Winter Palace among other things that belonged to Maria Feodorovna, Empress of Russia.

The last chapter of this book is devoted to the cats who live in the Hermitage now. If you are to travel to St Petersburg and visit the Hermitage, say hello to Ksiusha, Dasha, Wonderful Prince, Vas’ka, Timur, Tishka, Katya, Lana, Vlada, Lera, Matilda, Liutik and Van Dyck.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

The free exhibition Cats on the Page continues until 17 March 2019, with a series of accompanying events for all ages and interests.

04 December 2018

(Not?) Petrarch’s Cat

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The last home of the poet and humanist Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca, 1304-1374) in the small Northern Italian town of Arquà became a place of literary pilgrimage and tourism early on. Successive 16th-century owners of the house emphasized its connection with Petrarch, among other things by commissioning frescoes depicting his life and works, and welcomed travellers to see the home of the great man.

Travel accounts from the late 16th century onwards describe the house and its various artefacts associated with the poet. Alongside the things one would expect to see in such a place – Petrarch’s chair, the cupboard where he kept his books and so on – the accounts also mention the rather ghoulish exhibit of a mummified cat. In a mock epitaph inscribed beneath its body, the cat claims to have been dearer to the poet even than his beloved muse Laura because, while Laura inspired Petrarch’s verses, the cat ensured their survival by protecting the manuscripts from the gnawing teeth of mice.

Engraving of the memorial to Petrarch's cat with the mummified cat and inscription
The mummified cat, with epitaph, from Stephen Weston, Petrarchiana, or, Additions to the Visit to Vaucluse... 2nd edition (London, 1822) 1048.k.17.(2.)

The French traveller Nicholas Audebert (whose account is preserved in the British Library, Lansdowne MS 720) visited the house in 1575 and was told that the cat had belonged to Petrarch and used to accompany him everywhere. Accounts by Fynes Moryson and Giacomo Filippo Tomasini, published in 1617 and 1623 respectively, also mentioned the feline monument, and in 1635 the first picture of it appeared in a work by Giacomo Filippo Tomasini, Petrarcha Redivivus. Here the poor creature is exposed on a plinth, rather than in a niche with the epitaph beneath as it is more usually shown and described, although Tomasini does reproduce the text of the epitaph.

Engraving of the mummified cat on a plinth
The cat as reproduced in Giacomo Filippo Tomasini, Petrarcha Redivivus, integram poetæ celeberrimi vitam iconibus ære celatis exhibens. Accessit nobilissimae foeminae, Lauræ brevis historia. (Padua, 1635) 137.d.18

The cat continued to capture the attention of visitors. Byron – himself a keeper of many pets – was apparently delighted by it and the German poet August von Platen dedicated an epigram to it. The monument still features in modern tourists’ TripAdvisor reviews. The story of Petrarch’s beloved pet, the faithful companion and comfort of his last years has appealed to generations of cat-lovers. 

Illustration of Petrarch writing by candlelight with a cat at his feet
Petrarch and his cat, engraving by Jacob Wilhalm Mechau from a drawing by Christian Gottlieb Geyser, in vol. 4 of Johann Georg Zimmermann, Ueber die Einsamkeit (Leipzig, 1785)  8409.bbb.8.

However, there is one drawback to this touching tale: we have no evidence that Petrarch ever owned a cat. Although he makes some mention of his dogs in his letters, and a 2-line epitaph to a little dog called Zabot is attributed to him, there is nothing about any cat. This is surely particularly surprising if he owned a cat so dear to him that he chose to commemorate it after its death. Also, both the mummified cat and the inscription are thought to date from the 16th century, long after Petrarch’s death. So how did the association come about?

The most likely theory is that it originates from early depictions of Petrarch in illuminated manuscripts where he is sometimes shown with a small dog (a reference to little Zabot?) and occasionally with a cat. In one manuscript of ca 1420, held in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence (MS Strozzi 172), a cat is even depicted chasing a mouse in Petrarch’s study, the very job described in the epitaph of his supposed pet. But rather than a realistic depiction of Petrarch’s domestic life and pets, it is more likely that both animals are, in the words of J.B. Trapp, “in some sense a replacement for the lion that legend gave to St Jerome for a companion in his studies.”

Image of St Jerome writing with a lion at his feet
St Jerome and his lion, from the Prayer book of Sigismund of Poland, 1524, Add. 15281 f.3v

Nonetheless, it is credible that familiarity with such images might have inspired the 16th-century owners of Petrarch’s house to invent the story of the poet’s beloved cat. It has even been suggested by the author of the Shaping Sense blog that the monument was set up as a kind of mockery of the cult of literary pilgrimage and literary relics that its creators were simultaneously trying to encourage.

