SHORTHAIRED CATS OF THE 19TH CENTURY - RUSSIAN BLUE ANDCANON GIRDLESTONE'S BREED

The [Russian] Blue Cat (Harrison Weir)

This is shown often 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. In fact, I have ascertained that one shown at the Crystal Palace, and which won many prizes on account of its beautiful blue colour slightly tinged with purple, was the offspring of a tabby and white she-cat and a black-and-white he-cat, and I have seen the same colour occur when bred from the cats usually kept about a farmhouse as a protection from rats and mice, though none of the parents had any blue colour.

Being so beautiful, and as it is possible in some places abroad it may be bred in numbers, I deemed it advisable, when making out the prize schedule, to give special prizes for this colour; the fur being used for various purposes on account of its hue. A fine specimen should be even in colour, of a bluish-lilac tint, with no sootiness or black, and though light be firm and rich in tone, the nose and pads dark, and the eyes orange-yellow. If of a very light blue-gray, the nose and pads may be of a deep chocolate colour and the eyes deep yellow, not green.

If it is a foreign variety, I can only say that I see no distinction in form, temper, or habit; and, as I have before mentioned, it is sometimes bred here in England from cats bearing no resemblance to the bluish-lilac colour, nor of foreign extraction or pedigree. I feel bound, however, to admit that those that came from Archangel were of a deeper, purer tint than the English cross-breeds; and on reference to my notes, I find they had larger ears and eyes, and were larger and longer in the head and legs, also the coat or fur was excessively short, rather inclined to woolliness, but bright and glossy, the hair inside the ears being shorter than is usual in the English cat.

Note:A newspaper account of the show notes "a very handsome cat, coming from Archangel…particularly furry…. They resemble mostly the common wild grey rabbit."

The Derry Journal, 29th August 1894 mentions Russian, or Archangel, cats: “A grand bazaar was opened in the Parish Hall, Moville, at noon yesterday by the Countess of Shaftesbury. The object of the bazaar is to raise funds for repairing and improving the parish room and paying off a debt of £300 on the Glebe House, occupied by the rector [. . .] A young lady presented to the bazaar two blue Russian cats from Archangel, really remarkable and interesting specimens of the feline species, whose parents it was said obtained prizes at the late Crystal Palace cat show. They were to be raffled for.”

Russian Blue Cats (Frances Simpson)

Frances Simpson wrote in "Cats and All About Them" "The best authorities seem to agree in believing that they [Russian Blues] are not a distinct breed, and therefore they are now classed at our Shows amongst the short-haired English varieties." In her more famous "The Book of the Cat", Simpson wrote "That there are two distinct types of these blue cats is apparent to anyone who observes the specimens exhibited at our shows. The foreign or imported variety have wedge-shaped faces, and are longer and larger in the head, with prominent ears; otherwise in colour and coat, they are similar to those bred in England, and which partake of the same formation as an ordinary British cat." Faults included yellow, green or greenish-yellow eyes instead of the required deep orange and too thick tails which indicated a long-haired ancestor.

Mrs Carew-Cox was cited as a foremost breeder of blue short-hairs (the Russian variety) and contributed information to "The Book of the Cat":

"Blue short-haired cats - many of them imported from Northern Russia - make very desirable pets […] Kittens, however, require both care and patience to rear successfully, and strange to say, attain sounder constitutions when brought up by a healthy English foster-mother. […] A Russian cat should be of an even shade of blue throughout, even the skin itself being often - in fact, generally - of a bluish tinge. There should be no stripes or bars and - for exhibition purposes - there should be no white patches. Kittens frequently have body markings when very young, also rings on their tails; but in purebred specimens these defects generally become effaced before they are many weeks old. In one case a kitten (now a large neuter) had until five months of age two broad black stripes down his back on either side of his spine; they were so decided in appearance that it seemed very doubtful that they would ever disappear. However, at six months old, he was a perfectly self-coloured cat! This is, of course, most remarkable and unusual, and amongst all the many kittens of this breed that I have reared for the past thirteen years there has never been another presenting a similar appearance.

