Saturday, 16 September 2006

Pope and Wain's Cat Scouts

The co-authors of The Cat Scouts, a scarce children's book written by Jessie Pope and illustrated by Louis Wain, make an interesting partnership.

The Cat Scouts, written in 1912, is somewhat gung-ho, all about the merits of discipline and bravely putting up with hardship (the cat on the left is not about to be murdered, but released after punishment for playing marbles on duty). But Pope's style came into full flow with her WW1 pro-war poems, such as The Call and Who's for the Game? The anti-war poet Wilfred Owen, who knew first-hand that the trenches were far from the jolly game she portrayed, wrote a pointed dedication to her on the first draft of his Dulce et decorum est. The subject of World War 1 poetry is a very large topic; read Where death becomes absurd and life absurder for a good overview. One redeeming feature for Jessie Pope, though, was her recognition of the significance of Robert Tressell's The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and brokering its publication, even if its first edition appeared in her bowdlerised version that trimmed much of the socialist content and turned it into a more conventional "working-class hardship" story.

Wain's work, of which The Cat Scouts is typical, comes across as twee by present standards, though he has a following (see Catland) and he deserves credit for a major role in fostering a positive attitude toward cats in Britain in the late 19th century. Much of the interest nowadays is in the pathological aspects of his art. In later life, he developed schizophrenia, and its manifestation in his work - cats becoming increasingly threatening and psychedelic until they lose all resemblance to cats - is classic in the neurological field. See Cats Painted in the Progression of Psychosis of a Schizophrenic Artist. This Cat Fanciers' Association article, Louis Wain - Cat Artist, has a good short biography and bibliography.

- Ray

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