The Perfect Cat by Louis Wain

Apologies if you’ve already seen this post.  I’ve had several messages saying that either the blog hadn’t arrived or that it wouldn’t open properly so I’m reposting it in the hope that we have better luck second time around.

Humans have a love-hate relationship with cats. Personally I find it hard to understand why some people don’t like them. They’re very independent, clean and tidy, generally quiet and  pretty low maintenance,  and of course so instinctively clever that, unlike another favourite four legged friend they don’t need  lots of training.

Of course it’s true, as my cat Rupert often reminds me that while dogs have owners cats have servants but I can forgive that.   Yet as a gardener, like gardeners for centuries,  I recognise that cats in gardens can be a problem if not a nightmare.  Today’s post is going to look at the joys and tribulations of cats and their place in the garden…


The colourful paintings of cats are all by Louis Wain and come from Chris Beetles’ book Louis Wain and His Cats full reference below.

This post  was inspired by two things. One, a quote from  The Beeton Book of Garden Management of 1890 about  “the gardener’s horror”  undoubtedly being a cat or that      “prowling, ubiquitous fiend in fur.”  There is, the writer went on, “no animal that does more damage in gardens than the domestic cat.” It complained of  “the enforced respect that one is compelled to entertain for one’s neighbours cats” while their protection is one of the “mysteries of English social life which no Gardener can well understand.”

The other was a recent on-line Gardens Trust lecture about Edwardian gardens by Caroline Holmes which had as its opening image one of Gertrude Jekyll’s cats.  Jekyll was a cat-o-holic  “They are my dear companions both indoors and out. I love their pretty gentle ways and their extremely interesting individualities… And when I meet with people who say they do not like cats, I always find that they are quite unacquainted with cat-nature, and have certainly never been on purring terms with any one individual pussy, but have a general notion that a cat is necessarily treacherous and ill-tempered and uninteresting.”

Jekyll’s comments reflect a major shift in European attitudes towards cats.  Although cats have been companions to people since the beginning of human civilisation, and were held in high regard in many cultures this was not always the case in Europe, where during the Middle Ages, many people considered cats demonic and associated them with darkness and witchcraft.  In more modern times, especially the Age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th century, cats began to shed their negative reputation and regained popularity as pets. But it wasn’t until the later 19thc that Jekyll’s attitudes began to be more widespread generally.


For others including Charles Baker in  “Animals, Their Nature and Their Uses” (c1860), there was a begrudging halfway house.  “The Cat must be considered as a faithless friend, brought to oppose a still more insidious enemy. The domestic cat is the only animal of the tribe to which it belongs, whose services can more than recompense the trouble of its education.”

 Well I can guarantee that Gertrude would not have  agreed with Baker, and she certainly wouldn’t have approved of what Beeton proposed to do to discourage cats.  He argued that normal preventative measures to prevent them from coming into the garden are useless.  So covering “the top of the wall with bits of broken glass bottles offers no bar to the progress of the adventurous cat. It only compels him to proceed at a slightly lower pace.”  Wooden trellis is no better for, “he or she, as the case may be, for the ladies are no better than the gentleman, will climb up as easily and as cool as a man goes up a ladder”. No –  what is required is something that gets his “tenderest points… his feet.”

“The great object is to make the tops of garden walls as objectionable as possible to the cat as paths and roadways” so  first have the top of the wall slanted:  the more slanted the better  because  “the less easy it will be for the cat to canter along it”.  Next  “his progress may be seriously impeded if not entirely stopped, by bending a piece of wire netting over the top of the wall from end to end.”

Now “what with the slanting top and the wire entanglement,  into which his legs must be plunged for the whole length of every step he takes, advance along the wall thus  protected would be utterly impossible.”

“Another plan which greatly perplexes poor pussy is to .. use the the principle of the bayonet …and make any place that he is accustomed to climb over as uncomfortable as possible, indeed so uncomfortable as to make him reluctant to try the same road again.  Cats will run up a fence, or the side of a glasshouse, or any building that is not too high, and pull themselves on the roof by placing their feet on the edge before hoisting themselves up. To stop this hammer nails through a  strip of wood, then fix it point side up   to  the edge of the roof and  “I will answer for it but the cat will not relish his reception when he next attempts to come this way.”

But there was more: you could make a cat teaser. To do that  collect a lot of old tin cans and “put them on a hot stove to melt the solder then restore them to their pristine condition of flat plates.” Next  “with a sharp pointed tool scratch small triangles on the surface of the tin … and with a chisel shaped punch cut through two sides of each triangle that’s made. The triangles must be turned up on the third side soap to bring the apex of each uppermost. A piece of tin plate this treated and nailed on a flat surface will prove most objects objectionable to the cats.”