The eyes of a Russian should be golden in colour, or deep orange. To procure deep-coloured eyes, experiments have been made in crossing Russians with Persians, but the results - so far as I have seen - have not proved satisfactory, and to an experienced eye the cross is perceptible. I believe there is no really recognised standard of points for this breed, which until quite recently was comparatively little known. I note that there is a very fair demand for Russians at the present time - chiefly, strange to say, from the North of England. The shape of the head in many of those imported is more pointed than round; indeed some have long, lean pointed heads and faces with big ears. The backs of the ears should be as free from hair as possible; some, I remark, are entirely devoid of hair on the upper parts of their ears - at least, if there is any, it is not perceptible to the naked eye. Others, again, have ears covered with peculiarly fine, close silky hair. Some imported blues are very round in face and head, with tiny ears and eyes set rather wide apart. These are surely the prettiest, and are generally given the preference at shows; but of course it cannot be denied that the long-faced variety present the most foreign appearance , more especially when this type also possesses a lithe and rather lean body."

Carew-Cox described the coat as short, close, glossy and silvery but sometimes rather woolly due to the severity of their native climates. Some were paler in colour than others, including some lavender-blues which, though beautiful, were more delicate than the darker blues. There was also a tendency for the blue coat of older cats to discolour to a rusty brown in summer. Cats imported from Archangel were generally of a deep, firm blue with larger eyes and ears and longer head and legs than the English cats.

She noted that short-haired blues also existed in the north of Norway, in Iceland and in some parts of the US. "Many years ago, so blues (with faint tabby markings) were imported from the north of Norway; these were called 'Canon Girdlestone's breed'. I owned two very pretty soft-looking creatures. Blue-and-white cats have been imported from the north of Russia, and are particularly attractive when evenly marked.[…] There are some people who appear to wish to assert that there is an English breed of blues, and I have been told strange tales of unexpected meetings in country villages with cats of this colour, whose owners declared that both parents were English bred. As , however, it is not always possible to identify the sires of household cats, I venture to doubt these assertions. It is sometimes posible to breed blues from a black English female mated to a Russian male. This experiment does not always succeed as some blacks never breed blues, although mated several times consecutively with Russians."

Note: Carew-Cox would not have known that the black cats were carrying blue as a recessive gene in order to produce blues from matings with her Russian cats. Those same household cats would have produced blues when mated to another black carrying the same recessive gene!

"In 1889, however, I purchased a smooth blue, whose owners declared her to be a Siamese - she certainly resembled a puma-shaped Siamese in her body outline and movements - and I believe I entered her in the stud books as such. 'Dwina' won many prizes at Crystal Palace and other shows in 'Any Variety' classes, was a most faithful creature, reared many families, and lived until June 1901. In 1890 I owned a very pretty soft-looking blue female - she was, in fact, a blue tabby (one of Canon Girdlestone's breed); also a male of the same variety."

Other blues Carew-Cox owned included "Kola", a pretty blue-and-white round-faced female from Kola and Lingpopo, a beautiful foreign-looking blue from Archangel. These cats - blues, lavender-blues, blue-and-whites, solid blue "Siamese" and blue tabbies - were some of the founders of the Russian Blue breed.

"In America, the classification given for these cats at the Beresford Cat Club show is 'Blue or Maltese,' but I have not heard of any ardent fanciers of this breed over the water. "

Frances Simpson also included the self blue in the section on short-haired cats as well as noting the popularity of the "Maltese" in America. "For a long time we have called the self blues Russians. No doubt they, in the first instance, came from the East; but since they were imported into this country they have been mixed in a great measure with self blacks, and in some cases with long-haired blues, to get strong, short, round heads, so that at the present time we have very few pure-bred Russians in this country."

She wrote "An explanation may be deemed due to my readers for having included blues amongst the English types, but as the clubs have recognised this breed, and sanctioned their being catalogued amongst the English exhibits, I felt justified in adopting this course; more particularly as the country of origin still remains a matter of speculation.[…]"There seems to be a great difference of opinion as to the shape and make of head of these cats. Some judges look for a round, full head of the English-bred cat; others the long head of the Eastern variety. I think that difference arises to a great extent according to where these cats originally came from. I have heard the opinions of some who give Archangel as the port of origin; others Malta. If the cat originated from Archangel, one would naturally expect a long head of Eastern type. The specimens, however, from Malta have certainly the round head and more of the English-bred type."

