Monday, June 27, 2011

Two Very Rare Books For Cat Lovers Only (A Naughty Story)

by Stephen J. Gertz

In New York City, c. 1935, an  anonymously written erotic novella was clandestinely published in parts titled, M. Fontaine's Establishment. The narrative is episodic: for a fee, interesting things are arranged for the masked patrons of M. Fontaine's establishment, a specialty brothel.

You will, then, I prithee, forgive me after I confess that when a copy of Madame Tabby's Establishment, a book I was unfamiliar with, recently passed through my hands I immediately thought, Cathouse!

"'Run," shrieked the court."

And, indeed, Madame Tabby's Establishment (1886) is a cathouse of sorts, a finishing school for kitties seeking to be all that they can be and let their feline flag fly.

"'Hang the council,' said Jumpy Wumpy."

It's the earliest book illustrated by the great cat painter, Louis Wain, and extremely rare. OCLC records only ten copies in libraries worldwide, and only one copy has come to auction within the last thirty-six years, the copy I  pawed.

"The animal! The animal!"

At the end of the last century, Louis Wain (1860-1939), the Edwardian cat artist who went mad, became a household name as an illustrator of cats, whom he depicted in all sorts of activities, from skating and playing cricket to driving motor cars, attending dances, and playing musical instruments.

"The party trotted out of the wood."

"From 1883, Wain began to draw cats as they had never been drawn before, cats in humorous guises, in human situations, but always beautifully handled, although he was sometimes forced to draw dogs before he became well-known!" (Houfe, Simon. The Dictionary of British Book Illustrators and Caricaturists 1800-1914).

"Shortears began and sung a solo. Then all the cats
 joined and sung the chorus to Madame's satisfaction."

Wain's "artistic skill had attracted some attention, and in 1886 he was asked by Macmillan to illustrate a children's book, Madame Tabby's Establishment....this book tells the story of a little girl, Diana, who, having found herself accepted in the Cat's Court (her grandmother being the late owner of the King of Cats) is sent to Madame Tabby's establishment to learn how to behave like a cat...Madam Tabby's Establishment was published in the autumn of 1886 and became quite popular in the nursery" (Dale, Rodney. Louis Wain The Man Who Drew Cats, pp. 19-20).

"Diana found herself opposite a raised dais."

"He invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world. English cats that do not look like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves" (H.G. Wells).

"Away went the cat and returned with a piece of bread wrapped in a leaf."

By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, however, Wain began to exhibit symptoms of mental instability that manifest itself in his cat portraits; by the late 1920s his mental illness was full-blown and his cats went completely 'round the bend.

Painted during Wain's later mental illness.

Booktryst readers who also attended the Grateful Dead concert at Legion Stadium in Wilmington, Los Angeles on  December 26, 1970 while post-Noël tripping on 400 mgs of pure Orange Sunshine will immediately recognize the kitty in the Wain illustration above as the shape-shifting creature with shimmering aura that danced dos-e-dos oh so close in the aisle then disappeared "to the bathroom" during the last minutes of Jerry Garcia's eternal (or so it seemed) solo on Truckin', never to be seen again. 

She still looks good to me. But I want my copy of the I Ching back.

•  •  •

It's raining scarce Wain on my desk and while it was likely a random accident I prefer to think, given the wry irony, that Divine Providence placed the following delightfully charming volume immediately below Madame Tabby's Establishment in my cataloging pile. It's an even rarer book, that, just as Madame Tabby's  has nothing to do with the business at M. Fontaine's establishment, I assure you has absolutely nothing to do with Storyville, New Orleans' fabled red-light district.

Queenie (at left), however, does sing the blues.

[WAIN, Louis, illustrator]. KARI (pseudonym of Caroline Hughes). Madame Tabby's Establishment. Illustrated by L. Wain. London and New York: Macmillan and Co., 1886.

First edition, inscribed by the author's mother to her mother-in-law on the half-title. Octavo . [6], 157, [1, blank] pp. Seven full-page black and white illustrations, including frontispiece.

Publisher's original light blue cloth with dark blue-stamped decorated borders, gilt lettering and vignette. Black endpapers. Author's identity neatly inked below byline on title page. The inked inscription reads: "Mrs. Hughes, With best wishes of / the new year 1887 / from the author's / mother!" (Emily Hughes).

Wood 141.

WAIN, Louis. Music In Pussytown. Father Tuck's "Wonderland" Series No. 3154. London - Paris - New York: Raphael Tuck & Sons, Ltd., n.d. [1919-1920].

First edition. Oblong quarto. [14] pp. on heavy stock. Four full-page, numerous color text illustrations throughout. Color pictorial paper boards.

No copies recorded by OCLC/KVK. Only one copy has come to auction within the last thirty-six years.

Not in Dale. Unrecorded by Wood.

Images from Madame Tabby's Establishment, which make their Internet debut here on Booktryst, courtesy of David Brass Rare Books, with our thanks. Ditto thanks re: Music in Pussytown.

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