Curator's Choice: Tim Knox, Director of Sir John Soane's Museum chooses mummified cats

Tim Knox interviewed by Ed Sexton | 20 May 2009
a man with a glass case containing two cat skeletons

Museum Director Tim Knox with the mummified cats and rat

Curator's Choice: In his own words… Tim Knox, Director of Sir John Soane's Museum, talks about two mummified cats, which are slated for permanent public display in 2012 and were acquired by Sir John during two of his major architectural projects in London.

"Soane tells us the first cat was found in a building being demolished for the building of the Bank of England and the other was discovered in the wall of a house in Chelsea that he was demolishing to make way for an extension to the Royal Hospital.

The first cat arrived in 1803 and another joined nearly 30 years later in 1829. One had a rat in its mouth that now lies on the bottom of the glass case.

I don't know what Soane knew about the background of the cats but they are a very well known London thing – a sort of good luck charm to ward off vermin. Builders would put them into the fabric of the building during construction, and they are typically found behind the panels or in chimneys. The dead rats in their mouths act as a warning to other vermin.

Soane was involved in a major transformation of London with the construction of the Bank of England – streets of houses were acquired and demolished to create the big island site where it stands now.

He demolished a villa that was adjacent to the Royal Hospital, first owned by Sir Robert Walpole and later Lord Yarborough. Soane managed to get hold of quite a lot of stuff from the building – items he bought included wooden panelling and three William Kent desks, as well as one of the cats.

Soane preserved the cats in a little glass case and they were displayed in the passage outside his bedroom, which suggests he was really quite fond of them.

I can remember finding them in an office and thought they were rather frightening but not that strange for Soane, bearing in mind his fascination with memorials in the crypt. He must have regarded them as proper exhibits – it's amazing they were never thrown out.

They have appeared in an exhibition that we held for Museums and Galleries Month, Miscellaneous Marvels, where we scattered around the museum some of the stranger objects not normally on display. The cats always received quite an excited reaction.

It was because of the exhibition that the research was carried out and as a result we were able to work out what they were. The cats were originally on display in the Book Passage that led to Soane's bedroom, kept in a bookcase that had strips of mirrored and orange glass.

The cats were on display in my office for some time and if I had people in for lunch or for interviews I found that their eyes would stray into the recess of the glass case.

The case itself is quite a chic thing. It may well have been used to house something else and Soane just decided to pop them in there. The cats will go on display where Soane originally had them, and we hope that his personal apartments will be ready by 2012-13. It really was the private world of Soane – almost a state apartment."

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