Although we are not sure, and there has been lots of speculation, it is possible that the cat from Alice in Wonderland, the grinning Cheshire Cat, was a British Shorthair as represented on the label of Cheshire cheese. However, there may have been an interesting clash of views. It may have been the case that Lewis Carroll had in mind a cat that he saw on a label for Cheshire cheese while the artist who drew the illustration for his book, Sir John Tenniel, had in mind a classic, tabby, random bred cat which he had probably seen because they were the most common sort of domestic cat at the time. He may have lived with a cat, as many artists do, although I can’t find evidence to support that.
I have come to this conclusion because in Lewis Carroll’s book Alice in Wonderland (1865) his fictional Cheshire Cat slowly vanishes, starting with the end of its tail and ending with the broad grin. The grin remains some time after the animal has disappeared. It is a disembodied grin. This disembodied grinning feline face happened to be on a special kind of Cheshire cheese which Lewis Carroll may well have seen at the time he was writing the book. It is notable that the rest of the cat was omitted by the cheesemaker on the label.
Further, the Wikipedia authors state that this cat was based on the purebred British Shorthair. It is also interesting that the largest cat association in the world, the Cat Fanciers’ Association, profiles the British Shorthair with a passing reference to the Cheshire Cat as follows:
When gracelessness is observed, the British Shorthair is duly embarrassed, quickly recovering with a “Cheshire cat smile”.
However, it is probable that the author of this text was making an interesting cross-reference to Lewis Carroll’s book to heighten interest in the cat.
Dr Desmond Morris in his book Cat World writes that the origin of the Cheshire Cat goes back well before Lewis Carroll adopted it. In fact, he states that the original saying was, “grin like a Cheshire Caterling”. This phrase was current five centuries ago. A “Caterling” was a lethal swordsman at the time Richard III. He was a protector of the Royal Forests who was renowned for his evil grin. The grin became broader when he was killing a poacher with his sword. The word “Caterling” was shortened to “cat” and thereafter anyone adopting a wicked smile was said to be “grinning like a Cheshire Cat”.
Based on Dr Desmond Morris’s excellent research we can conclude that the origin of the Cheshire Cat is not a cat at all but a person.
If it was based on the British Shorthair there is a conflict with the illustration in his 1865 publication of Alice in Wonderland (as seen on this page). The illustration shows a tabby cat judging by the “M” marking on the forehead. I suspect it would have been a random bred tabby cat in the mind of the illustrator, John Tenniel, as mentioned. Although the Cat Fanciers’ Association allows the British Shorthair to be a tabby cat, this breed is normally seen in a solid colour, grey, which is described as blue by the cat fancy. This adds another difficulty to working out what sort of cat illustrates the renown book Alice in Wonderland.
As a postscript, there is another possible explanation. One of the leading families in Cheshire had the face of a lion as part of its coat of arms. Sign painters gave the lion a smile to make it look like a grinning cat. This may been the inspiration for Lewis Carroll. The lion has a striped coat which fits in nicely with the illustration mentioned above.
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