Unfortunately none of that would have stopped Rupert climbing our polytunnel – in the reverse of the cat teaser  – claws first & straight through the plastic!

The other big problem with cats was, that even if they were household pets, they used the garden, especially nice newly dug seed-beds or scratchable gravel as  their toilet.  So it wasn’t until the first clay litter was accidentally discovered in 1947 and then the  subsequent mass marketing of cat litter in the 1960s that things started to change. Even now, of course, there are those cats – including Rupert – who prefer outdoor facilities!


But Mr Beeton was outdone in his anti-feline struggle by James Silver and Frank Jarvis who preferred to catch and exterminate annoying cats, admittedly they claimed only wild and stray ones, by constructing a cat trap.  Then when you’ve caught one “the simplest and most humane method of disposing of the trapped cat is to gas it by inserting into the trap a tablespoon full of calcium cyanide or a wart of cotton saturated with 1 ounce of carbon disulphide or 2 ounces of chloroform. A heavy blanket from over the trap will assist in keeping the guest confined… If the cat is not asphyxiated  in the trap it may be taken out by fastening a burlap bag over the front end …and then it is a simple matter to gas or drown it in an ashcan or similar container having a tight lid.”      Charming!

Gertrude would have been horrified by all of these measures. She wrote lovingly about her own cats in Home and Garden, of how some would follow her round the garden and had their own ” special domain” within it.

For example “Pinkieboy has his own jungle, a small thicket close to the house, where there is a young Oak-tree and several Hollies and Junipers, with an undergrowth of Cistus, Bracken, and long grass. He makes regular lairs, that retain their shape, and look like grassy tunnels. The little nieces call them the Pussy-lie-downs. No other cat is ever to be seen in one of Pinkie’s lie-downs; he would resent it as an ill-mannered intrusion, and the others quite understand that it would be considered a breach of etiquette.”

More famous if even more bizarre, was the tea party she held with her young nieces for 4 adult cats and 2 kittens. With the cats sitting on stools around the table and with a full menu of fish and cream, this was “brilliantly successful” , and she even had “some thoughts of sending a report of it to the Morning Post.”

But Jekyll’s love of felines was as nothing compared to many of her contemporaries, especially aristocratic women.

In 1871 Crystal Palace was the scene of the first proper Cat Show. It was organised by Fred Wilson, superintendent of the natural history department there and an artist named  of Harrison Weir. Apparently “only sixty-five animals were shown; but such was the novelty that immediate popularity was attained.”  For more info about this show and plenty of others check out this link on

The Bowling Match

Within months there were cat shows being held all round the country and attracting the patronage of the great and the good.  Weir and a handful of his cat fancying friends, then went on to found the National Cat Club in 1887

BUT once I started researching this I discovered that  the cat world was, to coin a phrase, quite  catty with constant petty disputes especially between breeders and exhibitors, to the point that  in  1898, an aristocratic breeder and cat collector, Lady Marcus Beresford, founded a rival organisation called The Cat Club.

By this time there were also plenty of others all organising cat shows! Check them all out at messy

Her ladyship, born Louisa Ridley, had an interesting and rather chequered personal history, She was apparently known as “Unlimited Loo,” being twice married before marrying Marcus Beresford, the son of the Marquess of Waterford, with whom she had been having a long-term affair and living as his wife. The pair were clearly obsessed with cats and by 1898 it was reported that she “keeps 200 cats at her country place near Windsor… Every afternoon three footmen bring trays of saucers and lay them out on the lawn in front of the house in rows, and every cat feeds in its own special place, without encroaching on its neighbours…”

Her country place was Bishopsgate at Englefield Green on the edge of Windsor Forest and her  catteries there were the largest in England and filled with exotic and rare breeds. “The Bishopsgate cattery may be said to have won a worldwide renown and those who have been privileged to visit the ideal residence of Lady Marcus Beresford will agree with me that it is impossible to give any idea, either by photography or description of the delightful dwelling places set apart for the pussies belonging to this true lover and fancier of the feline race.”

Lady Marcus was “the inseparable companion of the young Countess of Dudley and the Duchesses of St. Albans and Bedford, who are as cat crazy as herself.” If that sounds a bit over the top hold on to your hats because she was interviewed by Miss Frances Simpson for her Book of the Cat, published in 1903 who had visited  Bishopsgate with a photographer.


