Louis Wain: the cat-loving artist who forever changed the way that we see our feline friends
Reproductions of Louis Wain's anthropomorphic cats could be found in nearly every home and inspired a new attitude towards the animal, but, explains Nige Tassell, he did not make much money from his wild popularity and his later years were tormented by mental health issues...
During the late-19th and early 20th centuries, few artists enjoyed the kind of widespread popularity that Louis Wain did. He was a household name and his works could be found everywhere. His speciality – anthropomorphic cats and kittens with oversized eyes doing human activities from singing songs to playing sports – adorned postcards, calendars, annuals and biscuit tins.
Rare was the household that didn’t possess at least one example of Wain’s work, and many people were not content unless they had a collection of his feline-based art, including such eminent figures as the novelist HG Wells and the prime minister Stanley Baldwin. Both were great champions of Wain, in particular when the artist was discovered to have been committed to a pauper’s asylum in his later years.
That Wain’s life didn’t trace the kind of trajectory to be expected given the heights of his popularity makes him a fascinating character to study. He is the subject of the film, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, which offers a portrait of the artist as a brilliant but tortured soul.
The film’s lead, Benedict Cumberbatch, found multiple layers to Wain’s personality, writing in his foreword to a new edition of the Chris Beetles book Louis Wain’s Cats that “to be Louis felt like tuning in to a perpetual voice, sometimes quiet and shy, sometimes channelled into a singular focus, and at other times openly confrontational, a voice saying to the world, ‘But don’t you see?!’”
Safe in solitude
Louis Wain was born in Clerkenwell in central London in 1860, the first of six children of a textile merchant and his French wife. Home life for the Wains was a little unorthodox for the times. Not only did none of his five sisters ever marry, but each of them lived in the family home for their entire lives.
Wain himself had been born with a cleft lip and was a sickly boy who experienced frequent nightmares – which he later called “visions of extraordinary complexity” – and contracted serious illnesses, such as scarlet fever. On doctor’s orders, the young Louis didn’t enter conventional education until the age of 10, and when he eventually did he often skipped school, electing instead to wander the streets of London in the safe solitude of his own company.
If this wandering soul lacked social confidence, he certainly didn’t go wanting when it came to confidence in his own talent and ability. During his teenage years, he developed many and varied interests, including boxing, chemistry, designing and drawing inventions, writing an opera, and playing the piano.
More like this
Wain threw himself into all these pursuits with gusto, eager to master them all, but it was in drawing that he truly excelled, setting him on his most discernible career path. In 1877, Wain enrolled at the West London School of Art. While his early years might have shown him to be someone who didn’t quite fit in, his life now appeared to be more settled. That was, until further events would serve to further confuse and set him adrift.
During his teenage years, he developed many and varied interests, including boxing, chemistry, designing and drawing inventions, writing an opera, and playing the piano, but it was in drawing that he truly excelled
In 1880, Wain’s father died, leaving the 20-year-old Louis with the responsibility of keeping his family afloat financially – even though, as would be shown in the years to come, his business sense was far from sophisticated. Perhaps realising this, he took a job as an assistant master at the art school so that he could meet a duty to earn a regular, steady income.
His teaching career lasted but a year. The pull of the life of a working artist had become too strong and he joined the staff of the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, for whom he would draw tranquil scenes of country houses and livestock. This role suited Wain well – he stayed at the magazine for four years – but there was more upheaval to come in his life.
At the age of 23, he fell in love with and married his sisters’ governess, Emily Richardson. She was 10 years his senior, an age gap that attracted scorn and criticism from certain corners of society. Having moved to Hampstead, the couple only enjoyed a three-year marriage before Emily died from breast cancer in 1887. Wain, still only in his 20s, had now lost both his father and his wife.
Yet there was a silver lining from Emily’s illness, and it was one that would accelerate Wain’s artistic impact. To offer some solace and comfort to Emily as her condition worsened, the couple took in a stray black-and-white kitten, which they named Peter, and Wain started sketching caricatures of their beloved cat in the hopes of cheering her up.
Emily always encouraged him to have his drawings published, advice he followed shortly before her death with the publications Madame Tabby’s Establishment and A Kittens’ Christmas Party. Wain later acknowledged the role of his cat on his rise to global acclaim: “To him, properly, belongs the foundation of my career.”
The year before Emily died, Wain switched publications, to become a staff illustrator for the Illustrated London News, with whom he stayed for a number of years, presumably in need of constancy and stability after an extended period of tragedy.
But his parallel freelance career was growing. He was now specialising in illustrations of cats, drawn both faithfully and as his unique style of caricature. With each print of his work being sold and displayed in homes across the country, it was not only Wain’s reputation that grew, but people’s appreciation for cats.
- Read more | 10 top cats in history
Attitudes shifted, and favourably so. Wain’s art celebrated the cat as a multi-faceted domestic companion rather than a flea-ridden moggy or mouse-catcher, lifting the common perception of the animal out of the gutter. Compassion flooded his works, and he later became president of the National Cat Club, along with being a member of both the Society for the Protection of Cats and the Anti- Vivisection Society.
