kathleen and orlando

On our shelves sits an original edition of Orlando (The Marmalade Cat) His Silver Wedding, and the illustrations in this Artlog post are from that book. I’ve posted them at a high resolution so that you can click on them to better appreciate the artist’s masterful technique of drawing on textured lithographic plates. (The cover images in the post are borrowed from other sources, and as such are at a low resolution.) There is a granular quality to the work typical of lithography, and Hale’s wonderful gradations of intense yet broken colour against the white paper, create an almost hallucinogenic effect throughout her books that were produced by this means.

“Very soon Orlando began to long for a satin sofa to sleep upon, or a bed of hyacinths, a bower of ferns, the airing-cupboard, a pile of clean linen or even the hard pavement beneath him. He yawned, tripped over his whiskers and lay down, fast asleep.”

“I’m your wicked Uncle Truffle” he growled. “Maybe your parents have mentioned my name!”

Grace and Orlando dance at their Silver Wedding Anniversary party. She wears a dress stitched together from shrimp husks and fish skin (a plaice if I’m not mistaken) topped by a butter-muslin veil held in place with a tiara of trout bones. Later, to save waste, they boil the entire ensemble to make a tasty soup!

Orlando was wide awake by the time they reached home. He threw off the disguise and gave the doll to Grace. “That is the wedding dress I promised you.” he said proudly.

This double-page spread is a triumph. Be sure to click on it to see the detail. At their party Grace and Orlando receive their guests from the stage of a toy theatre. In the bottom right corner is a table with a label bearing the legend ‘Put presents here, please’. Among the gifts are a boxed-set of fish knives and forks, a pair of Staffordshire ‘Highland’ figures re-imagined as cats, and a pair of mouse-traps! Hale excelled at filling out the reader’s experience with such delightful discoveries.

Kathleen Hale wrote and illustrated nineteen Orlando (The Marmalade Cat) books that were published between 1938 and 1972. She claimed in an interview toward the end of her life that her husband Douglas, a medical researcher, had been the model for Orlando.

She had a colourful life that included a spell working for Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, and she spent sixteen months as Augustus John’s secretary. She admitted to letting John seduce her ‘out of curiosity’. After her marriage she also had an affair with Arthur Lett-Haines, the long-time lover of the painter Cedric Morris. (Morris and Lett-Haines founded the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing at Dedham.)

Hale affectionately caricatured Lett-Haines as the ‘Katnapper’ in the 1944 Orlando (The Marmalade Cat) His Silver Wedding. (See above.)

So popular were the books that in 1951 a ballet, Orlando’s Silver Wedding, for which Hale designed the sets and costumes, was commissioned to celebrate The Festival of Britain.

While Hale undoubtedly enjoyed the celebrity the marmalade cat brought to her (she was awarded an OBE in 1976) she felt that Orlando had rather hijacked her career as a painter. The self-deprecating title of her autobiography A Slender Reputation, came from a remark by Cedric Morris that Hale had slung her “slender reputation on the broad shoulders of a eunuch cat.” But though Hale may have made light of her life’s work, even claiming, perhaps to shock, that she had grown to ‘hate’ Orlando.

The books are written with affection and wit, and the illustrations, beautifully reproduced by the publishers, are works of the greatest artistry. Hale had a genius for capturing the heft and stretch of her feline cast. Just look at the cover illustration below for Orlando’s Evening Out. Did ever an artist better capture the grace and character of a cat in a drawing? I think not. Hale was the real thing. Seek out her books and treasure them.

After Hale’s death, Margaret Drabble wrote of her:

‘Kathleen Hale, in her life, played the brave and dangerous game of trying to balance Reason and Moderation with Magic and Excess. She succeeded triumphantly, and her work glows with the excitement and exhilaration of the challenges she set herself.’

Kathleen Hale. 1898 – 2000

If you’re interested in finding out more about lithography and how it’s done, you can read a short but informative essay by Gaye Smith HERE. It includes references to Kathleen Hale and her working methods.

