London cats

From the magnificent art deco Carreras cats to the statue of Samuel Johnson’s cat Hodge, the streets and public buildings of London are home to an array of feline works of art.

Hodge was one of the cats of author Dr Samuel Johnson (1709–1784). A bronze statue of Hodge by Jon Buckley stands in the courtyard outside Dr Johnson’s House (now a museum) at 17 Gough Square. Hodge is depicted sitting atop a copy of Johnson’s famous dictionary with a pair of oyster shells at his feet, and an inscription underneath which reads “a very fine cat indeed”.

In James Boswell’s biography Life of Samuel Johnson, Boswell wrote, “I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat”.

Dr Salter’s cat (or, more accurately, Dr Salter’s daughter’s cat) is part of the three-part sculpture by Diane Corvin, Dr Salter’s Daydream, located in Rotherhithe. Dr Salter is shown sitting on a park bench waving at his daugher, who leans against the Thames wall. Her cat perches atop the wall nearby.

Alfred Salter (1873–1945) was a doctor and philanthropist who embarked on a one-man mission to improve Bermondsey, a poor, neglected neighbourhood in Edwardian London: first as a doctor, and later as the local MP. His only child, Joyce, died of scarlet fever in 1910, aged 8.

The statue of Dick Whittington’s cat can be found surrounded by protective railings at the foot of Highgate Hill. Dick Whitting and his cat is an English folk tale of a poor boy in the 14th century who becomes a wealthy merchant and eventually the Lord Mayor of London because of the ratting abilities of his cat, Tommy.

Dick Whittington (the tale goes) is an orphan who sets off to seek his fortune in London. He is eventually hired by a rich merchant, Mr Fitzwarren, as a scullery boy. Dick acquires a cat to keep his attic room clear of rats and mice.

One day, Mr Fitzwarren asks his servants if they wish to send anything on his ship, leaving on a trade journey to Africa. Having nothing else to send, Dick reluctantly sends his cat. When the ship reaches port, the cat is sold for a handsome sum to the King of Barbary, whose palace is overrun with rats. Dick becomes a rich man. He joins Mr Fitzwarren in his business and marries his daughter Alice, and in time becomes the Lord Mayor of London.

The character of the boy is named after a real-life person, Richard Whittington (c. 1354–1423), but the real Whittington did not come from a poor family and there is no evidence that he had a cat. He was, however, the Lord Mayor of London four times.

There are other artistic depictions of Whittington’s cat nearby. St Michael Paternoster Royal church on College Hill has a stained glass window by John Hayward of Whittington and his cat; the Whittington Hospital grounds are home to a metal sculpture of Whittington’s cat; and at the Holloway Road entrance to Whittington Park stands a large floral topiary cat.

Sam the cat is a playful statue at Queen Anne Square in Bloomsbury Square Gardens, depicting the feline about to jump off a wall onto the ground. It was donated by the local community in memory of nurse Patricia Penn (1914–1992), cat lover and champion of local causes. In the 1970s, Ms Penn campaigned to protect the area from developers and preserve historic buildings.

The Heal’s cat presides over the grand Cecil Brewer staircase at Heal’s department store on Tottenham Court Road.

The bronze cat, by the French sculptor Chassagne, was bought by Sir Ambrose Heal, owner of the store at the time, in 1925. Sir Heal liked the cat so much that he refused all offers to sell it.

Dodie Smith, author of The Hundred and One Dalmations and one-time Heal’s sales assistant, said she came to think of the cat as the presiding deity of Heal’s. Smith writes in her autobiography: “I later let it be known that it could grant wishes and I was to see various members of the staff reaching up, rather furtively, to touch its paws”.

