During the pandemic 4.7mn UK households acquired a pet, according to a Pet Food Manufacturers Association report in April. Similar surges were observed globally.
Family pets, writes the Canadian critic Marc Shell, are “mythological beings on the line between human kind and animal kind”. We welcome them into our homes, tolerating manifold incursions: chewed-up toys, feeding and toileting paraphernalia, evil hairs that coat our furniture and clothing.
Dogs and cats, kept initially for their usefulness, evolved in Victorian times into our most trusted companions. Birds came into our homes as interior design, their plumage as much admired as their song. Birdcages could be equally beautiful, in glass, ebony or gilded wood, with architectural flourishes such as tiers and balustrades.
The Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí had his share of canaries in ornate cages. But you wouldn’t expect the creator of some of art history’s most bizarre and disconcerting works — themselves replete with all manner of creature — to keep just any old pet. He also cared for swans and an ocelot called Babou, and rented an anteater that he took for walks in the Paris metro. These were more provocative accessory than pet. But he had a real fondness for one creature — the cricket.
For Dalí, its stridulations produced the most mellifluous of sounds, evoking the Mediterranean landscape around his house at Portlligat, on Spain’s Costa Brava. The director of the museum there says he preferred it to music itself.
Dalí would ask guests to bring him a cricket when they came to visit. It would be deposited into the plain wooden cage pictured above, still hanging on the bedroom wall in Portlligat, its rustic simplicity a contrast to Dalí’s flamboyant tastes and behaviour.
Casa Dalí began as a fishing hut but grew into a surreal landscape (what else?) of stairways and mezzanines with shells and skulls, sofas modelled on Mae West’s lips, a bejewelled stuffed bear, giant alabaster eggs on the roof and a phallus-shaped pool in the garden.
For more than 40 years it was where he and his wife Gala worked, entertained and indulged in an open marriage (“she was sexually voracious and exhibitionist . . . Dalí himself was essentially a voyeur”, wrote British author Rosemary Bailey).
Even in love, Dalí’s unusual pet could be useful, as he wrote in his autobiography The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí: “The monotone and rhythmic song of crickets and frogs would stir me sentimentally by superimposing upon the present twilight anguish evocative memories of former springtimes.”