“Louis Wain’s Cats” by Chris Beetles (jointly published by Chris Beetles Ltd and Canongate Books)

Wain’s away but the cats still play

Occasionally over the years – and by now there have been many many years – I’ve come across unusual pictures of cats – psychedelic and kaleidoscopic cats, frolicking cats, knitting cats, song and dance cats, fishing cats... a whole eccentric world of felines. Not being a great fan of these standoffish sleepy creatures, I gave a glance or two and passed on. Now I know the man responsible for this furry fun.
29. January 2022 13:51

Sorry to admit, but artist Louis William Wain was a completely unknown name to me, and it comes as a revelation to discover that he was born in Clerkenwell, London, on August 5, 1860 and died in Napsbury Hospital, UK, on July 4, 1939. His life and his art are revealed in Chris Beetles’ new book, the author being the proprietor of an eponymous art gallery in London that has just held an exhibition with the same name, “Louis Wain’s Cats”.

Wain is clearly a big name among people better informed than I, and not only is there a book and an exhibition but there is a new biographical film, “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain”, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy, directed by Will Sharpe and out now in UK cinemas. There’s a lot going on here, for we read that the exhibition showcases original paintings, sketches, ceramics and memorabilia spanning Wain’s entire career as a cat artist; “from his early naturalistic work to his late abstract work from his days in Napsbury asylum” An asylum?

In 1886 a little-known artist named Louis Wain contributed a rollicking illustration of festive cats to the Christmas edition of the Illustrated London News, a prominent weekly paper. Titled “A Kitten’s Christmas Party,” the drawing featured nearly 200 felines revelling in holiday festivities: they make speeches, play games and indulge in boozy punch.

The Victorian public, which apparently had only recently begun to view cats as cute pets rather than feral pests, was enthralled. Wain went on to become a popular commercial artist best known for his further humorous, endearing depictions of wide-eyed cats engaging in an array of human antics. There is a word for this: anthropomorphism, defined as the attribution of human traits, emotions or intentions to non-human entities. We live, we learn.

Throughout his life, Wain was regarded as an eccentric character. But his behaviour eventually became disconcertingly erratic, and in 1924 he was certified “insane” and committed to an asylum. Wain lived at Bethlem Royal Hospital in Beckenham, Kent, until 1930, and the hospital too has mounted an exhibition of his cat art, “Animal Therapy: The Cats of Louis Wain”, until April, timed to coincide with the UK release of the film, in which Cumberbatch plays the artist and Foy his wife.

The exhibition features an array of artworks that show the influence of cats on Wain’s work, and how they are bound up with his personal life and artistic success. The origins of this obsession are considered profoundly personal. In 1884, he had married Emily Richardson, who had worked as a governess to Wain’s sisters.

Soon after, Richardson, who was ten years Wain’s senior, was diagnosed with breast cancer. The couple’s cat, Peter, was a great comfort to her. Wain drew pictures of their pet to entertain Richardson, who died in 1887 after a three-year convalescence. “I remember well the sigh of relief that came from her as the genial warmth of [Peter’s] body assuaged her pangs and soothed her into peaceful slumber,” the artist wrote.

Wain often depicted cats in cheeky scenes. His kitties play cricket, slide down snowy hills on toboggans and excitedly clutch tiny cat dolls. Their eyes are big and slightly devious – a signature of his work. But even Wain’s simpler drawings are rife with humour. One pared-down work features only the head of a grinning cat and a very cat-like caption: “I Am Happy Because Everyone Loves Me.”

The illustrations won widespread fame between the 1880s and the outbreak of World War I in 1914. But Wain was a poor businessman who often failed to turn a profit, and the war left him impoverished. As his financial situation worsened, so too did his mental state.

Beginning in the early 1920s he grew obsessed with rearranging furniture, also claiming that spirits were torturing him and, on multiple occasions, he even physically attacked his sisters. Wain continued to create quirky cat art after his hospitalisation in 1924. For example, he painted a series of Christmas-themed artworks onto mirrors during his stay at Bethlem, after the staff asked him to help decorate the ward. Sporting impish expressions, the cats eat plum pudding and sing carols.

The artist was institutionalised at Bethlem – more commonly known as Bedlam – until 1930, when he was transferred to Napsbury Hospital mental health facility, near St. Albans, Hertfordshire. He remained there until his death in 1939 at age 78.

Beetles’ biographical book immerses us in this peculiar world, a world I should have known about earlier but it’s never too late to catch up. Cumberbatch contributes an introduction and the 300 plates are reproduced faithfully from the original artwork.

The “Kaleidoscope Cat” drawings are rendered in vibrant colours and intricate patterns, some of them dizzyingly abstract. They were discovered in a junk shop by psychiatrist Walter Maclay in the 1930s, and he later arranged them in a sequence and touted them as illustrations of Wain’s descent into madness.

However, this is disputed, as the kaleidoscope artworks were never dated, and their placement “in order” was purely speculative, thus there is an alternative view that they are clear evidence of experimentation in colour and pattern but not of mental deterioration.

Wain’s exuberant pictures of anthropomorphised large-eyed cats and kittens made him a household name during his lifetime. The first comprehensive exhibition of his work was held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 1972, and since then he has steadily become more fashionable and collectable.

H.G. Wells opined: “He has made the cat his own. He invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world. English cats that do not look and live like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves.”

Leave a Reply