Thursday, August 19, 2010

G and the Gallé cat

A letter arrived in the post the other day, a real one.  It had my old friend's writing on it.  Funny how when this happens these days, one worries a little, like we used to over a telegram in the olden days.

But this envelope contained no bad news, only a very fine sheet of creamy writing paper, neatly written on in red with perfectly straight, perfectly spaced lines, enclosing the cut-out picture of the yellow cat.

A long time ago, G. and I sold books together, sometimes drank rather a lot of beer together, occasionally fancied the same men, sauntered around Athens and the Peloponnese one Easter holiday smoking too many Camels, eating sardines and elephant beans and drinking ouzo with the juice from bitter oranges we'd scrumped from the roadside in cheap hotel rooms, reading 'The Odyssey' aloud, avoiding snakes and man-eating pigs, and blowing our minds with antiquities.  We haven't seen each other for years but we've kept in touch and he sometimes looks in here.  These days, he's training to be a psychiatric nurse, having got as good as one can get at selling books, looked after fragile and vulnerable people in the community with steadfast compassion and typical black-humoured irony, trained to be a plumber (he boasts that he can change a pressure joint or a colostomy bag with equal sang froid though not necessarily at the same time), become a proper artist-painter with sales and exhibitions to his name, grown a truly amazing moustache and no doubt done much more besides that I don't even know about.  He's utterly my hero and I can say all this because he can't answer back with some mordant, deprecating and probably tasteless retort since he doesn't comment here.

A while ago, in this post, I recalled him showing me a photo he'd found in a Thames and Hudson book catalogue, of a yellow sculpted cat with bold black spots. I immediately wondered aloud how old it was, and he questioned why we always ask that, why we need to pin things down in place and time.  He e-mailed me after reading the post, saying that he had recently found the very same picture, in a drawer in an envelope along with a photo of Eartha Kitt and Nat King Cole having a cuddle.

Despite having covered as much ground as he has, G's not moved house much since those days, and he always did like to preserve his treasures to himself.  Now, he says, he's de-cluttering, and his first gesture towards this end is to pass on the picture of the yellow cat, since I remembered it fondly. As he doesn't have a scanner, perhaps I'd like to post it here, since it had languished in an envelope for 20 years.

It's always odd to see something like this again after it's faded and morphed with time in the memory.  As I remembered it, it was quite different and could have been quite ancient or very modern.  Looking at it again, I could be fairly sure it wasn't very old, but it's still a tricky thing to place, if you don't know it.  On the off-chance I put 'yellow pottery cat' into Google Images, and not very far down it appeared.  It turns out to be the famous Gallé cat.  Originally designed by the French art nouveau artist Emile Gallé , who mostly worked in glass, in the late 19th centuryit was taken up and popularised by the Scottish pottery  Wemyss (pronounced 'Weems') in the 1890s.  They later closed down but were reopened in the 1980s, with variations on the Gallé cat one of their most popular items.

So, curiosity as to its age and provenance is satisfied,  the vaporous stuff of memory and personal mythologising solidifies; something is lost, something is gained.  In fact even without the Google search, I'd have found out what it was, since lovely sister, who knows her way around the decorative arts from the last 200 years from all over the globe like most of us know our way around the local supermarket, knew all about Gallé and Wemyss (including putting me right on the pronunciation) and would have filled me in anyway, once she'd seen it here.  In fact G himself knew all about Wemyss too because there is a good exhibition of their wares at the museum in Newport which he frequents frequently, but there were no yellow cats and he'd not made the connection.

Well, I said to him, good luck with the de-cluttering, though if you have to re-home everything as carefully and lovingly as this it'll be slow going.  Not that I mind.  Just for fun, I found a little unvarnished photo frame I had around - about 50 eurocents from Ikea, I think, stained it with Inktense pencils, made a scrap paper mount and gave yellow puss a home in the blue room, where I shall enjoy it for a while to come.


15 comments:

Zhoen said...

Quite an affable, and slightly goofy looking creature.

I've been writing to my friend's little girl, so that she knows the joys of getting a letter now and then.

marja-leena said...

Such a lovely story of a friendship and a very special cat, thank you Lucy!

Barrett Bonden said...

So I find myself wondering whether he's making a greater contribution to society changing colostomy bags or repairing burst copper pipes. But since my reflections of your world are controlled entirely by me, I comfort myself by imagining he's doing both.

I think this post is valuable (to me at least) in that it tracks the way your mind works. I reckon myself curious about the material world, yet I would never have Googled "yellow pottery cats" and thereby pulled out the skein that is eventually woven into all this and more. Somehow finding its way back into a more direct intersection with my world (the pronunciation of Wemyss - it is Weems isn't it. I must have that right. Oh, I see further down it is. You've got to believe I wrote the above first.) and then lolloping off to Ikea. Some may say it's all nothing, not realising that the ultimate aim is merely to touch a button and eventually come up with something (written) that didn't exist before (Hemingway, receiving his Nobel) and perhaps couldn't have existed before elsewhere since you are it's onlie begetter. This is a shamefully indulgent meandering paragraph, forgivable only by its attempt to match in words the processes you describe in real life.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins said...

his post is so funny, and full of coincidences. You say that G goes to the museum in Newport, and I'm pretty sure therefore that pins down the location to Newport Gwent! I was born in Newport. In fact, my first major public gallery exhibition was there. The museum holds a painting of mine, and also some stage designs from my theatre days. As for the Wemyss ware display in the museum, most of that is in the Iris Fox Collection, and when the collection first arrived in Newport from Edinburgh, I was commissioned to make the drawings of foxes that became the 'logos' for all the Iris Fox Collection information panels. It's a small world!

leslee said...

Ooo, love it!

Fire Bird said...

what a satisfying post - the letter (hurrah for letters!!), the cat, the tracking down its provenance, the old friendship... the frame, the final shot of cat in room - lovely!

Isabelle said...

Ah, decluttering... Not my forte...

Nice cat and I applaud your pronunciation of Wemyss!

HKatz said...

I love the descriptions of your travels in Greece, and the portrait you paint of your friend.

Crafty Green Poet said...

what a lovely story and such a cute cat, it looks lovely in its little blue frame

jmartin said...

Eartha Kitt and Nat King Cole,
elephant beans and sardines:
smug happiness is an art,
even when found in Weems

--------

Love the envelope paired Galle with Eartha, herself always the most pleased of cats.

Lucy said...

Thanks all.

JM - G actually had a moody black cat called Eartha! She was, he said, a black queen...

Sheila said...

Hello! I'm back from your continent! Thought of you while in the CDG for a couple of hours!

I love this story, as I am quite a holder-ont of things, with many ideas of how they may come in handy or give joy to someone at the right time "someday." Of course all the organizing gurus think this is nonsense, but they don't realize there really are people like your friend (and me) who do remember where things are, or at least are willing to hunt for them, and do something with them even years later.

So, thanks for sharing this! Looking foward to seeing you here more, now I'm back.

glenn said...

What a thrilling story, Lucy. You have goaded me into posting for the first time! It got me thinking about that Greek trip again and the memory of Bob & Willa quickly surfaced, the older Aus couple who had already been everywhere that we wished to see. Glenn x

Lucy said...

Hooray hooray hooray!

I'll never forget Bob and Willa either, indeed I had her expanding no-peg portable clothes line about my person for many years, until I used it in lieu of a bungee on the basket rack of my bike, where it finally rotted away... And how you sang lots of Madonna songs including one about B and W to the tune of 'Papa don't preach...'

Oh this is all so Proustian!

Bee said...

I enjoyed everything about this reminiscence.

If only all of one's "treasures" were actually worth re-homing!