THE CHARTREUX CAT – AN EARLY HISTORY
The purebred Chartreux (or Chartreuse) exists only in the colour blue, ranging from ash-grey to a deep-slate blue. The tips of the fur give the coat a silvery sheen. While it is one of the oldest natural breeds, it was not recognized as a breed by British fanciers at the dawn of the organized cat fancy. In fact all blue cats were at one time lumped into a single “Blue Shorthair” category, regardless of whether they came from Britain, Russia or Thailand, and they were judged against the ideal for the British Shorthair.
According to (Harrison Weir (Our Cats and All About Them, 1889), the “Blue Cat” (Blue Shorthair) was often shown under a number of names “It was at first shown as the Archangel cat, then Russian blue, Spanish blue, Chartreuse blue, and, lastly, and I know not why, the American blue. It is not, in my belief, a distinct breed, but merely a light-coloured form of the black cat.“ He set out a standard for shorthaired blue cats at British shows: rich bluish-lilac with dark nose and pads dark and orange-yellow eyes. “If it is a foreign variety, I can only say that I see no distinction in form, temper, or habit.” The only other blue shorthair he admitted to was that from Archangel which had larger ears and eyes, longer heads and legs and very short fur that was “rather inclined to woolliness, but bright and glossy.”
While the Russian Blues eventually got breed recognition in their own right, and the “blue Siamese” were eventually recognized as Korats (and another blue/faint blue-tabby breed, “Canon Girdlestone’s” or “Norwegian” vanished entirely), the Chartreux was not recognized by the British cat fancy until very recently. When I wrote to ask about this in the early 1990s, I was told it was classed as a British Blue Shorthair, even though it did not meet the standard for that breed. There have been centuries of rivalry – sometimes enmity - between Britain and France, and I am tempted to think that national pride influenced the refusal to recognize the Chartreux, a case of “why have a French blue cat when we have a homegrown British blue cat?” and this remained the status quo until other registries, such as FIFe and TICA, became more active in Britain. In the 1950s, French cat-fancier With similar national pride, Fernand Mery wrote in the 1950s that the Chartreux was not to be confused with the British Blue, calling it a cat of rural France.
According to Phyllis Lauder, writing in "The British, European and American Shorthair Cat" (1981): "In France the Blue shorthairs are known as Chartreux. There has, now and then, been put forward the idea that the British Blues and the Chartreux were different varieties of shorthair cats; but well-known judges in France and Britain have always been aware that the two terms are simply different names for the same cats. The Blue shorthair doubtless existed in France and England in the Middle Ages; it is quite reasonable, indeed, to suppose that he voyaged as ship's cat from Calais to Dover and back and if the fancy took him, went ashore and settled in either country."
According to the modern wording of the standard, which is based on the 18th Century texts, it is medium-sized, with orange or copper-orange eyes, upright ears and a small, narrow muzzle on a broad head and thick powerful neck. The shape of its head and muzzle give it a sweet “smiling” expression. Its body is robust and set on fine boned legs and delicate, compact feet leading to the modern nickname “a potato on matchsticks." Its blue fur is dense, medium-short with a resilient undercoat, and becomes slightly woolly with age. The fur often parts like sheepskin at the neck and flanks. It is a very slow-maturing breed and the coat reaching its full glory after three years of age. Indeed it was once prized for its fur which could be dyed and sold as Otter.
The grey cat of France is mentioned for the first time in 1558 by Joachim du Bellay in a poem entitled “Vers Français Sur La Mort D'un Petit Chat” (French Verse On The Death Of A Little Cat).
C'est Belaud mon petit chat gris, [. . .]
Ne fut pas gris entièrement
Ni tel qu'en France on les voit naître,
Mais tel quà Rome on les voit être
Couvert de poil gris argentin,
(It is Belaud my little grey cat [. . .]
Was not entirely grey,
Not as they are seen in France,
But as they are seen in Rome
Covered with silvery-grey hair.)
There is a representation of a Chartreux in 1747 in Jean-Baptiste Perronneau's painting “Magdaleine Pinceloup de la Grange” where, unusually for that period in France, the cat is shown in the painting as a pet (unusual because the cat more often represented rampant sexuality in France at that time).
The origins of the Chartreux, or Carthusian, are shrouded in legend. It is commonly said that that the Chartreux traces its origins to cats taken from South Africa by Carthusian monks to live in the Carthusian order's head monastery, the Grande Chartreuse, north of Grenoble, in the Chartreuse Mountains in France. In the monastery they may have protected the grain stores and the ingredients used in Chartreuse liqueur. Though this is a charming story, in 1972, the Prior of the Grande Chartreuse denied that the monastery's archives held any records that the monks kept cats resembling the Chartreux.
