A clowder of cats

Back cover illustration by Fritz Wegner

Carter is a Painter’s Cat
by Carolyn Sloan,
with pictures by Fritz Wegner.
Longman Young Books 1971

A book bought to read with our first child (and, in due course, subsequent children) has remained a firm favourite, at least with me, for nearly fifty years. The irreverent text by British author Carolyn Sloan and equally irreverent illustrations by Fritz Wegner are a perfect marriage, quirky and deeply satisfying in a way that’s not easy to put one’s finger on.

But I shall try, so — deep breath — here goes.

It starts with the cover. Who can fail to be charmed by the profusion of detail here? One doesn’t need to be a cat lover to be intrigued by this clowder of cats — painted, heraldic, sculpted, urned, even cloched, creeping out from a frame or playing a lute (southpaw, naturally).

It continues on the back cover, in which we see Mr Blob the painter (a self-portrait by the illustrator) completing his canvas of the lute-playing Carter, daubing away amidst feline-themed furniture and posh portraits. And then within the covers there are more delights.

Mr Blob is a painter. He paints pictures of cats—not ordinary cats but me! He paints me every morning on a fresh piece of paper and calls me Carter.

Carolyn Sloane’s text is delicious and just calls to be read out to a young audience: “It is very difficult being a painter’s cat. You don’t know what is going to happen from one day to the next!”

For a whole week Mr Blob paints Carter in different ways: with a spatter of blue paint, or in faint outline, or so thin that when Carter tries to purr “my ribs rattled. Rattle-rattle-rattle.” Then there’s a Cubist Carter, a whiskerless custardy Carter, and a Carter who is much too smart to chase mice.

Carter has such a busy week, with or without his friend Samson, stealing other cats’ milk through subterfuge, disrupting a dog show, being rescued from a drain by a kind old lady, nabbled for a circus menagerie, or being freed by Mrs Blob from a fence. And when he is painted smart he literally and figuratively goes to town.

However, on Sunday Mr Blob doesn’t appear, so Carter paints his studio red. We get a marvellous final view of the artist’s studio in all its glory before Carter starts doing surrealist portraits of Mr Blob himself.

And then—I painted him in the bath and I left him there!

Is there anything more exquisitely transgressional than this, designed to elicit a delicious squeal from a young reader or listener? And then, since there’s nothing else for it Carter sets off for a well-deserved holiday at the seaside, abandoning Mr Blob to his own devices.

Text and image complement each other so well: true, Sloan’s whimsical storytelling conjures up such strong images that it would work almost as well on the radio or as an audiobook, but Wegner’s idiosyncratic paintings add the gloss that for me makes this an outstanding picture book and — surely — must’ve rendered it an instant classic.

You’ll never be able to prise it from my grip, so … get your own copy.

23 thoughts on “A clowder of cats

    1. I read it yesterday for the first time in a while with an 8yo granddaughter, which was great fun. Oddly she was most put out by the inconsistency between the realistic circus animals and the surrealism of everything else, but she really enjoyed it! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  1. And just realised that Fritz Wegner illustrated some of our all time favourite Ahlberg books; Master Bun the Baker’s Boy and Giant Baby. You could really cash in on your copy of Carter… They are selling second hand for up to $450.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is one of those books that I wish I’d read when I was a child, though it looks like it was written with the adult reader in mind. In my babysitting days I was always deeply grateful for that kind of bedside reading. What a lovely post.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This looks an absolute treat and I can’t think how how I’ve missed this one. I will put that right! I associate Wegner’s work with the Ahlberg books, in particular the poetry compilations Please Mrs Butler and Heard it in the Playground, and this looks more vibrant in style. Thank you for making me aware of this Chris and for such an uplifting review.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a welcome distraction from political incompetence and venality, Anne, which would otherwise be my daily focus of outrage and ire; hopefully yours too! The pictures here are as exuberant as the text and portray an Innocence and wonderment that too often can be elusive.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What a charming creation! Especially for a cat lover with a couple of cat-loving grandsons! If you knew how much I am coveting your copy, Chris, especially now I’ve checked out the chances of picking it up elsewhere 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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