Louis Wain: Life, career and mental health of the cat-loving artist
The fact that Wain’s life hasn’t traced the kind of trajectory one would expect given the heights of his popularity makes him a fascinating character to study. He is the subject of the film, The Electric Life of Louis Wainwhich offers a portrait of the artist as a brilliant but tortured soul.
The film’s lead, Benedict Cumberbatch, discovered several layers of Wain’s personality, writing in his foreword to a new edition of Chris Beetles’ book. Louis Wain’s Cats that “being Louis was like listening to a perpetual voice, sometimes quiet and shy, sometimes channeled towards a singular goal, and at other times openly confrontational, a voice saying to the world, ‘But can’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. The Wains’ home life was a bit unorthodox for the time. Not only did none of his five sisters ever marry, but each of them lived their entire lives in the family home.
Wain himself was born with a cleft lip and was a sickly boy who had frequent nightmares – which he later called “extraordinarily complex visions” – and contracted serious illnesses, such as scarlet fever. On doctor’s orders, young Louis didn’t enter formal education until he was 10, and when he finally did, he often skipped school, choosing instead to wander around. the streets of London in the safe solitude of his own business.
If this wandering soul lacked social confidence, she certainly did not lack confidence in her talent and abilities. During his teenage years, he developed many and varied interests, including boxing, chemistry, designing and drawing inventions, writing opera, and playing the piano.
Wain threw himself into all of these pursuits with enthusiasm, eager to master them all, but it was in drawing that he truly excelled, setting it on his most noticeable 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 seemed calmer. That was, until other events served to further confuse and set him adrift.
In 1880 Wain’s father died, leaving 20-year-old Louis the responsibility of keeping his family afloat financially – although, as the years to come will show, his business acumen was far from sophisticated. Perhaps realizing this, he accepted a job as an assistant professor at the art school so that he could fulfill his duty to earn a regular and stable income.
His teaching career lasted only one year. The attraction of the life of an active artist had become too strong and he joined the team of the Illustrated sports and drama news, for whom he drew tranquil scenes of country houses and cattle. The 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 drew scorn and criticism from some sections of society. After moving to Hampstead, the couple enjoyed only a three-year marriage before Emily died of breast cancer in 1887. Wain, still in his twenties, had now lost his father and his wife.
Still, there was a silver lining to Emily’s illness, and it was one that would accelerate Wain’s artistic impact. To offer comfort and solace to Emily as her condition worsened, the couple took in a stray black and white kitten, whom they named Peter, and Wain began drawing caricatures of their beloved cat in hopes of cheer him up.
Emily always encouraged him to have his drawings published, advice he followed shortly before his death with the publications Madame Tabby’s Establishment and A Kitten Christmas Party. Wain later acknowledged his cat’s role in his rise to world fame: “To him, properly speaking, belongs the foundation of my career.”
The year before Emily died, Wain switched publications to become an illustrator for the Illustrated London Newswith whom he remained for a number of years, presumably in need of consistency and stability after a long period of tragedy.
But his parallel independent career was developing. He now specializes in cat illustrations, drawn both faithfully and in his unique cartoonish style. With each print of his work sold and displayed in homes across the country, it was not just Wain’s reputation that grew, but people’s appreciation for cats.
Mentalities have changed, and for the better. Wain’s art celebrated the cat as a multifaceted domestic companion rather than a moggy or flea mousetrap, 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, as well as being a member of the Society for the Protection of Cats and the Anti-Vivisection Society.
Wain’s feline creations were the cipher of a worldview, the channel for his observations of human nature. He presented them as professors giving public lectures, as talkative knitters or as ocean pirates. He occasionally drew a real person in the form of a cat, like Winston Churchill, and almost every frame was filmed with a sense of mischief. As HG Wells observed: “Louis Wain invented a feline style, a feline society, a whole feline world”.
The demand for his work was apparently insatiable. By the turn of the century, Wain was working entirely freelance and at an extraordinarily prolific pace. At his most productive, he delivered up to 600 cat drawings a year for various clients. Some works would be black and white, but many would be vividly colored.
No matter how quickly he turned around orders, his quality control never dropped an inch. Its consistency has caught the attention of dozens of editors tuned in to the popularity of these bug-eyed cats. Indeed, no less than 75 different publishers have commissioned work from him.
Many of them were also drawn to Wain’s lack of business savvy. Being totally committed to his creations and the rapid execution of orders, he neglected to develop anything more than the most basic understanding of economics. Above all, he did not use the services of an agent to fill this void. Although he was still the source of income and support for his mother and sisters, he never enjoyed the financial security that his success deserved.
He was at the mercy of exploitative publishers and rarely insisted on retaining the rights to his work. As Chris Beetles noted, Wain was “the perfect one-man artist for the ruthless entrepreneurial spirit of the age…a tough, predictable craftsman who would naively sell for a one-off sum and not retain his rights to ‘author”.
Wain’s work has been reproduced many times, but he has rarely seen a cent beyond the initial fee. Moreover, any modest amount of money he accumulated was often recklessly invested in other people’s inventions. He saw no return on that money.
One such example occurred during a trip to New York, where he undertook illustration work for the powerful Hearst Corporation. However, with a large market opening up to him, he decided to invest his earnings in the development of a supposedly revolutionary oil lamp. It was a financial dead end and Wain left Wain to return to Britain in a worse situation than when he left.
Just as erratic as Wain’s tax affairs was his demeanor, which grew more angry and violent as he grew older. His family found this so unbearable that in 1924 they committed him to Springfield Hospital, south London.
Initially, the state of his finances meant that he was placed in an almshouse, so it was not until the following year, when his hospitalization was discovered, that personal interventions by Wells and the Prime Minister saw Wain transferred to a more comfortable institution, the Bethlem. Royal Hospital in Southwark and, a few years later, in the leafy surroundings of Napsbury Hospital in Hertfordshire. There, sharing the gardens with a large population of cats, he continued to draw and paint until his death in 1939, aged 78.
Wain was believed to suffer from schizophrenia, rather than the “simple” depression that might naturally come from a difficult and tumultuous life. Much of this theory comes from one psychiatrist in particular, Walter Maclay.
The year Wain died, Maclay found eight colored drawings in a flea market in Notting Hill. These were works by Wain that were decidedly more abstract and vibrant kaleidoscopic than the art that made his name. Maclay presented these drawings as evidence of a worsening mental state; the more psychedelic the work, the doctor reasoned, the deeper and more serious Wain’s condition.
But Maclay’s diagnosis was wrong, as Wain’s biographer Rodney Dale has argued. “In the absence of evidence of the order of their progression, Maclay arranged them in a sequence which clearly demonstrated, he thought, the gradual deterioration of the artist’s mental capacities.”
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 his life was still producing conventional cat images, perhaps 10 years after his “later” productions which are patterns rather than cats.
Whatever the truth about Wain’s mental illness, he was undeniably a huge talent who worked at a prodigious pace to become an entertainer loved by millions. Nevertheless, it was not until 1972 that his drawings got their first exhibition (at the Victoria and Albert Museum), and the acclaim was still there. Musician Nick Cave declared Wain “the artist closest to my heart”.
More than 80 years after his death, his story is finally being told in film and, as the actor portraying him observes, Wain should be remembered for his brightness, creativity and optimism. “Despite the endless undertone of loss and isolation,” concludes Benedict Cumberbatch, “Louis’ life was often uplifting and inspiring. He brought so much beauty, celebration and joy into the lives of so many people. . »
Nige Tassell is a freelance journalist specializing in the history
This content first appeared in the March 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed