To celebrate #MuseumCats day, here is a post about a feline friend that can be found in one of our collections items.
This portrait shows the Henry Wriothesley, the Third Earl of Southampton - a patron of Shakespeare’s - during the time he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. In 1600, the Earls of Southampton and Essex rebelled against Elizabeth I; however, they were unsuccessful and did not manage to rally many subjects to their cause. Essex was executed and Southampton was locked in the Tower. His wife and mother pleaded for mercy and Southampton’s sentence was reduced from execution to life imprisonment. After the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, Southampton was pardoned and resumed his place at court under James I.
The painting is a copy after the original by John Riley and is full of symbolism. The removal of the glove from Southampton’s left hand displays his long, elegant fingers and gold ring - both connoting his wealthy status. His left arm is in a sling, a sign of his recent illness with which he had been suffering since his imprisonment. The smashed window may highlight the turbulent times and violence which led to Southampton’s stay in the Tower. One of the most notable elements of the painting is, however, the presence of a black and white cat on the windowsill. Tales say that the cat found its way across London to its master, whilst others suggest that Southampton’s wife brought the cat to the Tower to keep her husband company during his imprisonment. Some have suggested that the cat symbolises the loyalty and fidelity of Southampton to his cause (backing James VI of Scotland’s claim to the English throne). Another interpretation is that the cat represents the melancholy of the Earl’s situation; being the only other living thing in the room it highlights his lonely imprisonment.
Whatever the exact symbolism of the cat in this instance, it certainly is an important element of the painting; notably it is gazing at the viewer just as the Earl does and it’s colouring even mirrors its masters’ garments. In this sense the cat is the ‘co-subject’ of the piece, making it a worthy ‘museum cat’!