Cornwall Life looks at the world of Austrian bronze models of cats

PUBLISHED: 14:27 26 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:49 20 February 2013

Playing billiards

Playing billiards

In this March issue, we look at the world of Austrian bronze models of cats

Martin McIlroy, Head of Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood's Works of Art and Collectors' Department, explores the world of Austrian bronze models of cats

Recently I took Delia the family cat to the vet. She had suffered hair loss to her back. "Stress, Mr McIlroy," says the vet. Picking myself up from the floor I began to wonder which bit of 'stress' I didn't understand. Excuse me, but sleeping for eight hours on the bed, followed by breakfast, a morning snooze in the chair, then into the garden to lie for a few hours in the sun, only to saunter back into the kitchen in time for tea, and then, once fed and watered, upstairs for another snooze. Pampered from sun up to sundown, where is the stress in that?

A couple of hundred pounds in vets' bills later, hormones, sprays, tablets and Evening Primrose Oil for animals, Delia remains as lazy and laid back as ever, while her owner ends up stressed! However, this story does rather sum up the British love affair with cats.

In terms of Austrian bronze cats, these miniature models of perfection were produced in Vienna and were decorated with enamel paints, which were applied once the model had been removed from the mould and cooled. The paint used was an enamel paint that is not dissimilar to the paints used by model makers today. They tended to be a dull matt colour rather than a high, shiny-gloss finish, which gave the bronze model a more lifelike appearance.

Austrian cold-painted bronzes have been produced from the late 19th century up until the present day, although the examples illustrated in this article are late-19th- and early-20th-century examples. Possibly the greatest exponent of the art of miniature bronzes was Franz Bergmann (1838-94). His bronze subjects were wide-ranging, from birds, animals, carpet-sellers and American Indians to reptiles.

Bergmann was very quick to seize on popular subjects of the day and model them in bronze. During the Egyptian revival period scantily clad bronze females would rise up from spring-loaded Egyptian sarcophagi. Arab street sellers were modelled seated on carpets with their wares spread out before them. After the American plains' wars with the native Indians and the travelling shows such as Buffalo Bill's tour of Europe, interest in the Sioux, Apache and other Indians became all the rage. It was not long before cold-painted bronze models of Indian braves became available with their highly coloured headdresses as they were perfect subjects for Bergmann.

The cats illustrated in this article come from possibly the best collection of Austrian cold-painted bronze cats I have seen in a long time. The subject matters are as diverse as sport, schooling, Salvation Army, classical music and romanticism. So, why were these cats so popular during the latter part of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th century? I have a few pet theories of my own.

First, the reason they were popular was that cats make good pets and great companions but still retain that air of independence about them. Their antics make you laugh and their longing for attention, especially around feeding time, keeps you amused.

Second, in 1859 Charles Darwin published his theory regarding natural selection. This came as a bombshell to a fairly puritanical Victorian society, the idea that man could have descended from an ape rather than be created in God's likeness. The cartoonists of the time had a field day, often depicting Darwin with the body of an ape. A satirical bronze was produced modelled as an ape seated on Darwin's book studying a human skull. The anthropomorphism of animals had begun. In 1865 Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was published, illustrated by John Tenniel with animals such as the White Rabbit walking on hind legs, dressed in clothes and drinking tea!

The final twist in the tale comes a few years later in 1886 when a relatively unknown artist produces his first drawing for The London Illustrated News of an anthropomorphised cat, the artist's name was Louis Wain. He illustrated numerous books in which cats would parody humans and he is probably best known for his postcards, which are highly sought after by collectors.

I would like to think that perhaps Franz Bergmann was acquainted with Wain's postcards and they provided the catalyst for this extraordinary collection of bronze cats. Certainly some of the poses of the cats reflect Louis Wain's style with a slightly tongue-in-cheek view of human behaviour. ?

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