Another legend claims that the ancestors of the Chartreux were feral mountain cats from Syria, taken to France by returning Crusaders in the 13th century. Many of the Crusaders later entered the Carthusian monastic order, taking their cats with them as companions.
In 16th Century literature, it was known simply as the "little grey cat" of France. A more prosaic, and probably more accurate, derivation of is modern name comes from the similarity between their woolly coat and a luxurious Spanish wool called "pile de Chartreux" of the early 18th century. The Chartreux cat had developed a dense coat from generations of surviving outdoors in often harsh conditions. In the 18th century, the dense-coated Chartreux was prized by furriers as it could be dyed and sold as Otter. It is mentioned in a number of dictionaries of commerce as being valued for its fur.
According to Page 812 of “Dictionnaire universel de commerce, d'histoire naturelle et des arts et métiers” (Universal Dictionary of Commerce, Natural History and the Arts and Trades) of Jacques Savary des Bruslons (1723): "CHARTREUX, Le vulgaire nomme ainsi une sorte de chat qui a le poil tirant sur le bleu. C'est une des espèces de fourrures dont les Pelletiers font négoce." [The common name of a cat with fur leaning towards blue. It is one of the furbearing species traded by furriers.]
In Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (Encyclopaedia, or Dictionary of Science, Arts and Crafts), by Denis Diderot et Jean le Rond d’Alembert, in 1753, we find "Chartreux, (Hist. nat.) sorte de chat dont le poil est d’un gris cendré tirant sur le bleu. C’est une des peaux dont les Pelletiers font négoce, amd qu’ils employent dans les fourrures.” [A sort of cat with cinder-grey fur leaning towards blue. It is one of the skins traded by furriers and used in their fur garments.”]
In his “Histoire naturelle de Buffon,” 1754, Georges Louis Leclerc comte de Buffon mentions the Chartreux in comparison to the Persian, Angora and Spanish cats. “Pietro della Valle parle d’une espece de chats qui se trouve en Perse, dans la province du Chorazan. On voit par la description qu’il en donne, que ces chats de Perse resemblant par la couleur a ceux que nous appelons chats chartreux, et qu’a la couleur pres ils resemblant parfaitement a a ceux que nous appelons chats d’Angora.” [Pietro della Valle speaks of a species of cat found in Persia, in the province of Chorazan. You can see from his description that these Persian cats resemble, in colour, those we know as Chartreux cats, and whose colour perfectly resembles those we call Angora cats.]
In Dictionnaire raisonné et universel des animaux ou le règne animal (Universal Dictionary of the Animal Kingdom), by François-Alexandre Aubert de La Chesnaye des Bois, 1759, the Chartreux is described under Domestic cats. “Pour sa couleur i lest ordinnairement gris et noir, gris et blanc, ou noir et blanc. On estime les Chats d’Espagne, a cause de leurs belles et differentes couleurs. On nomme a Paris Chat Chartreux, ceux qui font entirement de couleur cindree.” [As regards colour, it is ordinarily grey and black, grey and white, or black and white. People value the Spanish Cats for their beautiful and varied colours. In Paris there is a cat named Chartreux which is entirely ash-coloured.]
In Dictionnaire raisonné universel d'histoire naturelle : contenant l'histoire des animaux, des végétaux et des minéraux, et celle des corps célestes, des météores, and des autres principaux phénomenes de la nature; avec l'histoire et la description des drogues simples tirées des trois regnes ... plus, une table concordante des noms latins (Universal dictionary of natural history, containing the history of animals, vegetables, and minerals, celestial bodies, meteors, and other principal phenomena of nature; With the history and description of simple drugs drawn from the three kingdoms ... with a table of Latin names) 1775], Jacques Christophe Valmont de Bomare repeats Buffon’s description.
Recent DNA research shows that the origin of the modern Chartreux was in ancient Persia, but this may be due to the outcrossing to Persians needed to save the breed after the First World War.
19TH CENTURY CHARTREUX
Some of the early descriptions describe the Chartreux as having longer fur, what we’d term “semi-longhair”. In the 18th century, naturalist Buffon considered the breed familiar enough that he described a Blue Persian by likening its colour to that of the Chartreux. He believed the Persian, Angora and Chartreux to be related. Buffon wrote that a comparison of the Wild Cat with the Chartreux cat found they differed only in the greyish brown colour of the wild cat being changed to ash-coloured grey in the Chartreux. German writer Jean Bungartz described the Carthusian, the Chartreux's other name, in "An Illustrated Cat Book" (1896) as a self-coloured blue variety with long fine hair, black lips and soles and being somewhat phlegmatic, like the Angora, the Persian. The Chartreux even had its own Latin name under the Linnaean system: Felis catus coeruleus, meaning "blue cat."
