A cat that fell into a goldfish bowl in 1747 and subsequently drowned from her pyrrhic hunt inspired an unlikely series of artworks in the 18th century. Selima, as the unfortunate feline was called, was the companion of art historian and author Horace Walpole, and like any eccentric aristocrat worth his earldom, he asked friend and poet Thomas Gray to pen a tribute. Gray went beyond a simple epitaph and scribed a whole mock elegy for the cat, called “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes.”
’Twas on a lofty vase’s side,
Where China’s gayest art had dyed
The azure flowers that blow;
Demurest of the tabby kind,
The pensive Selima, reclined,
Gazed on the lake below.
Alas, that gaze, as with poor Narcissus, would be her downfall. Gray continues with classical pomp, describing the “hapless nymph” entranced by the “angel forms.” Dipping “a whisker first and then a claw, / With many an ardent wish, / She stretched in vain to reach the prize,” until she “tumbled headlong in.” Selima quickly goes through all nine lives, “eight times emerging from the flood,” before her demise, on which Gray offers this moralistic proverb:
From hence, ye beauties, undeceived,
Know, one false step is ne’er retrieved,
And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wandering eyes
And heedless hearts, is lawful prize;
Nor all that glisters, gold.
Walpole apparently wasn’t offended by the satirical loftiness of the poem, and had the first stanza engraved on the pedestal for the fatal porcelain tub, which remains on view in his Strawberry Hill House in London. But Selima’s role as posthumous muse didn’t stop there. Stephen Elmer painted her perched on the bowl, although he changed Gray’s tabby depiction to a tortoiseshell, and the porcelain container to a clear bowl. A painting attributed to Austrian artist Martin Ferdinand Quadal, is going to auction on April 27 in the Old Master Paintings auction at Bonhams in London, likewise depicting the cat in her last moments above a translucent bowl. In a book before her, Gray’s ominous ode is splayed open.
Cat elegies were, oddly, quite popular in the Enlightenment, and perhaps got a boost from Gray’s poem (he only published about 14 works in his lifetime, but the cat eulogy, initially published anonymously in 1748, was a hit). Here’s the beginning of one cat tribute from 1769 in The Gentleman’s Magazine: “Here lies beneath this verdant hill, / Poor Tom, a favourite cat: / Who, when alive, did never spill / The blood of mouse or rat.” And sometimes they were even from the feline perspective, such as Anna Seward’s 1792 “An Old Cat’s Dying Soliloquy,” in which the cat imagines the “joys that painless realms decree” including “golden fish and wingless bird.”
Later in 1797, William Blake was commissioned to illustrate Gray’s poems, including “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes.” You can see the illustrations in full below. Like Gray, he imagines the cat as a doomed goddess, her pursuit of her hungers an intended lesson for anyone who attempts to reach for those desires not within our grasp.