FLEA MARKET PHOTOBOOKS: 23 / FEB / 2022
CATS AND MY CAMERA
Some Mental and Photographic Reflections
by Evelyn Glover
Michael Joseph Ltd: London, 1938
Reviewed by Annebella Pollen
Cats and My Camera is a slight volume of 127 pages and 40 black-and-white cat portraits, mostly singular and in static poses, and mostly titled by the feline’s name, from Bunty and Kittiwinks to Tarzan and Tony. Evelyn Glover [1873-1941] describes herself as a "very ordinary person" and a spinster; she also notes her grey hair. She lives in a flat with a female friend, who does not want to reveal her identity. Her friend, Glover warns, is "more devoted to cats than I am". That the author is an enthusiast is in no doubt but, from the start, she points out that she is no "cat connoiseusse". Equally, she emphasises, she is no expert in photography. If anyone declares, "Your cat photographs are wonderful!" she retorts, "You don’t see my dustbin." Without training and expensive equipment, she is merely someone who "owes some of the pleasant moments in my life to cats and my camera", and who wishes to share this with anyone who has not, by this point, put the book down.
Twenty-first century readers of pre-Second World War publications may sometimes be struck by a lack of quality control. Publishers seem to have contracted books of the flimsiest content by those with the least authority. My favourite title in this mode is an 1899 travel book, The Little I Saw of Cuba. I initially thought Cats and My Camera to be a book of this kind, given the author's insistence on her lack of talent. Structured into three sections – The Inner Circle, The Outer Circle, and Further Afield – this is ostensibly a survey of London cats local to the author, then cats met on her travels. But it is in the latter sections where clues emerge that Glover is less than ordinary, as she considers cats she encountered across Europe and backstage.
One example is Peter, of the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, described as "irate and sulky", who hated having his photograph taken and consequently appeared with his "ears flattened in rage with a lashing tail" seen as a blur. Glover reveals, as part of this discussion, that she was Ernest Thesiger’s dresser, having squeezed the eminent actor into ball dresses and tutus in wartime performances in military hospitals. Other biographical details emerge through cat anecdotes, including a feminist perspective, as Glover bitterly observes that female cats are frequently abandoned. "Felines need a suffrage movement badly", she notes. Glover, it transpires, was a British playwright of the Edwardian women's movement, whose polemical one-act plays – such as Miss Appleyard's Awakening – promoted the right to vote and are now celebrated by feminist historians. Cats and My Camera, however, has few latter-day champions; one passing mention in a biographical sketch of Glover describes it as "desultory".
Glover is far too self-effacing to consider her book a photographic manual, but she nonetheless has strong views on what makes a good cat picture, and it does not involve "huge and cumbersome bows and ribbon". She is not averse to a "delectable morsel" of a kitten in a basket, however. She recommends dark doors as backdrops (except in the case of black cats) or smooth brown tissue paper pinned up behind the sitter, if the cat will allow it. Dick, exhibit number 25, she recalls, removed "a carefully arranged sheet with a firm paw before I had time even to get him into focus". Mostly Glover is pleased to get any image at all. She has a sixty percent failure rate, and the figures are worse with kittens. A "nameless vagrant" cat, in a portrait entitled "The Heat Wave" is one of the few subjects reclining; Glover photographed him on a hot day when he was "too limp to object".
Few of Glover's photographs demonstrate aesthetic innovation, although a nine-toed cat is an unusual subject, and the pose of Micky, a cheeky tabby seen through the back of a chair, made me giggle as it pre-empts Lewis Morley's famous 1963 photograph of Christine Keeler. What struck me most is how hard cat photography was for an amateur in the 1930s. These days a cat snap on a phone is an unthinking gesture. Glover's mobile photographic unit required metol-hydroquinone and acid fixing hypo, three vulcanite dishes, a torch and five sheets of red tissue paper in her hotel room. The book perhaps functions best as a media archaeology of cat photography, that most despised of social media forms. Glover's book is part cat portraiture and part memoir; through pets we learn about her formative experiences including, as a child, seeing the accidental decapitation of a kitten by her father; this operates as a violent primal scene. Read against the grain as a life of an older, unmarried woman, possibly in a same-sex relationship, and a feminist pioneer, the book also offers a retrospective corrective of another twenty-first century pejorative: the crazy cat lady.