Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Mummified Cats

While reading Jon Lys Turner’s The Visitors’ Book (London: Constable, 2016), a biography of the artists Richard Chopping (designer of the striking early trompe l’oeil covers of Ian Fleming’s James Bond thrillers) and Denis Wirth-Miller, I came across a ‘mummified cat’ tale.  The artists lived as a gay couple for sixty years in an attractive eighteenth-century wooden building known as the Storehouse (formerly a public house and later a sail store) next to the river Colne in Wivenhoe, Essex.

At some point in the early 1960s: ‘When a group of builders dismantled part of the roof of the Storehouse in order to convert an attic space into a new bedroom, they discovered the body of a blackened but otherwise preserved cat.  One of the contractors recalled a story his grandfather had told him: when buildings were topped out in eighteenth-century Wivenhoe, a live cat would be released into the roof before it was sealed – it was believed that the trapped animal’s spirit would ward off fire.

Wirth-Miller examined the mummified cat and said, “It’s rather beautiful – like a feline Modigliani.”  Chopping reported that he was warier of its supposed supernatural powers.’ (The Visitors’ Book p.260)

Wirth-Miller and Chopping were good friends with fellow artist Francis Bacon and in November 1963, after an afternoon’s heavy drinking, at the famous Colony Room in Dean Street, Wirth-Miller, Bacon and his then boyfriend George Dyer, decided to take a taxi back to Wivenhoe to continue the party.  Following a late night dinner they returned to the Storehouse very drunk.  A while later Bacon came back from the toilet saying that the house was on fire.  The storeroom at the rear of the house used to store ‘canvases, paperwork, old books and junk’ was ablaze.  The fire engines that were summoned used water from the river to dowse the flames, but the storeroom and kitchen had been badly damaged. 

The cause of the fire was never determined, although it was suspected that George Dyer had drunkenly flicked a cigarette butt out of the toilet window situated above the storeroom. 

Of course, the way in which the narrative unfolds implies that the earlier disturbance of the desiccated feline may have been in some way responsible for the blaze.

While some valuable works of art were lost in the fire, the artists were fortunate in securing the services of a young and then-unknown Terence Conran (he taught at the Royal College of Art, with Chopping) who agreed to design a chic new kitchen in exchange for a Wirth-Miller landscape. 

‘One object that did survive was the mummified cat, which would end up in a drawer in a guest bedroom.  Wirth-Miller, who was fond of a practical joke, was amused by the idea of visitors discovering the artefact as they unpacked.’ (p.263)

Mummified cats are also the subject of a chapter in my book The Folklore of London.  See here and here.

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