22 thoughts on “kathleen and orlando

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  6. Not sure how I ever missed this posting but I have in my hand Orlando’s Home Life and Orlando’s Evening Out. They were always at my Great Aunt Lucy’s and I was allowed to look at them ‘ever so carefully’ and only after I’d washed my hands 🙂 I sat for hours poring over the drawings . They have been so well loved that the covers are off both but still with them. I’m sure it is the good thick paper they are printed on that has kept them going this long. I’ll scan some of the images. There’s a lovely one of Orlando and Grace ice skating!

  7. Oh my gawd, I used to have a cat named Orlando who looked just like that! I named him after the wonderful Tilda Swinton flick. He is long gone and I miss him…

    • Tilda Swinton! Now you’re talking. We have some paintings by her partner of many years, John Byrne. He’s a wonderful artist, and a playwright too. (Tutti Frutti and The Slab Boys.)

      Tilda has ‘the magic’. In any scene the eye gravitates toward her.

  8. I loved the Orlando books dearly and was given copies as they came out. I shall now have to go and look at them and remind myself of all those familiar images.

    I couldn’t open the pdf of the article by Gaye Smith, but I hope that it explains that the illustrations, apart from the earlier books which were drawn directly on to the litho plates, were drawn on a special grained plastic called Plastocowell from which the litho plates were made. Plastocowell was introduced by the printers Cowells in Ipswich who printed the books: it made life a great deal easier for Hale without losing any of the distinctive ‘graininess’ of lithography.

    I have just bought a pair each of three Cedric Morris irises: Benton Ankaret, Benton Olive, and Benton Nutkin which I saw on a visit to Sarah Cook near Hadleigh earlier this summer. She has the National Plant Collection of tall bearded iris and is trying to trace and reassemble the collection of bearded irises bred by Cedric Morris (if you can lay hands on copies of Hortus magazine numbers 78 and 82, you’ll find a couple of detailed and fascinating articles about the irises). She only has a limited number of irises for sale, but it might be worth emailing her at sarah@malmaisons.plus.com

    • In the essay Gaye Smith explained that Hale used Plastocowell. I love those early books. There is a great delicacy to them. However I feel they were not reproduced as well in the later reprints, which I guess were done in photolithography that rather coarsened the illustrations. The Orlando drawings in Art for Children are made in coloured pencil on paper, though the artist created the same soft graininess in them that is so attractive in her lithographic images.

      I’ve had only a qualified success with bearded irises in the garden here at Ty Isaf. The first year after I planted out a bank of them the few buds were taken by slugs. This year they yielded a much better show of blooms, though are still not quite justifying the space I’ve given over to them. i’ve planted the corms on a sunny bank where they get well-baked, but of course last Winter was pretty dire, so that too may have impacted on their performance. I think I’ll see how what I’ve got in there does next year before I invest in any more. You can see one of this year’s successes HERE. However I do wish that they’d last a little longer. The flowering season is over so quickly.

      I owe you a letter Jeremy. My apologies for being so tardy. Work and deadlines have me in their grip!

  9. That was fine, Clive! An enticing introduction to the books and the artist. She has a grand quality of exuberance and her cat-capturing is wonderful–not to mention the little details and, of course, the toy theatre! Is there a good biography? She sounds so vivid here.

    • I love the vivid softness of her colours, sweeping in tides across the compositions. Orlando himself is always so seductively drawn. I just know his ginger coat would be lovely to pet!

      You can find plenty of copies of her autobiography on AbeBooks HERE.

    • Oh I think that Morris and Lett-Haines could be devastatingly waspish. Our friend Pip Koppel knew them well, and spent time at Benton End where she helped Lett in the kitchen. (He was a famously inventive cook!) From her stories it’s clear that those two didn’t hold back when they had something to say! But despite the convoluted relationships and the potential for jealousies, it seems that Hale remained friends with both men. She was affectionately known as ‘Kitty’ to them.

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