Calligraphic Cats

I was watching a mash-up rebroadcast of Antiques Roadshow the other night when a pair of Victorian calligraphic drawings suddenly appeared, including one very charming cat. You can see the appraisal–with appraiser Carl Crossman stating that he and his colleagues have seen plenty of calligraphic deer and eagles but few cats–here. Crossman loved the cat (and valued it at around $3500-$4000) and so do I, so of course I had to find one for myself. Calligraphy has always been a more integral feature of Islamic and East Asian art than that of the West, and I found some nice Asian BIG cats, but domestic calligraphic cats from Europe and America were indeed difficult to track down.

Calligraphic Tigers from Japan (18th century) and Pakistan (19th century), Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

In the west, calligraphic drawings seem to emerge first in the general instructional workbooks of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century tutors and their students. The owl and the pussycat below, which come closest to capturing the charm of my beloved Antiques Roadshow cat, were drawn by Dutch instructor Jacob Labotz for his students to copy and thus perfect their hands. So I started my search through the available instructional texts, starting with the later seventeenth century and working my way up to the later 1800s, when “flourishing” offhand calligraphy, combining writing and drawing, flourished. Mr. Crossman was correct: I found lots of birds (more doves than eagles), and no cats.

“Mary Serjant her book scholler to Eliz Bean Mrs. in the art of writing and arithmetick”, 1688, Beineke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

I expanded my search to include museum collections, antique-shop inventories, and auction archives and could only find more calligraphic birds, in addition to a few horses and donkeys, rabbits, the occasional dragon, and this wonderful elephant, produced in Ohio in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. I would have snapped it right up if it was not already sold.

This elusive elephant inspired me to dig deeper and reminded me of an image that I do have:  a calligraphic deer in the form of a John Derian tray:  perhaps the source could lead me to a similarly drawn cat? Fortunately the Real PenWork. Self-Instructor in Penmanship (Pittsfield, MA: Knowles & Maxim, 1881) is available online:  there I found my deer, along with flourished and fanciful birds of all feathers, fish, horses, and a big cat.

I’m going to keep looking for the perfect Spencerian calligraphic cat drawing, but in the mean time I think I’ll settle for yet another John Derian plate (I’m embarrassed to count how many I have), because this one comes very close to my feverishly-sought-after feline.


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