Historically famous French Grey Cat owners include the French novelist Colette (Sidonie-Gabrielle Claudine Colette, 1873-1954) who made her Chartreux “Saha” the heroine of her books "La Chatte" and "Les Vrilles de la vigne;" Charles Baudelaire and French president Charles de Gaulle, whose cat’s name was “Gris-Gris.”
According to Helen Winslow in “Concerning Cats” (1900), The blue cat was ordinarily known in the USA as the Maltese and there was a tradition that it came from the Island of Malta, and many people didn’t consider it a distinct breed, merely a light-coloured version of the black cat. Winslow reeled off the usual array of alternative names for blue cats - Archangel, Russian blue, Spanish blue, Chartreuse blue, and Maltese – and likened the soft fur to sealskin. Frances Simpson, in the more famous “Book of the Cat” (1903) did not mention the Chartreux and her view on blue shorthairs was to have a single “self blues” class judged on the same lines as British short-hairs to create a uniform type.
According to “CATS IN ITALY” By George de Southoff, C.M.Z.S. (writing in Cat Gossip in 1927), “There is a great deal of confusion in the terminology of cat races: for instance, what I call Carthusian is the L.H. Alpine strain with short nose and small rounded ears, which may have originated at the Carthusian Monastery, near Grenoble (La Grande Chartreuse). Carthusian cats are spread over the Alps of France and Switzerland; I have already told you of the cats of this race I found at Viege. Carthusian cats are not, normally, found under 700 metres above sea level. I think they have nothing in common with L.H. Russian cats, which last are of Eastern origin — Persia, Turkestan — and may he derived from the Manul cat.
CHARTREUX AFTER THE FIRST WORLD WAR
In 1926, Dr Jumaud's book "Les Races des Chats" (Breeds of Cats) likened the Carthusian, or Chartreuse, cat ("Felis catus carthusianorum") to the "Maltese cat" known in the USA. It had a large head with large, full eyes, short nose and small, erect ears. Its coat was "half long and woolly" and the colour was grey with bluish reflections.. Jumaud's book was based largely on the works of Professor Cornevin of Lyons.
In 1927, judge Mrs Basnett reported on the Paris Cat Show held on 14th and 15th of January by the Cat Club de France and wrote, " Looking through my catalogue I saw a class marked 'Chats de Chartreux,' which did not appear to be a breed known in England, so I went round to find out what they were and was told 'The American cat' - and concluded that nobody was quite sure as another owner said they were Maltese."
The early breeders and exhibitors, after World War 1, had based their breed standard on 18th Century naturalist descriptions and “resurrected” Chartreux from those breeding programmes were exhibited in France in 1928. It was listed as a breed in the newly founded Federation Feline Francaise (FFF) Paris.
Natural colonies of these blue-grey cats existed in parts of France up until the early twentieth century. The modern Chartreux trace their ancestry to a few individuals from small, isolated colonies of domestic cats in France collected by breeders interested in preserving this ancient breed. One such colony lived in the grounds of a hospital located on Belle Ile sur Mer (“Beautiful Island on Sea”) off the coast of Brittany, where they were known as the hospital cats”. The Leger sisters, living on the island, began to selectively breed the cats. These hospital cats were probably one of the last breeding colonies of Chartreux, and they became the foundation of the modern Chartreux breed.
The Leger sisters bred the cats under the “le Gueveur” prefix, and mated them to British Blue Shorthairs and Blue Persians (which were not as extreme in conformation as today’s Persians) that were owned by members of the Paris Cat Club. They also found feral cats that met the description of the Chartreux. The offspring of these outcrosses were mated back to Belle Ile “hospital cats” and became the foundation lines for the Chartreux. They based their breed standard on 18th Century descriptions of the Chartreux, ensuring that the cats retained the appearance even if they were more genetically mixed. The photo shows the Chartreux female “Mignonne de Guervere”, judged to be the most beautiful cat in the Paris show in 1931.
In 1933 their Chartreux Mignonne de Guerveur became International Champion and Best cat in a cat show organized by the Cat Club de Paris. In 1939 the first standard for the Chartreux was established.
The Leger sisters wrote in 1935 “In the country, we also found these cats and the strange thing they were all of the same type, despite breeding with the European cats of the land, they had kept their characteristics. We acquired several of those cats, and from the first generation we obtained remarkable results. From the very first breeding of a blue male cat and a female blue cat, we had a litter of kittens all blue and perfectly typed.”
The modern Chartreux still compares favourably to the photographs of the “le Gueveur” cats in Jean Simonnet’s book “The Chartreux Cat.” Many of the Chartreux imported into the USA in 1970/71 by Helen Gamon are descended from the Le Gueveur stock.
