History of the Chartreux

This is a quotation from the late Jean Simonnet’s book ‘Le Chat des Chartreux’, a study into the origin and history of the breed:

“I am inclined to think that these blue cats originated in the rugged, mountainous regions of Turkey and Iran, from where they were probably brought into the neighbouring territories of Syria”.

The unique coat indicates that they lived in damp areas with cold nights and harsh winters. They were probably brought to France by returning Crusaders or merchants along the ‘Silk Road’ in the 13th century. The cats adopted France with all their native vitality and intelligence and the country adopted the breed.

                 

Stories of these blue cats began to emerge during the 16th century. Ulisse Aldrovandi described a ‘Cat of Syria’ with a blue-grey coat, stocky body, developed jowls, strong paws and two slightly almond-shaped eyes of an astonishing colour. He noted that they were well-tempered, vigilant, loyal to their master and ready for the hunt. The rodent at its side marked its hunting abilities, which is what attracted Aldrovandi to these cats.

Legend links the Chartreux cat to the Carthusian monks, a Roman Catholic Monastic Order founded in 1084, living in the Chartreuse Mountains north of Grenoble or the Chartreuse liqueur that the monks are famous for. The story goes that these excellent ratters were used by the monks to keep the vermin down in their cellars where they stored the ingredients and vats of Chartreuse liqueur they made. Some writers have noted that being a ‘silent cat’ they would have been particularly well suited to monastic life, especially as the Carthusian monks are a contemplative order. But, in 1972, the Prior of the Grande Chartreuse stated that their archives did not show that they had kept Chartreux cats.

It is more likely that these cats were actually named after the luxurious Spanish wool ‘la pile des Chartreux’ because of the soft and woolly character of the coat. However, the exact origin of the name remains unclear.

The first written document mentioning these cats is a poem written by Joachim du Bellay in 1558 entitled ‘Vers Français sur la mort d’un petit chat’.

A little of my heart dies
when I talk or write of him
it’s Belaud my little grey cat
Belaud who was by chance
the most beautiful work that
nature has ever made in the form of a cat
it was Belaud who brought death to the rats…

The name Chartreux was first mentioned in the ‘Dictionnaire Universel de Commerce’ by Jacques Savary des Brûlons, published in 1723, in which it was defined as:

“the common name of a type of cat which has a blue coat. Furriers do business with their pelts”.

Although known as the ‘Cat of France’, they were also referred to as ‘the cat of the common people’. They did not lead easy lives, as they were valued for their pelt, their meat and as ratters. As Jean Simonnet noted in his book, whilst Persian cats were celebrated by poets, treated like princes and were companions of royalty, the Chartreux wandered the streets of Paris fending for themselves and always in danger of losing their life for their pelt.

But some Chartreux were more fortunate. Jean-Baptiste Perronneau’s painting ‘Magdaleine Pinceloup de la Grange’ from 1747, clearly shows a blue cat as a pampered pet.

This is what the J. Paul Getty Museum says about this painting:

“With both hands, Magdaleine grasps a large grey-blue cat that bemusedly engages the viewer. Because of its large size and distinctive colouration, the cat can be identified as a Chartreux, one of the oldest and most cherished French breeds.

Jean-Baptiste Perronneau included feline companions in several of his portraits of female subjects, reinforcing the elegance and sophistication of his sitters. Here, the bells on the Chartreux’s collar echo the pearls around Magdaleine’s neck, suggesting that cat and sitter alike are refined objects for visual delectation.”

The 18th-century naturalist Linnaeus described the Chartreux in great detail and gave it the Latin name Felis Catus Coeruleus, blue cat, differentiating it from the common Felis Catus Domesticus, domestic cat.

Buffon and other later naturalists also documented their studies of the Chartreux. These descriptions were used by the early breeders for putting together a ‘Chartreux Breed Standard’. The first official breed standard was accepted by  Fédération Féline Française, FFF, in 1939.

