Sitting elegantly on a spiral staircase is a shop mascot, a famous cat that once turned the head of Dodie Smith, author of 101 Dalmatians.
Heal’s is the shop, and their furniture store was designed by commissioned by Ambrose Heal and designed by his cousin, and best friend, Cecil Brewer, and it was Brewer who introduced the idea of the distinctive spiral staircase that is such a major feature of the building.
And up here, on a small art deco plinth, sits a cat.
It was designed by the French sculptor, Chassagne and reputedly bought by Heals for sale in 1925. It’s likely that the cat was either bought as a shop mascot, or gained the title very quickly, as there is a postcard from 1933 calling it “The Cat on the Stairs” Mascot of Heal’s Shop. If the cat just happened to be come the mascot, then I am also a tiny bit suspicious about the ever so conveniently correct sized plinth for the cat, so either a mascot of some sort was always intended for that spot when the staircase was built nearly a decade before the cat arrived, or the plinth was added a bit later.
The story goes that Dodie Smith, later to be the author of 101 Dalmatians but at the time a struggling actress took up a job at Heal’s and soon took up a position in the bedroom of the boss, Ambrose Heal.
In here autobiography, Look Back with Astonishment, she wrote “On the sill of a window that lit it was a very tall bronze cat, (really a serval) which I came to think of as presiding deity of Heal’s. I later let it be known that it would grant wishes and I was to see various members of the staff reaching up, rather furtively, to touch its paws.”
Being a salesgirl though, that didn’t stop her selling the cat — which she says was for £40.
The boss wasn’t pleased it seems, and wrote to the customer cancelling the sale, then had a card made to go next to the cat saying ‘Heal’s Mascot. Not for Sale’.”
The sign has vanished, but the cat remains.
It might be slightly awkward to point out that the only source for that story is Dodie herself, but the rest of the chapter seems reasonably factual, so it’s unlikely that she made up the story.
In 2016, Heals invited artists to decorate replica cats and they were dotted around the place, and then sold to raise money for charity. One remained though, sitting on the Cecil Brewer staircase is a white cat by Zoe Bradley in direct opposition to the sultry dark bronze below.
The staircase is pretty stunning as well, regardless of the feline overlord keeping an eye on it.