Kaspar is an elegant art deco cat that resides at The Savoy London, a luxury hotel on The Strand. The 100cm (3ft) wooden sculpture is on display in the Front Hall. Whenever private dining parties of 13 are booked, Kaspar is enlisted as the 14th guest at the table. This tradition of providing an extra guest dates back to 1898, when diamond king Woolf Joel hosted a dinner party at the hotel for 13 guests. Joel laughed off warnings about the unlucky number of diners, but within a few weeks, he was shot dead in his office in Johannesburg. After this, management at The Savoy provided a member of staff as the 14th diner for parties of 13, but the move was unpopular with guests. In 1926, the hotel commissioned Basil Ionides to design Kaspar, and the fine feline has played his role as the 14th guest ever since.

The Soho Hotel cat is a 3m (10ft) bronze sculpture by Colombian artist Fernando Botero that dominates the lobby of the upscale hotel, in the heart of London’s entertainment district. The rotund feline demonstrates the artist’s trademark style of corpulent figures. As Botero explains: “An artist is attracted to certain kinds of form without knowing why. You adopt a position intuitively; only later do you attempt to rationalize or even justify it.” The Soho cat is one of several the artist has done: other Botero cat sculptures are in Medellín, Colombia; Singapore; Barcelona; Yerevan, Armenia; and New York.

The Carreras Cigarette Factory cats stand imposingly outside the entrance of this Egyptianate art deco building (now Greater London House) on Hampstead Road in Camden Town. The decoration of the front of the building—constructed 1926–28—was inspired by the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, and the 2.6m (8½ft) bronze cats are stylised versions of the Egyptian god Bastet. The building had been conceived as a “temple” to Bastet, and the architects’ original drawings reveal that it was to be named Bast House, though the name was never used.

The present cats are replicas, as the originals were moved in 1959 when Carreras merged with Rothmans; one cat was transported to Essex to stand at the Basildon works, the other exported to Jamaica to stand outside the Carreras factory in Spanish Town.

The Carreras company logo had been a black cat ever since 1886 after customers at the original tobacconist’s in Wardour Street grew accustomed to the sight of the shop cat curled up in the window. The black cat logo is also a repeated feature across the front of the building.

Richard Coeur de Lion cat is shown on a bas-relief panel on the pedestal of the Richard Coeur de Lion statue in front of the House of Lords. The bronze statue, by Baron Marochetti, was installed in 1860. Marochetti was commissioned by Parliament in 1866 to make the bas-relief panels for the sides of the pedestal. One of the panels depicts Richard on his deathbed; a chair next to the bed shows a cat crouched underneath.

The Smithfield cat can be found on a column in the Priory Church of St Bartholemew the Great in West Smithfield. St Bartholomew’s was founded as an Augustinian priory in 1123. The Smithfield cat is located inside the south transept, just above and across from the bookstall. Much of St. Bartholomew’s interior predates the tradition of corbel heads on arches and pillars, so the cat is an unusual and unexplained ornament.

Four Templar cats decorate a column at Temple Church, located between Fleet Street and the River Thames. The church—built by the Knights Templar as their English headquarters—dates to the 12th century, and although much of the building is restored, the cat heads are original. Each cat head faces one of the four cardinal directions. Between the heads, a shoot springs vertically upwards from a seed.

Street art—like its distant cousin graffiti—is unsanctioned and therefore typically of a more temporary nature than other art. Whilst some councils in the country protect works by established street artists such as Banksy, others take a more intolerant approach and remove all unsanctioned art from their streets.

Ratapult is a street art piece on Whitecross Street in Islington by elusive Bristol artist Banksy. It shows a rat being catapulted into the air by a cat. The rat wears a cape (or has it sprouted wings?) to cleverly elude capture. The inspiration for this piece comes from a black-and-white photo of a cat and rat (though the rat in the photo is cape-less / wingless).

Big cat can be found on Kingsland Road in Hackney. It was created by Spanish street artist SAM3.

What inspires this artist to create street art?

“I am fascinated with art being in the street, you do not have to look for it in a studio, nor in an art gallery; it is in everywhere, in rusty doors, flaking walls, abandoned buildings, magic corners, etc… It is hard for me to paint a white canvas, it’s all white and I must recreate the whole scenario, when I am painting in the street I only need to paint the finishing touches, to position characters in our scene”.

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