Although there was not a large population, natural colonies of these cats were living in Paris and in some isolated regions of France until the early 20th century. However, the first and second world wars were to decimate the breed. After WWI  no major breeding colonies of pure Chartreux were known to exist, so some French breeders became interested in preserving this ancient breed for posterity.

One colony was found living on the island of Belle-Île-en-Mer off the coast of Brittany. They were known locally as the ‘hospital cats’ as they lived in the grounds of the local hospital. The Léger family moved to Belle-Îlen about 1925. Their daughters Christine and Suzanne had studied at the School of Horticulture in Versailles and were very interested in breeding animals. On the island, they came across a large number of beautiful blue cats that matched the descriptions and drawings by Linnaeus, Buffon and the later naturalists of the cats they called ‘Chartreux’. They began monitoring the cats, helped to care for them and eventually began selective breeding under the cattery name ‘de Guerveur’. The results were excellent in all cases, but the colour of the coat and the eyes varied, which is common in pure selective breeding. The temperament of these cats was one of remarkable mildness.

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In 1931 ’Mignonne de Guerveur’ was judged to be the most beautiful cat in the Paris show, and in 1933 she became International Champion and Best Cat in a show organized by Cat Club de Paris.

After the Léger sisters had started their breeding, Cat Club de Paris began breeding with blue cats from a colony in the Massif Central, a highland region in the middle of Southern France. But in 1936 they acquired a male Blue Persian, Japouk du Fouillox, to try to improve the eye colour and mated him with Titote, a feral cat. WWII severely curtailed their efforts, but one of their sons, Keekey de Champol, survived the war and was mated with Trisette, a feral cat, and became father to a boy in 1948 named Weekey de Trevise, who was to play an important role in the Cat Club’s breeding programme. In 1950 Dim and Zolouska, both feral cats had a son, Vasska, who resembled the cats of Belle-Île, and he was mated with Grichette de Sytka and in 1960 he became father to Jimmbo, a remarkable cat who is in the pedigrees of most modern Chartreux. Weekey the Trevise and Jimmbo are also in some of the de Guerveur bloodlines.

By the mid-1960s, the Cat Club’s stock was very inbred. The breeders at that time lacked knowledge of the history of the Chartreux and they did not know that their predecessors had selectively bred and improved the cats in their breeding programme. Instead, they started to cross-breed them with the British Blue Shorthair. Despite that, the Léger sisters obtained another male from the Cat Club in 1970 and they had excellent results when mating him with their females. The characteristics were maintained and the eye colour improved.

At the same time, Mr Simonnet acquired two females from Belle-Île and started breeding under the name ‘Chatterie du Vaumichon’ using males from the Cat Club. Many Chartreux breeders consider Mr Simonnet to be the one who saved the breed.

In 1970, Fédération Internationale Féline, FIFe, made the unfortunate decision to assimilate the Chartreux with the British Blue and adopted the British Blue standard for both breeds. If this had continued the Chartreux breed would have died out. This led to strong protests from the few remaining breeders of the genuine Chartreux and after a lengthy battle, in 1977 FIFe decided to separate the British Blue and the Chartreux and to introduce a breed standard for each breed. Cross-breeding is now not allowed by LOOF, CFA and TICA and FIFe state:

A clear distinction should be drawn between the Chartreux and the Russian Blue and the British Blue. Crossing the Chartreux with these two breeds is undesirable”.

DNA tests on modern Chartreux have shown that, despite them having some ancestry in common with the British Blue and the Persian, as do all the breeds with origins in Europe, the Chartreux is clearly a separate breed with its own distinctive DNA signature.

In spite of all the adversity, a small number of breeders had continued to breed pure Chartreux. As mentioned above, in the 20th century the breed endured a number of setbacks: almost extinction of the breed due to two World Wars, ill-advised cross-breeding, brief amalgamation with the British Blue and in some countries it ended up as a minority breed or unrecognised. Indeed, here in the UK the Chartreux only received preliminary recognition in October 2017 and the club is still working on attaining full recognition.

That’s a lot of history for such an undemanding cat!

With thanks to Jean Simonnet’s book ‘Le Chat des Chartreux’ from which a lot of material has been taken for this breed history.