My self-imposed task in this piece is to establish a connection between a Lounge Lizard called Captain Jefferson Davis Cohn (born 1881) and a Cat called Selima (died 1747). Warning: the connection is rather tenuous.
Regular readers of this blog already know about Captain Cohn (see here and here). He was, among many other things, a close friend of Herbert Stern, the First Baron Michelham, and Herbert’s adviser on racehorses and many other essential accessories of the high life. Cohn was also the very special friend of Herbert’s wife, Lady Michelham, the former Aimée Geraldine Bradshaw.
The reader might not, however, know about Selima. She was a tabby, or possibly a tortoiseshell – there is some dubiety. Her birth date is not recorded, but by the time she died in February 1747, she had lived long enough to become the favoured companion of her owner Horace Walpole (1717-1797).
Walpole was, among other things, a Member of Parliament, the author of first gothic novel The Castle of Otranto, an architect and interior designer, a prolific letter-writer, and a prodigious collector of art and antiques. The son of Sir Robert Walpole, Prime Minister, he inherited the title of Earl of Orford late in life. He was a lifelong bachelor with a wide circle of friends, prominent among whom was the poet Thomas Gray.
During the earlier part of his life, Walpole lived with his mother in a house owned by his father at 4 Arlington Street, Piccadilly, London, immediately opposite what is now the side of the Ritz Hotel. This is the address where Selima met her unfortunate death by drowning in a goldfish bowl.
Many years later Walpole had the bowl moved to a place of honour in his own house in Twickenham, about eight miles to the west of London. Strawberry Hill House, which is now on the campus of St Mary’s University, was designed by Walpole himself and built in several stages between 1749 and 1776. It was the first Gothic house – or at least the first to have been built in Britain for several hundred years. In the construction of Strawberry Hill, Walpole single-handedly initiated a trend in architecture that within a few decades almost entirely eclipsed the baroque and neoclassical styles which had characterised most new buildings erected during the previous century.
Today, Strawberry Hill House is run by a charitable trust and is open to the public. I had always wanted to visit, and finally did so just a few weeks ago on a brief trip to London. You won’t find a more ornate or eccentric building anywhere else in Britain (not excluding Brighton Pavilion). It was neglected and run-down when the trust took it on, but in recent years has been mostly renovated to look like new, and stands as proof that the terms bling and OTT do not signify recent concepts. I won’t try to describe Strawberry Hill House, but here are a few photos to show what I mean , plus a link to their website. It has the feel more of a stage set than a real house, but apparently the renovations and redecorations are highly accurate and the interiors look exactly as they did in the middle of the eighteenth century. What a place for a party!
Which is precisely what Herbert Stern thought when he became the owner of the house in 1888 after the death of his father, a fabulously wealthy banker, who had bought it three years previously. In 1905 Herbert was ennobled as Lord Michelham and in the years leading up to the First World War, he and Aimée used Strawberry Hill House mainly as a venue and backdrop for lavish parties thrown for members of the very highest order of society to which they craved admittance.
The Michelhams lived mainly at Michelham Priory in Sussex and in their grand town house at 20 Arlington Street, London, coincidentally just a few doors away from the house where Selima died. They also had an enormous apartment in Paris and properties in Italy and elsewhere. But Strawberry Hill was their party house. And among the party guests, inevitably, would be Captain Jefferson Davis Cohn, the ubiquitous Lounge Lizard.
So that places Captain Cohn as a frequent visitor both at Strawberry Hill and in Arlington Street. And I’m afraid that is the closest connection I can establish between him and Selima. I imagine he knew all about the cat and her sad demise, because, for reasons which will shortly become apparent, it was a very famous incident and would have been a tale often recounted to Strawberry Hill party guests. And Cohn must have passed many times through the Little Cloister, just outside the front door, where the bowl had stood proudly atop an octagonal gothic pedestal which Walpole had specially made for it. But the bowl wasn’t present in the house during the Michelhams’ ownership, so no-one would have been able to point and say “That’s the famous bowl in which the famous cat famously drowned”.