CHARTREUX AFTER THE SECOND WORLD WAR
In common with cat breeds across continental Europe, the Chartreux breed came close to extinction during the Second World War and new blood had to be introduced to save it. There were no known natural colonies of the original robust blue cats left in France, but the determination of European breeders kept it from extinction by crossing to British Blue and Blue-Cream Shorthairs, Russian Blues and Blue Persians. Despite this, it remains rare even in France.
In his book “Just Cats” (1957), French cat-fancier Fernand Mery described the principal breeds of his time prefaced with these general notes: "Apart from these [Persian and Siamese] only the grey Chartreux and [the Birmanie] were known, and just barely, at that time. [. . .] In less than a quarter of a century fanciers have agreed and acknowledged officially that there are long-haired and short-haired cats. The second group, short-haired cats, comprises: Chartreux (blue-grey), Russian blues, Abyssinians, Manx cats, Burmese, Siamese, and the ever-increasing range of Europeans.
In his later book, "The Life, History and Magic of the Cat" (1966) Mery wrote of the French Chartreux breed with obvious pride, stating that it was not to be confused with the British Blue, being stockier with woollier fur. "The Chartreux is a cat of rural France. [...] It has a very powerful jaw, temptingly reminiscent of that of the European wild cat. [...] Its colour can be any shade of greyish blue, though the preference is for the paler colours."
In contrast, British cat fancier Rose Tenent ("Pedigree Cats," 1955) did not distinguish between the British Blue and Chartreux when she wrote " No cat is better known than the British Short-hair. [. . .]. In the United States the British Blue is known as the Maltese cat, and recently has enjoyed much popularity there as a household pet. On the Continent, too, this cat is becoming increasingly popular, and there its name is the Chartreuse." British breeder and judge Grace Pond simply found it confusingly similar to the British Blue!
“The Observer’s Book of Cats” by Grace Pond (1970s) mentioned the Chartreux in passing. “There are a few Blue British in Europe, but the French have a breed called the Chartreux, said to have been brought to France from South Africa by the monks of that order. They are very like British Blues, which may cause some confusion. Their standard calls for a coat of any shade of grey or greyish blue, with a head not quite so round, and with a very powerful jaw.”
Pedigree Petfoods/Peter Way Ltd; "Your Guide to Cats & Kittens" (1973): "In France, a variety similar to the British Blue has been bred and is called the Chartreux. These cats are thought to have originated from animals brought to France by the Chartreux monks of South Africa.
FIFe AND THE CHARTREUX CROSS-BREEDS
By 1970, FIFe (the major European cat registry) had assimilated the Chartreux and British Blue into a single breed called "Chartreux" but had adopted the breed standard of the common British Blue Shorthair. Breeders of the genuine French Chartreux objected and FIFe reversed their decision in 1977. From then on, the Chartreux and British Blue Shorthair could be maintained as separate breeds, and crossbreeding was discouraged. The problem was, not all European Cat Clubs were affiliated to FIFe, and they continued to use the name "Chartreux" for the British Shorthair, European Blue Shorthair or for crosses between one of these Shorthairs and the genuine French Chartreux. This was almost back to the early 1900s when all blue cats were lumped into a single “self blue” category!
The continued use of the Chartreux name for British, European and cross-bred blue shorthairs tended to occur in countries where the genuine Chartreux was rare or absent. Because it had once been saved by outcrossing to Blue Persians, and because some of the British or European blues carried the recessive longhair gene, "Chartreux Longhairs" appeared. These are sometimes bred under the name “Benedictine”. "Blue-Cream Chartreux" also appeared, because some of the other blue shorthairs were genetically blue torties with minimal cream markings (and where there are blue-creams, there can be undesirable male cream Chartreux.). Though no doubt attractive in their own right, breeders of the genuine Chartreux are now careful not to introduce these mixed heritage cats into their breeding programmes.
CHARTREUX IN THE USA
The first Chartreux were taken to the USA in 1971 by Helen and John Gamon of La Jolla, California. The breed now has championship status in all major US cat associations in the US (CFA (1987), TICA (1979), ACFA, and CFF), however it remains relatively rare.
Unlike many breeds with a long history, the Chartreux has remained almost unchanged in looks since the 1930s. Some of the purest Chartreux bloodlines are now to be found in the USA where it was maintained separately from the British and European Blue Shorthairs.
Traditionally, the first letter of the official name of a Chartreux cat relates to its birth year so that all Chartreux kittens born in the same year have official names beginning with the same letter. The letters follow the alphabet, omitting K, Q, W, X, Y, and Z as it’s hard to find enough names beginning with those letters.