There was a special cat attendant, seen in the doorway above, who had rooms in the cat cottage, but “where the other apartments are especially fitted up for the cats.”  Better still “each room was fitted with a stove and the temperature throughout the cold weather always kept at a pleasant level.”  There was even a special kitchen for her to prepare their food.

“The garden-house is, indeed an ideal one, being a bower of roses in the summer-time, and in the winter it’s an ivy-clad retreat.” To make sure the cats had enough exercise there  was “a grass run, securely wired in, which is used as a playground for the pussies. In the hot summer weather, this is shaded by the lovely spreading beech trees of Windsor Park.”

“There is no doubt” said Miss Simpson,  “that she is the best friend the cat and the cat fancier ever possessed.”   But there was stiff competition for that title because Bishopsgate was just down the road from Cumberland Lodge, home to H.R.H. Princess Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria.  The princess was President of the National Cat Club and also   bred rare varieties for sale. She   was the only royal whose name figured as an exhibitor in the catalogues of cat shows with her own strain of Persians. She might have been following in her grandmothers footsteps because although she wasn’t a member of either club, Queen Victoria also helped popularise cats, having two pairs of Siamese cats, and a pair of Persian kittens.

from Tatler 24th August 1904. Click here to see the rest of the article 


And there were plenty of other aristocratic ladies who quickly became involved  in the giddy social whirl that surrounded cat breeding and competed for prizes at shows.

The society pages of Tatler, then as now a hotbed of snippets about the  doings of the aristocracy were full of cat-related news. For example  a feature about “notable cat-lover Lady Gertrude Decies, “whose Fulmer Zaida recently won the £1,000 championship at the Crystal Palace.”  She had a cattery in her garden at Birchington, but  there were plenty of others all round the country. Check them out here!

Other aristocratic ladies were also regularly in the news. The Duchess of Bedford was  president of the National Cat Club, and the  proud owner of Siamese cats, with  a cattery at Woburn.   She had many pets , including cats, and regularly organised galas and garden parties  to raise money for animal causes.   Other officers of the Club included the Countess of Warwick, The Viscountess Maitland, The Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava, The Countess of Aberdeen, The Lady Hothfield, Lady Willoughby, Lady Reid,  The Lady Granville Gordon, and Lady Decies

Meanwhile, not to be outdone,  Lady Marcus had a range of other dignitaries associated with her club, including Lily, Duchess of Marlborough, Edith, Duchess of Wellington, Isabella, Countess Howe, Viscountess Maitland, Viscountess Esher, Lady Ridley, Lady de Trafford, The Hon. Mrs. Bampfylde, Lady Lister, and Lady Gooch.


Nor was it just women. There was the unnamed gentleman who ran a cat hotel and hospital at Gordon Cottage in  Hammersmith which catered for stray cats and those whose owners wanted to go on holiday.

The Cat Hotel at Gordon Cottage. Click here to read the rest of the article


But probably the most famous man to be enamoured of felines was the artist Louis Wain who became the chairman of the National Cat Club and left a legacy of cat-related art works, still popular today. Wain’s story is a particularly tragic one  as financial troubles led to him suffering from depression and schizophrenia. He was committed to a pauper’s asylum in 1924 but was aided by well-wishers who raised enough for him to be cared for at Napsbury Hospital where died died in 1939. The hospital is recognisable in the bright colourful pictures I have used in this post.

So cats have gone from being efficient pest controllers living mainly independent lives outdoors to being highly domesticated  in less than 200 years, and they are now the world’s most popular household pet.

And if you still don’t want cats in your garden remember what  Beverley Nichols wrote in Garden Open Tomorrow:“A garden without cats…  can scarcely deserve to be called a garden at all. There is something dead about a lawn which has never been shadowed by the swift silhouette of a dancing kitten, and much of the magic of the heather beds would vanish if, as we bent over them, there was no chance that we might hear a faint rustle among the blossoms, and find ourselves staring into a pair of sleepy, green eyes.

For more on Wain and his work   Louis Wain: The Man Who Drew Cats. by Chris Beetles and Rodney Dale and Louis Wain’s Cats, also by Chris Beetles. Many of Wains works are readily available in a variety of  forms.  For more on The National Cat Club, The Cat Club and the aristocratic ladies involved good places to start are and the History Project on And of course go and see The Electrical Life of Louis Wain starring Benedict Cumberbatch.


About The Gardens Trust

Email - Website -
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.