Whatever the truth, the cat’s story continues to flourish, especially in the online world. An internet search brings up both sober discussions of the story’s reliability and fanciful tales about the mutual affection of the animal and its master. Various German websites (such as this one) even attribute to Petrarch the words, “Humanity can be roughly divided into two groups: cat lovers and those who are disadvantaged in life”, and you can buy a variety of tote bags, fridge magnets and the like bearing this decidedly un-Petrarchan saying with its undoubtedly false attribution.

Illustration of Petrarch looking at a portrait of Laura while his cat looks onCaught between his two loves? Petrarch gazes at a picture of Laura while his cat looks on. Engraving by Bartolomeo Crivellari from a drawing by Gaetani Gherardo Zompini, from vol. 2 of Le Rime del Petrarca brevemente esposte per L. Castelvetro ... (Venice, 1756) 638.i.7.

Whether or not Petrarch truly owned and loved a cat, we can safely say he would have been astounded by the physical and literary afterlife of such a creature.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

References/further reading:

Fynes Moryson, An Itenerary written by Fynes Moryson, Gent … Containing his ten yeeres travell through the twelve dominions of Germany, Bohmerland, Sweitzerland, Netherland, Denmarke, Poland, Italy, Turky, France, England, Scotland, and Ireland (London, 1617) 214.e.16.

Niccolò Franco and Ercole Giovannini, Li duo Petrarchisti dialoghi di Nicolo Franco, e di Ercole Giovannini … (Venice, 1623) 1161.d.10.

J. B. Trapp, ‘Petrarchan Places. An Essay in the Iconography of Commemoration’ Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 69 (2006), pp. 1-50. Ac.4569/7.

Achim Aurnhammer, Petrarcas Katze: die Geschichte des kätzischen Petrarkismus (Heidelberg, 2005). YF.2007.a.9350

The free British Library exhibition Cats on the Page continues until 17 March 2019, with a series of accompanying events for all ages and interests.

27 November 2018

Some Russian Cats

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These cats didn’t make it in a tough competition to be displayed at and contextualised within the British Library exhibition Cats on the Page, but they still deserve a couple of nice words.

One of the first cats on the page that any Russian child would see, is an arrogant and conceited fashionista cat who did not allow her young orphaned relatives into her nice luxury house, preferring to entertain a company of servile ‘friends’. Guess what? The house is burnt to the ground the next night and, homeless and miserable, she finds that none of her former companions would want to provide shelter and share food with her. Of course, the kind kittens, who have very little food and live in a tiny cold hut, are generous and happy to help. This teaches the cat to be kind and she becomes a responsible and respectful auntie who takes good care of the kittens and they will take care of her when she is old.

Image 1S.Marshak, Koshkin dom (‘The Cat’s House’) Illustrated by Iu. Vasnetsov (Moscow, 1996) YA.1999.b.278

Fairy-tale cats don’t always act as characters. Some of them are enigmatic story-tellers themselves. Like other most popular cat in Russian literature, created by Alexander Pushkin. He lives in the mysterious land called Lukomor’e, walks up and down the chains fixed on a huge oak tree and mews his stories. One of them, a love story of Ruslan and Liudmila, he mewed to Pushkin himself.

Image 2a Endpapers from A. Pushkin, Ruslan and Liudmila. Illustrated by L.Vladimirskii (Moscow, 1989) YA.1997.b.2434

Actually, some cats are really strange. I would say that all cats are strange, but some cats are stranger than others. Because they are actually dogs. Or they are dogs, who are actually cats. This strange phenomenon was discovered and described by Tim Sobakin (‘sobaka’ is ‘a dog’ in Russian, so he might be a little bit of a cat himself), a contemporary children’s author. His character Shar lives with his master Auntie Solveig, somewhere in Glasgow, but actually in Oslo. You see, they all are quite eccentric, so why should the dog/cat or cat/dog be different? So, the story goes that Shar once climbed a tree as a cat, but while climbing, forgot how to get down, because on the tree he felt like dog. Only a passing fisherman could save Shar, because Shar suddenly felt like a hungry cat chasing fish and remembered how to climb down trees.

It all is getting too confusing, isn’t it, especially if you don’t read Russian? But if you do, it is actually more confusing. These cats can confuse anyone. So, I’ll leave you with this for the time being and come back with more confusing stories about cats on the page with lots of confusing Russian words.

Image 3 T. Sobakin. Sobaka, kotoriaia byla koshkoi. Illustrated by A.Grashin (Moscow, 1995)

 Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections