"He has many friends, lay men and clerical,
Old Foss is the name of his cat;
His body is perfectly spherical,
He weareth a runcible hat."
– "How Pleasant To Know Mr. Lear"
Foss was a large tabby cat. Many uncharitable individuals have said that he wasn't the most attractive of creatures – his body wasn't a graceful one; his face was not sleek and classically feline. He only had a stub of a tail; a victim of superstition, for a servant had cut it off, believing that this would discourage the cat from straying. Did the servant think this would have the same effect as clipping a bird's wings? Take one look into a cat's eyes and you can see its travels, its histories, the lands it has conquered, the gods it has spoken with. A mere bobbed tail won't keep a cat home any longer than it had planned to stay.
Foss might not have been lovely, but he had a character strong enough to keep his famous owner, Edward Lear, in line. He even convinced, via, no doubt, a conversazione of mews and purrs punctuated with paw bats and tail swipes, Lear that a coat of arms would be a very fine thing for a cat to have…and he designed Foss one.
Foss was Edward Lear's friend and foe, trial and error, companion and guide, for nearly 16 years. He has been immortalized in sketches that only a mind liberated by whimsy might create.
In every chronology of Lear's life, 1872 is inevitably marked as the year that Foss arrives. Was he the inspiration for the Pussycat who went sailing with the Owl? I doubt it. Such a self-respecting animal wouldn't think of being married by the "Turkey who lives on the hill", with only a wedding dinner of "mince and slices of quince" to follow.
In 1871 Lear built a sprawling house in San Remo, with gardens that went tumbling down the rocks to meet the glowing sea below. He named it the Villa Emily, for the wife of the Laureate who described a King's Idylls. When Foss arrived the following year he found the rooms suitable for exploring, the shade suitable for sleeping, the gardens suitable for hunting. The view across the bay at dusk had skies like dark wine: suitable encouragement for a cat to dream of past Imperial lives, with colored mosaic floors and scented fountains. Yes, he would stay.
Eventually, however, they were forced to leave. Sir Thomas Hanbury, an English Quaker who should have known better, built a hotel between the villa and the sea, quite effectively blocking Lear's and Foss' Mediterranean view. The offended pair moved, and Lear had another home built, the Villa Tennyson. Lear insisted that his new home be identical to the old one: so concerned was he that Foss would not approve of the shock of the new. A cat's architectural sensibilities during this transition could not be damaged.
In 1882 Edward Strachey visited the quiet eccentric(s) in his (their) new home. He was given a tour, and was told that now nothing could interrupt his light 'until the fishes built'. At breakfast, Strachey was given the very great – and unexpected – honor of an audience with 'this much-thought-of, though semitailed cat'. Foss entered the dining room via an open window (on a transport of sunlight?) to eat a piece of toast offered by the guest. Lear never forgot this official nod of recognition.
The world is full of stories of pets following their owners into Death's still, airless chamber. Without realizing what they are doing they enter to lie at their master's or mistress' feet and then die, hoping to wake up to the ear-pulling, head rubs and chin scratches once more.
Very rarely does the opposite happen, when the owner weakens and dies after the loss of a beloved pet. Foss took a final, finicky look at his world in 1887. Perhaps he thought that the tourists invading Sam Remo were making it too vulgar a residence for so stately a cat. He left in November, because even the Cote d'Azur has a ribbon of chill running through its mild air during the autumn months. His gentle owner died only two months later.