Calling all cat and heraldry fans out there: here's a chance to help the Libraries solve a mystery from one of its books. You can also win an 8 x 11" reproduction of this attractive cat engraving, if you are among the first ten to supply reliable evidence identifying the coat of arms shown in the picture (see contest rules below). For everyone who loves this cat picture and can't wait, a high-resolution version is available now on the Libraries' Flickr site for you to download for yourself.
The background to the mystery: back in January, 2009, the Libraries published my blog entry,
Peter S. Pallas and His Curious Cats, featuring a handsome picture of a cat from the 1812 London edition of Pallas's Travels Through the Southern Provinces of the Russian Empire in the Years 1793 and 1794. Many people commented about how much they liked the picture.
One of those who commented, Zara, remarked, "According to the description it was an old-style Siamese cat. Why is it
associated with Felis manul?" Indeed, the short-haired cat in the picture does look like a Siamese, with its
darkened muzzle and paws. It certainly doesn't look like a Pallas
Cat (also known as the Felis manul, or by its current scientific
name, Otocolobus manul), which has long, dense fur suitable for cold climates,
a tail like a bristle-brush, and eyes with round pupils (instead of the elongated
oval pupils found in many cat breeds).
My initial reaction to Zara's comment was to think that the
illustrator of the 1812 edition might have been a London artist working from a verbal description
who had never seen an actual specimen of a Pallas Cat. Or maybe
to save money the publisher had decided to re-use a cat picture
already on hand from another unidentified publication. Since this particular edition was intended more as a travelogue than an official scientific work (Pallas first published his description of the Felis manul in 1776), it might not have mattered to the publisher if the picture didn't resemble a real Pallas Cat.
However, after doing more research, I learned that "G. Geissler," the artist and engraver whose name appears in the lower left
corner of the print, was Christian Gottfried Heinrich Geissler
(1770-1844), a German artist who had actually accompanied Pallas on his travels
through Russia, according to art historian S.T. Prideaux, author of the 1909 book, Aquatint Engraving: A Chapter in the History of Book Illustration.
Intrigued, I followed up with the comment-writer Zara by email, who turned out to be Zarine
L. Arushanyan, a researcher of Russian cat and dog
breeds who lives in Yerevan, Armenia. Zara's question sent me looking through other editions of Pallas in the Libraries collections. I found a more accurate illustration of the Pallas Cat in his Zoographia Rosso-Asiatica, published in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1831, as shown above, center.
In this Latin language publication, Pallas describes seven species of cats. The account of the mother cat and her hybrid kittens mentioned in my original blog entry appears in the section on Felis catus (the domestic cat). The 1831 description of the Felis manul also notes that the Manul can breed with domestic cats, possibly leading (Pallas speculated) to the development of the Angora cat. However, I was unable to find another illustration showing the Siamese-looking cat from the 1812 edition.
Then I started wondering about the shield design in the upper left corner of the picture. Whose coat of arms was it? Could that help to explain why a seemingly unrelated cat picture had appeared in this book by Pallas? A close-up image appears above.
This coat of arms has three stacks of wheat (also known as "garbs"), each tied around the middle, above two crossed axes or halberds. Apparently this is not the crest of the Shedrinskoi family mentioned by Pallas as the owner of the estate where the hybrid cats lived. So I searched through various heraldry guides to see if I could find anything like it. The wheat-stack is a symbol used in some coats of arms for the county of Cheshire in England (as shown in online guides to Cheshire Heraldry). The arms of the Grosvenor family (including the Dukes of Westminster), whose ancestral home is in Cheshire, also have a wheat-stack. But why would there be a Cheshire connection to the Pallas book? Was it for a patron of Pallas? Can this specific coat of arms be identified, to shed more light on the mystery?
And now I'd like to throw out a challenge to the readers of this blog: can anyone figure out which family or place is associated with this coat of arms? Could the 1812 cat picture be an early image of the legendary Cheshire Cat, later immortalized in Lewis Carroll's novel, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), and more recently in the movie Alice in Wonderland (directed by Tim Burton, 2010)? Please help identify this coat of arms! The first ten who come up with a verifiable authentication for this coat of arms will receive a spiffy reproduction print of the image, suitable for framing.
Below are some more intersting Pallas Cat links:
Felis manul page from the Encyclopedia
Felis manul page from the Animal Diversity Web site (University of
Michigan Museum of Zoology)
Pallas Cat Study and Conservation Program (Siberian Environmental Center in Novosibirsk, Russia)
Manulomania (a Russian website featuring Pallas Cat photos: some serious, some silly)
Le Manul Facebook page for Pallas Cat fans
The contest is open to United States residents eighteen (18) years of age and older. Entries from outside the United States are welcome, but because of legal restrictions, prizes can only be awarded to United States residents.
Smithsonian Libraries staff will determine the best answers. One prize will be awarded to a maximum of ten winners. The winners will be notified and receive his/her prize by mail. All decisions of the Smithsonian Libraries are final.
By accepting the prize, winners consent to use of their name by the Libraries for promotional purposes without further consideration, except where prohibited by law.
Prize: An 8" x 10" unframed photographic reproduction print of the Pallas Cat, from the Libraries collections.