Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Porcelain Cat with an Unexpected Purpose, c 1830-50

Wednesday, February 8, 2012
Susan reporting:

When it comes to utilitarian items for hygiene, "form follows function" is the dictate for modern designers, with sleek, unadorned (and often sterile) results.

But it hasn't always been that way. In the past, washbowls, chamberpots, and bourdeloues were often highly decorative pieces of porcelain and earthenware. (Occasionally they're highly amusing, too, such as this infamous chamberpot c 1805 with Napoleon in the bottom, from the Royal Pavilion & Museum, Brighton.)

The attractiveness of these pieces can obscure their original use to modern eyes. When this blog post first appeared, featuring a pair of elegant bourdeloues – one is even decorated with a Lieutenant's gilded coat of arms – many readers admitted that they'd thought they were serving pieces for some genteel dining table, instead of meant for a more private purpose.

This wild-eyed porcelain cat, above, is another example. Made in Jingdezhen, China, in 1830-50 for the Western export trade, the cat's fiercely amusing expression must have made it a favorite household piece, regardless of its use. And what was that? With the head removed and the tail serving as a handle, the cat becomes a urinal.

Above: Urinal in the figure of a cat, maker unknown, Jingdezhen, China, 1830-50, Hard-paste porcelain, Gift of Miss Gertrude Brinckle & Miss Gertrude Rodney, Winterthur Museum


Anonymous said...

Oh, that just doesn't seem possible that such a nice little kitty cat could be a rather odd item for a Man.
Well, none the less.
I have a pretty little modern chinese made china cat that is a basin type box that I use to use in the bathroom to hold female items but has since been holding bath beads for several years. This piece kind of reminds me of my piece in a wierd way. Thank goodness for the modern facility porcelain item.

Anonymous said...

For info - to find more fascinating items you might want to check out the new National Trust Collections Website. The National Trust in the UK have just put their entire collections online for the public to access. We have lots of crazy urinals and other quirky objects...please check it out at

Anonymous said...

Actually I've just done a search and discovered we have a very similar cat urinal at Stourhead, one of our properties in the South West of England. Record number: 730586

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Anonymous, the National Trust site is fabulous - I've been roaming through it ever since it went live. However, my search didn't turn up the Stourhead cat. Could you please, please post a direct link? The Winterthur cat had spent all its days in the donor's same Delaware family, so would be interesting to compare with one from the UK. Thank you!

Rebecca, perhaps your discrete bathroom cat is part of a longer tradition than your realized. :)

textilehistorIE said...

*gulp* Hmm today's dose of history is quite.. unpalatable... poor kitty! ;)

Anonymous said...

Hope that works!

There may be more, I was only searching the South West of England on our internal system but will have a go at it Nationally if I get a minute.

Jo Cairns,
Collections Engagement Officer, National Trust

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Thanks so much for the link, Jo! I also shared your link with Winterthur - they were delighted to see their cat has a long-distance brother. If you find any more, I'd love to see them...:)

buckndi said...

It would appear that the purpose of the object is hinted at by the color of the cat's eyes.

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