This painting is inspired by the tale of the Lighthouse Keepers Cat. In 1894 a lighthouse was commissioned on the rat-free Stephens Island in NZs Cook Strait. Lighthouse keeper David Lyall took up residence with his cat Tibbles and before long the cat began bringing in tiny bodies of a golden brown bird. Lyall sent one to the ornithologist Walter Buller who pronounced the bird a previously unknown species of flightless wren. Tibbles subsequent victims were sold to a curio dealer by the name of Travers who recognized the economic value of the species and it is rumoured he put a price tag of fifty pounds on a single bird. In less than a year the cat ceased to bring any more wrens to the lighthouse keepers’ door and after 1895 they were never seen again. Thus the extinction of a whole species was attributed to a single cat.
Interestingly enough, fossil remains of the Stephens Island Wren (named Traversia Lyalli) were later discovered on the mainland and it appears the species was once widespread until the introduction of the Kiore, the Pacific Rat which arrived with the Maori.
No matter which version is closer to the truth, the fact remains that a wonderfully unique species was both discovered and lost to the world within the space of a year. To me the Lighthouse Keepers Cat is one single animal symbolizing the destructive powers of its whole race. Then again, perhaps it is even more than that, perhaps it symbolizes all the introduced animals and havoc they have wreaked on our native wildlife.
In my painting I used a friends’ cat “Ollie” as my model. A big bruiser of a beast he had the perfect air of smugness about him. I kind of regard cats the same way I regard Humans - the individuals I know are wonderful but as a collective race they are hugely destructive and the planet would be better off without them!
I purposefully left out any of the actual wrens – after all they are extinct! Look closer at the cat and you’ll see a small brown feather on his chin.