This year’s Christmas e-card from National Records of Scotland features one of the more light-hearted items from our Register House Plans series – a ballroom filled with cats enjoying a Christmas party, dancing, gossiping and having fun. We think that this could be the item containing the most cats in the NRS collections!
In creating the Christmas card, we have selected three details out of the huge scene of cavorting cats. But look closely at the whole image – there is a lot of frivolity to enjoy. A band sits in the corner creating the evening’s entertainment beside a grand Christmas tree; beautiful felines stand fanning themselves by the wall, waiting to be asked to dance and gentle-cats catch up on world events. In the centre of the floor couples struggle to dance whilst getting knocked off balance by over-excited kittens racing to the stage, and a harassed waiter carrying hors d’oeuvres is pounced upon by kittens trying to reach his tasty mice snacks. Elsewhere, little kittens play with their Christmas toys whilst young couples flirt behind the secrecy of the foliage. The scene is filled with happy conversation, joy and excitement at the holiday season and we are sure that many humans will also partake in the same festivities this Christmas!
This illustration comes from the workshop of Joseph Swain (29 February 1820 – 25 February 1909), and was published in the second supplement to the ‘Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, Christmas Number’ 6 December 1890.’ Swain was one of the most prolific English wood-engravers of the 19th century. He is best known from his engravings in ‘Punch’ magazine of cartoons by Sir John Tenniel, the English illustrator, graphic humourist and political cartoonist, perhaps best known for his wonderful drawings of the Cheshire Cat, Alice in Wonderland and Lewis Carroll’s other characters.
Born in Oxford, Swain moved to London when he was nine and apprenticed to the eminent engraver Thomas Williams. He set up his own successful business in 1842. Swain’s skill was much admired and he subsequently became the head of the engraving department at ‘Punch’, where he worked until 1900, and also created items for ‘Illustrated London News’, ‘Good Words’ and ‘Cornhill Magazine’. Due to his large success, he employed a number of assistants. This is reflected in the signature at the bottom right of the image ‘SWAIN Sc.’ which stands for ‘sculpsit’ (Swain engraved this). It denotes that the work itself was from his office, rather than being a personal creation.
Despite undertaking work of many types of variety and different artistic style, he did not become associated with any in particular. The largest collections of his original engravings are in the British Museum and in the Hartley Collection, Boston Museum.
National Records of Scotland bought this unusual image as part of a larger lot at auction in August 2011, alongside other items. It is referenced RHP142876.