Tag Archives: cat sculpture

Dick Whittington’s Magical Cat

At the beginning of this week, there was an article in The Guardian about a bequest to the Guildhall Library in London, from an American lady who’d lived in England since the 1950s, Ellery Yale Wood. She died three years ago, and it sounds like her executor is still in awe of her. Only a part of her bequest is about Dick Whittington and his famous cat – the rest is an eclectic mix of Harry Potter, children’s books, cameras, Manchester United … the list goes on.

And the library, of course, was the one founded by Dick Whittington himself, in 1425, so her bequest makes absolute sense. Some of her material will be included in the 900th anniversary celebrations to be held in 2025, and in the meantime, I hope we’ll be able to see some of it very soon.

I was at the Guildhall Library a few years ago, and part of their lovely statue of Dick Whittington and His Cat is my header! Here it is in full:

The wonderful mog is all over London, hospitals and pubs and everything in between is named after him. There are intimate little touches too: on the stairwells over the busy roads that lead to the Museum of London, Dick and his cat are ever present:

There are a few I haven’t photographed yet: the one in Archway, and the inside of the window at St Michael’s (I’ve got a photo of the outside, where you can see the cat, but it looks like it’s in shades of grey: not a very interesting photo!). There are some great pantomime adverts too, it’s one of the favourite panto titles in the UK.

Honouring the two of them isn’t a modern fashion by any means. The Bodleian in Oxford holds an eighteenth century board game, and there’s a seventeenth century woodcut held in Boston that shows them as well.  That’s easier to see than the others, so here it is, with Dick carrying the cat in case the dog goes for it:

Sir Richard Whittington by Thomas Fleet via Wikimedia
Sir Richard Whittington by Thomas Fleet via Wikimedia

What was the real story? Our Dick was Lord Mayor four times, did some good works including rebuilding Newgate Prison, and didn’t have a cat. That’s it!

As an assessment of the myth and it’s magic, I can’t better Nick Green’s analysis in his guest post at the utterly amazing steelthistles blog. But the myth itself is that his childhood was poverty stricken, and he went to London because he’d heard the streets were paved with gold. He lodged in the attic of a wealthy merchant named Fitzwarren, and bought a cat for a penny (earned by shining shoes) because there were so many mice and rats.

Then Dick consigned the cat for sale on a voyage to the Barbary Coast (that is, he gave it away to be sold abroad, for profit). But he was disenchanted with London and started to return home to his poor village. And thats when he hears the voice, “turn again, Whittington”.

All ends well for Dick: he goes back to London, the cat has been sold on the Barbary coast and earned Dick a fortune, whereupon he marries the daughter of the family he works for.

Nobody talks about the cat! She’s been sold abroad (to the Barbary Coast, i.e. Africa, where cats actually come from), and that’s where she seems to have lived for the rest of her days. She’s better off there than with Dick Whittington, if you ask me.

All of this was very, very unexpected to me, and I’m almost relieved to go with the magic of the myth.

After reading the steelthistles blog, by the way, I was so impressed, I’ve just bought the fantasy novel Cat Kin, by Nick Green, so I’m really looking forward to that. Youngsters in London, cats are involved … it’s kinda sorta Dick Whittington! I’ll write a review on here later, but here’s a link for now.

 

Hodge

Imagine the scene … high summer last year … too high, in fact, to do much serious sightseeing, and there’s always serious sightseeing to do in London. But me and my companion gave it up, for an hour or so, and instead we went to pay homage to Hodge The Cat.

Gough Square

What cat blog has not discussed Hodge the Cat? Not many, so now it’s my turn. First off, what a great location: it’s immediately north of Fleet Street, between Fetter Lane and Shoe Lane, but it’s so quiet, you’d never think it was in the middle of one of the most densely populated cities in the western hemisphere. And here’s a view of charming little Gough Square itself, you can see how beautifully Hodge is catered to, even now, hundreds of years after his death. Those wooden chairs that gather around him are really comfortable, too.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESHis oysters are still there for him to claw at (oysters were cheap back then).  And he’s still sitting on Dr Johnson’s book … it’s only when you walk all the way round that you can see his plinth is definitely a book, from this angle it’s very clear.

 

 

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESHe still gets his milk delivered, too – lots of it (okay, so this was sitting on the doorstep of some nearby offices, but it could have been for Hodge).

 

 

 

Hodge was the cat of Dr Samuel Johnson, the famous man of letters (which sums it up, really, today he’d be a web pundit, without a doubt) of the eighteenth century.  Even if you don’t know of him directly, you’ve probably heard of one of his best-known sayings: “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”.   He didn’t write directly about Hodge himself, we only know of the beautiful mog because of Boswell (the Watson to Johnson’s Sherlock, really) who said: ” I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature. I am, unluckily, one of those who have an antipathy to a cat, so that I am uneasy when in the room with one; and I own, I frequently suffered a good deal from the presence of this same Hodge. I recollect him one day scrambling up Dr. Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, “Why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this;” and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, “but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.”

The statue itself was only unveiled in 1997, and apparently the sculptor Jon Bickley made it the right height for adults to hug.  He knew!  He really did.  I do wonder why Hodge was chosen, since Johnson says he liked other cats of his better – but I wonder if he was teasing?  Or embarrassed to be showing such affection?

Whatever the truth, Hodge is A Very Fine Cat indeed, just as the plaque tells us, and in the city which provides all that life can offer, the companionship of cats is an essential part of it all.