Museums can appear rather humourless places. Full of beautiful and fascinating objects, certainly, but how often do they make us laugh, or even smile? Well, the two pottery or ‘faience’ cats that welcome visitors into the astonishing Ceramic Galleries at The Bowes Museum give me a smile every time. Small for adult cats, but almost life-sized, they cock their heads as if to say ‘Who knows what you’re going to find in here!’
They are both tin-glazed in bright yellow, with blue linings to their ears and preposterous decorations of flowers, circles – and wait a minute, are those a few feathers, perhaps, on their flanks? Are they grinning because they’ve just dismembered a pigeon? With their faces at slightly different angles, they don’t exactly match: one cat’s glittering green eyes look winningly innocent, while the other’s interrogative gaze is just a little defiant.
These entertaining cats look intensely contemporary, yet they were made well over a hundred years ago by Emile Gallé, a key founder of the Ecole de Nancy, which was central to the development of the French Art Nouveau movement. Gallé (1846-1904) was a personal friend of Joséphine Bowes and elsewhere in the Museum you will find a very delicate, engraved glass cabaret or dressing-table set he made for her. Prodigiously gifted, he worked in many creative fields, but eventually focused most strongly on decorative glass, and today his work is extremely collectable and very highly valued.
Here, though, Gallé is enjoying a moment of feline fun, and in my experience you don’t need to be a ‘cat person’ to laugh at, and love, this charmingly cheeky pair.
Blog by: Caroline Peacock, Trustee of The Bowes Museum and High Sheriff of Durham 2017-18