Wain’s feline creations were the cipher for a worldview, the channel for his observations on human nature. He would present them as professors giving public talks, as gossiping knitters, or as ocean- going pirates. He occasionally drew a real person as a cat, such as Winston Churchill, and almost every picture would be shot through with a sense of mischief. As HG Wells observed: “Louis Wain invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world”.
The demand for his work was seemingly insatiable. By the turn of the century, Wain was working entirely freelance and at an extraordinarily prolific rate. At his most productive, he delivered up to 600 cat drawings per year for various clients. Some works would be black and white, but many would be vividly colourful.
No matter how quickly he turned commissions around, his quality control never dropped an inch. His consistency attracted the attention of dozens of publishers tuned in to the popularity of these bug-eyed cats. Indeed, as many as 75 different publishers commissioned work from him.
Plenty of these were also attracted by Wain’s lack of business know-how. In being utterly committed to his creations and to the speedy fulfilment of commissions, he neglected to develop anything more than the sketchiest grasp of economics. Crucially, he didn’t employ the services of an agent to plug this void. Despite still being the source of income and maintenance for his mother and sisters, he never enjoyed the financial security that his success merited.
At his most productive, he delivered up to 600 cat drawings per year for various clients. Some works would be black and white, but many would be vividly colourful
He was at the mercy of exploitative publishers and rarely insisting on retaining the rights to his work. As Chris Beetles noted, Wain was “the perfect one-stop artist for the ruthless entrepreneurial spirit of the age... a predictably sound craftsman who would naively sell for a one-off fee and not retain his copyright”.
Wain’s work was reproduced over and over, but he rarely saw a penny beyond the initial fee. Furthermore, any modest amount of money he did accumulate was often unwisely invested in other people’s inventions. He saw no return on this money.
One such example occurred on a trip to New York, where he undertook illustration work for the mighty Hearst Corporation. However, with a large market opening up for him, he decided to invest his earnings into the development of a supposedly revolutionary oil lamp. It was a financial cul-de-sac and left Wain to sail back to Britain worse off than when he had left.
Just as erratic as Wain’s fiscal affairs was his behaviour, which grew angrier and more violent as he got older. So unbearable did his family find this that, in 1924, they had him committed to Springfield Hospital in south London.
Initially, the state of his finances meant he was placed in a pauper’s ward, so it was only the following year, when his hospitalisation was discovered, that personal interventions from Wells and the prime minister saw Wain transferred to a more comfortable institution, the Bethlem Royal Hospital in Southwark and, a few years later, to the leafy environs of Napsbury Hospital in Hertfordshire. There, sharing the gardens with a sizeable cat population, he continued to draw and paint until his death in 1939, at the age of 78.
- Read more | Why were cats so important in Ancient Egypt?
Wain had been believed to have been suffering from schizophrenia, rather than the ‘mere’ depression that might understandably come from a troublesome, tumultuous life. Much of this theory comes from one particular psychiatrist, Walter Maclay.
The year that Wain died, Maclay found eight colourful drawings in a junk shop in Notting Hill. These were works of Wain’s that were decidedly more abstract and vibrantly kaleidoscopic than the art that made his name. Maclay presented these drawings as evidence of a worsening mental state; the more psychedelic the work, reasoned the doctor, the deeper and more severe Wain’s condition.
But Maclay’s diagnosis was flawed, as Wain’s biographer Rodney Dale argued. “With no evidence of the order of their progression, Maclay arranged them in a sequence which clearly demonstrated, he thought, the progressive deterioration of the artist’s mental abilities.”
Dale was unconvinced. “There is no clear justification for regarding them as more than samples of Louis Wain’s art at different times. Wain experimented with patterns and cats, and even quite late in life was still producing conventional cat pictures, perhaps 10 years after his ‘later’ productions which are patterns rather than cats.”
Whatever the truth of Wain’s mental disorders, he was undeniably a huge talent who worked at a phenomenally prodigious rate to become an artist appreciated by millions. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until 1972 that his drawings earned their first exhibition (at the Victoria and Albert Museum), and the acclaim still comes. The musician Nick Cave has declared Wain “the artist closest to my heart”.
More than 80 years after his death, his story is finally being told on film, and, as the actor portraying him observes, Wain should be remembered for his brightness, his creativity and his optimism. “Despite the endless base note of loss and isolation,” concludes Benedict Cumberbatch, “Louis’ life was often uplifting and inspiring. He brought such beauty and celebration and joy to the lives of so many people.”
Nige Tassell is a freelance journalist specialising in history
This content first appeared in the March 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed
Enhance the festive season with a subscription to BBC History Magazine + David Mitchell's latest masterpiece UNRULY - signed and hardback!
As a print subscriber you will also get FREE access to HistoryExtra.com worth £34.99