Turns out that even in the Victorian era, humans were obsessed with pictures of cats doing silly things. It also turns out that the forefather of silly cat photography lived in Brighton. Who knew!
During the 1870s, a photographer called Harry Pointer of Bloomsbury Place in Brighton, created a series of 200 carte de visite postcards featuring his pet cats. The series was called The Brighton Cats and it became really well known around the country.
What’s a carte de visit postcard I hear you ask? Well, they were a type of small, inexpensive portrait photo mounted on a piece of card. They were inspired by calling cards, the size of a business card, which displayed the owner’s name and usually an emblem, and were presented to the host during a social visit –homes often had a tray near the door for collecting calling cards.
They became popular in England in 1860 when the Royal Family had a set created, which are now collectors’ items. This led to a rapid increase in the number of photographic portrait studios around the country. In Brighton alone at the height of the craze in 1867, there were 40 in the city.
Pointer, first a portrait photographer, took the idea in another direction by adding pictures of pets to them. At first, his style was to take conventional photographs of cats resting, drinking milk or sleeping in a basket. Then at some point in 1870, however, I assume he either got incredibly bored or made an accidental creative discovery, and realised it was possible – and much more fun – to take photos of his cats doing things humans liked to do – for example, riding a tricycle, roller-skating and even taking photos with a camera.
It’s not easy to find much information on how he actually got the cats to do these tricks. A few other sites quote an author, Philip Garner who says to get them to sit, Pointer would put a “hypnotic spell on the cats who posed for him in every conceivable guise… it was a good idea so to train a number of cats as to make them excellent, attentive and obedient ‘sitters’… it seems as if each knew precisely what he wanted, is gentle and fierce, or listless or eager, or docile or angry, according to the character depicted'” .
Pointer then decided it would be a good idea to add greetings underneath the photos, such as ‘A Happy New Year’ or ‘Very many happy returns of the day’ which turned out to be a great business savvy decision making the cards more popular than ever. People who bought them could then send them as tiny greetings cards, which gave Pointer publicity for his photos.