Walpole’s collection was dispersed in a gigantic 26-day auction in 1842. The goldfish bowl was sold as lot number 32 on the 19th day of the sale, knocked down to the Earl of Derby for £42. Since then it has remained in the ownership of successive Earls at Knowsley, their stately home near Liverpool, and has only rarely been available for public viewing. But it was recently returned temporarily to Strawberry Hill House as part of an exhibition which reassembled many items from the original Walpole collection.
Thus, in one important respect I have an advantage over the Michelhams and Captain Cohn. I was able to see the famous goldfish bowl in situ at Strawberry Hill House when I visited the exhibition on 13th February 2019. Not only was I able to point at it in wonderment, but I also managed to take its picture with my phone before being given a good telling-off by a guide: No Photography Allowed.
It is a big Chinese porcelain vessel or pot or vase or tub or bowl, 47 cms in diameter and 55 cms tall (note the measurements – they are important), decorated in underglaze cobalt blue with a stylised depiction of trees and a fence. The Yale University website dedicated to reconstructing the Walpole collection  puts the date of the pot at around 1730, which would indicate that it was made either during the short reign of the Yongzheng Emperor or early in the long reign of the Qianlong Emperor. The date also indicates that it was a fairly new production when Walpole acquired it. Chinese blue-and-white export porcelain was extremely fashionable at the time, and rich collectors just had to own fine pieces regardless of whether their tastes ran to the gothic or the neoclassical.
An expert on Chinese porcelain might consider the bowl to be a good but not outstanding example of eighteenth century Chinese porcelain. These things aren’t especially rare, and better quality ones turn up for sale from time to time. But it was a star item in the 1842 auction, and in the highly unlikely event that it came up for auction today, it would certainly command an enormous premium over a similar object without the same provenance and without the particularly famous story which attaches to it.
So, let’s get to the point. Why is it that a minor domestic accident – the drowning of a pet cat in a goldfish bowl – should become so celebrated that 272 years later it’s being blogged about by me?
Answer: because Walpole wrote a letter (now unfortunately lost) to his old friend Thomas Gray to tell him about what had happened to Selima. And then Gray commemorated it in a very remarkable poem.
Gray was one of the most celebrated poets of the eighteenth century, but from reading most of his poems you wouldn’t expect him to be a bundle of laughs. As you’ll know if you are familiar with the beautiful Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, much of his small output is extremely serious and preoccupied with death and mortality. But on this rare occasion he showed that he had a more whimsical side. He penned his Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes in the form of an amusing mock elegy. The poem has lived on as one of Gray’s best known, and therefore so has his account of the accident that befell Selima.
The Ode was first published in 1748 and has been reprinted in countless editions of Gray’s poems and anthologies ever since. Here it is:
Among early printed editions of the Ode was one illustrated by Richard Bentley, a close friend of Walpole’s, who (presumably) had known Selima personally. He depicts her swimming lengths of the goldfish bowl prior to her final immersion (below upper image) . By the time that the visionary and slightly nutty artist William Blake came to illustrate the poem in 1797/8, both Selima and the bowl’s resident goldfish had taken on a range of anthropomorphic characteristics, and the surface of the bowl itself had grown to the size of an ocean (below lower image) .
So now we know from Bentley’s illustrations what Selima looked like. And we know from my illicit photography what the bowl still looks like. But if you try to place cat and bowl in a realistic and not a fanciful juxtaposition, a sinister question immediately arises. Was the drowning really an accident?
For 272 years, that’s what everyone has thought. But I think different. I think it was a murder. And I have evidence. In my next blog piece I’ll present the case to you, my blog readers and my jury, for your verdict. (It’s fitting to describe you as my jury since there are only about a dozen of you).
 Image 1 borrowed from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strawberry_Hill_House, images 2-6 borrowed from https://cocoweddingvenues.co.uk/coco_listing/strawberry-hill-house/?coco-gallery=1