Cats, superficially cute yet maintaining an air of detachment, have proved fertile source material for storytellers. And, if none has yet entirely captured the cat’s elusive essence, illustrators from Sir John Tenniel to Jim Davis have managed to create hugely popular feline avatars variously combining human and cat characteristics.
1. The Cheshire Cat
Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland (1865) was based upon the grinning beasts depicted in medieval church carvings. Why “Cheshire”? Apparently, Cheshire cheese used to be formed into the shape of a cat, eaten from the tail forwards until only the grin remained. In fact, cats don’t grin as such but they can look as though they’re grinning when they curl their upper lips before sniffing scent marks left by other cats.
In the first few Tom and Jerry cartoons (the original MGM short films ran from 1940 to 1957), Tom was a shaggy animal that walked on all fours like a real cat. However, within a few years Tom had begun to walk on his hind legs and had generally taken on a much more human-like character, albeit saved from total anthropomorphism by the convention that he does not talk (although he is allowed to sing).
The eponymous hero of the Jim Davis comic strip (1978-present), is lazy, greedy, sardonic and pessimistic. His love of pasta and pizza is not typical of real cats (which have little need for carbohydrate) but is just about plausibly accounted for by his being born in the kitchen of an Italian restaurant.
4. Hello Kitty
Hello Kitty (1974-present), created by Yuko Shimizu, is nominally based upon a Japanese bobtail cat, albeit one with almost all feline personality traits expunged. Part of the domestic cat’s appeal can undoubtedly be ascribed to its round face, large forward-facing eyes, snub nose and extensive forehead, all mimicking the facial features of a human baby.
The internet phenomenon of LOLcats (2005-present) takes the opposite approach to Hello Kitty, using pictures of real cats in combination with humorous captions that act as speech-bubbles – “bipedal cat is next stage of evolushun”, “litter tray is empty again … someone is stealing my poop”. The best of these gently poke fun at cats while tacitly acknowledging that they usually have the upper hand.
John Bradshaw’s ‘Cat Sense: The Feline Enigma Revealed’ (Allen Lane, £20) is out now