“Peggy Bacon’s Cats” by Guy Reed

Books about dogs may be riding the bestseller lists, but my poetry friends at a party recently decided that the literature about cats is of a more high-brow, sublime and lofty nature. Cats appear in The Quran, Baudelaire and T.S. Eliot. High company indeed. Currently in Woodstock we have an exhibit, “Peggy Bacon: Cats and Caricatures,” of an artist and writer from the 1920s who made her loyalties clear: “I think every child loves pets. Cats were the only pets I had. I drew them constantly. I loved them dearly and enjoyed them as personalities and models,” she said. She made hundreds of close studies of individual cats, featured cats in elaborately compose, multi-figured scenes, or created narrative pictures in which they were protagonists. She showed them in all sorts of activities (sleeping, eating, fighting, etc.) and as creatures with nearly human personalities and emotions. Peggy Bacon’s first book, written and illustrated by her, is titled, The True Philosopher: And Other Cat Tales (The Four Seas Company, 1919).

Peggy Bacon (1895-1987) attended the Arts Student League’s summer school in Woodstock where she met her husband, the painter Alexander Brook, in 1920. After a year in Europe, the couple returned to Woodstock with their baby daughter and soon they had a second child, a son. Eventually moving south to New York, the couple continued to spend summers in Woodstock until 1926.

Aside from her rendering of cats, Bacon was a renowned caricaturist. The exhibit in the Phoebe and Belmont Towbin Wing of the Woodstock Artist Association and Museum, which opened June 11th and closes October 10th, includes her original drawings of heavyweight champion boxer Joe Louis, actress Lillian Gish, composer George Gershwin, artist Diego Rivera, Fiorello LaGuardia, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

At my house, we have three cats and three dogs, so I remain neutral in the great debate over which animal is smarter, but I am supporting the feline side at a literary reading marking the closing weekend of the exhibit on Sunday, October 9th at 2 pm. Together with Bruce Weber, Victoria Sullivan, and Joanne Pagano Weber, we will read from Peggy Bacon’s own writings and excerpts from an interview with her. For details about this and other events, explore the website or call 845-679-2940.

Now here’s a poem. It’s a hand-inscribed dedication (August 1919) in a copy of The True Philosopher that was most likely given to Edward Duffy, future winner of three Pulitzer Prizes as a cartoonist and future husband of Peggy Bacon’s good friend, Anne Rector, who also attended the Arts Student League.

Dear Duff—This book
Has a trivial look,
But don’t be deceived by the cover.
It’s deep and abstract
And matter-of-fact
To suit the most solemn book-lover.

The title may sound
Not very profound,
But don’t be deluded by that!
It’s really terrific
It’s so scientific
Tho the subject treated is cat!

The stories may read
Very lightly indeed
But you’ll see if you stare and blink
Symbolical signs
Between the lines
Written in “BLOOD” not INK!

Just clutch your pate
And concentrate
And try very hard, I beg
By thought intense
To get the sense.
I sign: your fond friend Peg.

The Woodstock Artists Association & Museum is located at 28 Tinker Street in the heart of Woodstock, New York and is open on Friday and Saturday from 12-6 pm and Sunday, Monday, Thursday 12-5 pm.

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