Have you heard of topiary? It’s the horticultural art of sculpting trees and shrubs into defined shapes. Inspired by the technique, 75-year-old British artist Richard Saunders began his series, The Topiary Cat, which involves digitally transforming foliage into felines. The ongoing series is inspired by his own cat, Tolly, who sadly passed away five years ago. However, his feline friend has been given a new lease on life through a fictional character. The artist describes The Topiary Cat as “a magical creature with superior powers who is more wise than the mere mortals who behold him.”
Saunders has been a surrealist painter since he was a teenager, but he learned to use Photoshop over two decades ago when he worked as an advertising creative director and art director. Merging his surrealist ideas with his computer skills, the idea of creating The Topiary Cat series was born around eight years ago, while Tolly was still alive.
“Initially these were done by me just for fun,” Saunders tells My Modern Met. “I had taken a photograph, in the grounds of a historic house, of a huge cloud topiary, and it occurred to me that I could fairly easily photograph Tolly in a position to match the shape of the bushes.” Saunders shared his first image on Flickr, but it was reposted around the web without a credit to the artist. It wasn’t until someone at the BBC came across it and wrote a story on Saunders’ series that he finally got recognition for his work. One of his images went viral on Facebook, and people believed it to be a real topiary. Saunders recalls, “One of the images, of The Topiary Cat drinking from a lake at Painshill Park, had over three million hits on my Facebook page, and the Topiary Cat website crashed due to the gigabytes of hits.”
Tolly died in 2016, but he lives on through Saunders’ art. Over time, Saunders’ images have become more complex, and some take days to create. The artist starts with a photo he takes himself, and then digitally edits in The Topiary Cat to create his fantastical scenes. The surreal series isn’t just cool to look at, though—it has a fun narrative. “The Topiary Cat’s character is wise and brave, as was Tolly, and he doesn’t understand human mortals,” explains Saunders. “Being immortal himself, he has no concept of time, or such odd human preoccupations such as ‘working,’ ‘school,’ ‘weekends,’ or ‘telephones.’”
From snoozing on top of bridges to drinking from a lake, The Topiary Cat treats the countryside and stately homes as his own, personal territory. However, occasionally, he’s pictured with some friends. “He is now accompanied by another Russian Blue called ‘Georgi’ who is now nearly four years old,” explains Saunders. “His alter ego in the images is rather misbehaved and is called ‘G’ (Georgi Kitten) by his topiary mentor.”
Saunders is soon to release a short fantasy novel based on The Topiary Cat’s adventures, simply and aptly titled The Topiary Cat. Until then, scroll down to check out his surreal images and find more on Facebook.