On 6 May 2007 Professor Sir Christopher Frayling unveiled a blue plaque at the London home of illustrator Edward Ardizzone. He spoke of his “passion for illustrated books”, which he also described as “an under-rated art”. Almost to the day three years later in Bristol he proved with his latest book, Horace Walpole’s Cat, that if it is true that illustration is an under-rated art, it is unjustly so.
Frayling was speaking on 7 May 2010 at an event which was part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas. This intellectual bash had been long overdue for Bristol. Cheltenham has its festival, Bath has its festival, but until 2005 Bristol had nothing comparable. Now we do, and it really is worth having. Topics to come this year include religious faith, art in the First World War, feminism, capitalism and lying (I wonder if the last two go together?), and you can be sure that I’ll be going to as many talks as I can. Though, just to prove how highbrow I really am, my favourite event so far is still Gerry Anderson on Thunderbirds in 2008. I loved Thunderbirds (and Fireball XL5 and Stingray) when I was a child. They seemed to me like the first programmes that actually told children proper stories with goodies, baddies, danger, suspense, and explosions.
But back to Horace Walpole and his cat.
Horace Walpole’s Cat tells the story – or several stories – of Thomas Gray’s Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes. It’s a wonderful exercise in connections, criss-crossing the threads between Johnson, Gray, and Walpole; cats, dogs and fishes; Gothic design, Chinoiserie, and Georgian interiors; society, art and pornography. Frayling pounces now on one connection, now another, with gleeful, gossipy relish, the breathless did you know? of the enthusiast. Did you know that Hodge was a name typically applied to an English countryman? Did you know oysters were cheap in Johnson’s day? Did you know that tabby was originally a kind of silk?
What’s particularly charming about it all is that Frayling also makes connections with the personal. In his prologue he tells us how his own goldfish, leaving Walpole out of his thesis, and a college cat called Hodge are interwoven with the goldfish, Walpole and cats in the book.
Published by Thames & Hudson, it’s a beautifully produced book. The paper is pale cream and carries the aptly chosen illustrations well. The book reproduces illustrations to the poem by Richard Bentley, William Blake and Kathleen Hale, together with Frayling’s commentaries on these wonderful and very different responses to the text. (There’s a brilliantly weird drawing by Bentley, by the way, in the Victoria and Albert’s Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill exhibition which I wrote about last time – A Prospect of Vapourland – get a glimpse of it here - http://lwlimages.library.yale.edu/strawberryhill/oneitem.asp?id=484.)
After the event I asked Sir Christopher Frayling to sign my copy of the book and we chatted about Walpole, as you do. He’s a very entertaining speaker and if you get the chance to see him, take it. Failing that, buy the book and enjoy!
For the Bristol Festival of Ideas see website http://www.ideasfestival.co.uk/
For Sir Christopher Frayling on Edward Ardizzone see http://www.edwardardizzone.org.uk/christopher-frayling