A letter from Mrs H V James in Fur and Feather summed up the confusion and frustration:

"I am very interested in the discussion on blue Russians, as years ago I had a perfect type of a blue Russian, which had been imported. When Russians were judged as Russians it won well at shows, so you may like to have a description of the cat - which is, I believe, a correct one, according to several authorities on Russian cats. A real Russian should be longer in the leg than the English blue. The head is pointed and narrow; the ears large, but round; tail long, full near the body, but very tapering. According to the English taste, it is not a pretty cat, and only excels over the British blue in the colour and quality of its coat, which is much shorter and softer than the latter. The true colour is a real lavender-blue, of such softness and brilliancy that it shines like silver in a strong light. The eyes are amber. I think it a great mistake to give 'Russian' in our show classification now, as these are really almost extinct in England, I believe, and our principal clubs have been wise enough to drop the title for 'Short-haired Blues,' in the same way that 'Persian' has been dropped for 'Long-haired Cats.'

The last time I showed my Russian was at the first Westminster show, in a class for Russians. She was, however, beaten by the round-headed British blue, although she was, I believe, the only Russian in the class. In 1901 the class was altered to 'Short-haired Blues' which was more correct, as few of the blues shown then had anything of the Russian about them, either in shape or coat. As these classes are not arranged, it would be unfair to judge them except by the standard of our own shorthaired cats, and I think that if a club wants to encourage Russians it should give the extra class, 'Blue Russian', and let it be judged as such. I must own it is disappointing for a Russian owner who, seeing 'Russian Blue' only given in the schedule, enters his cat accordingly, and gets beaten by a short-haired blue in just the points that the Russian is correct in. I know my feelings after Westminster 1899, when my Russian was described as 'grand colour, texture of coat, failing to winner in width of head and smallness of ears.'. the blue short-hairs now show are, I know, far more beautiful with their round heads and shorter legs; but, unfortunately, the beautiful is not always the correct type."

At the start of the cat fancy, Russian Whites and Russian Bicolours were also imported. Grace Pond wrote in "The Cat" (1974) "The earliest registrations in the years 1898 to 1899 show that a Mr Brooks imported a white Russian female, no name given; another white Russian was registered as "Granny". There was also "Olga", a Russian Blue with a white spot." However, it was the blues from Arkangel that found most favour and some modern breeders refuse to acknowledge the wider palette of colours found in early imports and consider them cross-breds, forgetting that early Russian Blue imports were interbred with British Black Shorthairs in the hope of getting a good blue colour!

While judges were aware that the longer legs and longer head was the correct type for the Russian cats, the standard of points for the short-haired blue classes favoured the British cats and thus the Russians lost out.

The Tatler, 4th January 1905, had an article “A Sportsman and his Pets” by A. Stennard Robinson. This mentions the Russian grey-blue cats owned by the sportsman’s wife, and also blue French cats (later known as Chartreuse): “The cat Mrs. Thomas is holding in the photograph is Sam; his better half, Susan, having scampered away is not shown, and these handsome felines are the very own of the chatelaine of the Red House. Now these are real Russians; that is to say, they are fearsome felines when they want to be so and like other pussies most winning when the humour is upon them. Their fur, a dainty grey-blue, is as soft as velvet, and their eyes of amber so bright that Eastern women would love to wear them as necklace beads to charm away evil spirits. In Akaroa, New Zealand, there was a similar belief when the French first settled on the land and brought with them these glorious, distinguished-looking cats, so unlike our own dear old tabby, and residents in other islands went to Akaroa to beg a blue kitten with golden eyes, ‘just to bring luck, you know, to our new home.’ Whether Sam and Susan have brought luck to Mr. and Mrs. Thomas the writer knoweth not, but certain it is that the cats themselves are in luck, for their abode is the prettiest home ever cat had, and the kindest.”

A death notice in “Fur and Feather” – February 22, 1909. Sing Sing (blue Russian neuter), the beloved friend and close companion of Constance Carew Cox, aged 10 years. “A sorrow’s crown of sorrow is remembering happier days.” (Yorkshire Evening Post, 5th March, 1909)

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