Commence by Drawing the Ears: Louis Wain’s Cats

« He made the cat his own. He invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world. British cats that do not look and live like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves. » — H. G Wells

British artist Louis William Wain (1860-1939) had one of those lives that capture one’s imagination* – from a sensitive child born with a facial defect (a cleft lip) and prone to terrifying nightmares, to a youth that would wander around London instead of attending classes, to ultimately a man committed to the pauper ward of a mental asylum. Along the way, he married a lower-class woman ten years his senior despite the scandal this caused, lost her three years later to breast cancer, and produced thousands of cat drawings and paintings.

Wain started out as a illustrator of country scenes, houses and estates, livestock at shows, and so on, for publications like Illustrated Sporting, Dramatic News, and The Illustrated London News. His wife’s Emily’s health decline gave Wain the push into feline territory, as he consoled her with caricatures of their cat Peter during her illness. Emily pushed him to try and get this work published, so he showed some drawings to the editor of The Illustrated London News, for which he was freelancing. He was commissioned to paint A Kittens’ Christmas Party, which featured 150 frolicking kittens, took 11 days to finish, and was an instant hit. Emily died soon after in 1887.

Some sources say 200 kittens, I didn’t count them.

Source diverge – according to some, in his grief, Wain threw himself heart and soul into cats and animals in general – he was involved in animal charities and championed a better treatment for animals, including fighting against the routine muzzling of dogs. In another version, he Emily’s death was a ‘merciful release’ and threw himself into work, ended up being considered a ‘cat expert’ just because he drew so many of them (and had distinctly outlandish ideas of their physiology). This can be said of much of Wain’s life, actually – the basic facts are known, but interpretations of the whys and hows vary wildly.

His first cat Peter was black-and-white with a white forehead, and his prototype often appeared in illustrations.

It goes without saying that Wain doubtlessly influenced generations of future artists. These days art with anthropomorphized felines is quite a humdrum sighting, given how much our current culture is obsessed with cats. In this context, it may be hard to recall that several centuries ago people often thought of cats from a practical standpoint, as somewhat filthy-yet-useful vermin-destroyers. This began to change during the Victorian era, and surely Wain’s cats, omnipresent in newspapers and magazines, accelerated this shift in thinking.**

Wain was an immensely prolific artist, but sadly that did not guarantee him a peaceful and wealthy life. When he was 20, his father died, leaving Wain to financially support his mother and sisters, so he had a heavy burden to bear from a young age. By all accounts a modest man, he was quite naïve about financial matters, a walking demonstration of the financially inept artist stereotype***. He often gave his art away, or sold it without retaining copyright, which meant no royalties despite all sorts of merchandise with his cats – postcards, books, toys, biscuit tins, china, et j’en passe. His work was so ubiquitous at some point that publishers did not need to pay him for new material, they could just go on reprinting in perpetuity with nothing but financial gain to themselves while Wain got further into debt.

These cats are obviously cute, but I think what makes them interesting is that Wain would satirize what he saw around him. He might have been an impractical dreamer, but he had a keen eye for human flaws.

He also produced a series of designs for ceramic cats (and some pigs and dogs as well). These sculptures were exhibited in 1914, but did not result in significant sales. A shipment of cats headed for the United States was taken down by a German U-boat torpedo, and that was it – Wain’s financial investment was lost.

« By the time the war broke in 1914, Wain found himself struggling to find a market amid the wartime paper shortage. By the 1920s, he was in poverty. His depression continued, and his mental health deteriorated. Often known to strike out in violent and erratic ways, he was eventually committed to the pauper ward of London’s Springfield Mental Hospital in 1924. »

A lot of articles about him focus on mental issues. Did his wife’s death push him into some form of dementia? Was it just hereditary (one of his sisters was committed when he was 30)? Was he autistic? Was he schizophrenic? The former is a more modern view, whereas the latter theory was proposed by psychiatrist Dr. Walter Maclay in 1939 and stuck when he made a whole case out of it.

« Maclay collected the work of artists suffering with mental illness and in 1939 he came across eight pictures by Louis Wain in a shop, which he arranged in an assumed chronological order to demonstrate the progression of the schizophrenic mind. His theory was that as the sequence of cat illustrations became more fragmented, so too had the artist’s mental state deteriorated. […] The series of drawings, now known as ‘Kaleidoscope Cats’, became a popular visual example of the schizophrenic mind. Long gone was the Edwardian interpretation of Wain’s work as ‘charming’ and ‘humorous’. Instead, his art was often presented as ‘psychotic’ or ‘disturbed’, both words used in a major exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1972. » [source]

I think it’s quite depressing to think of Louis Wain first and foremost as an interesting case of mental illness. While it’s an important topic to address, it’s hard not to interpret this emphasis as a side-effect of the human tendency to bask in someone else’s tragedy – we’re avid of gory details and stories that support the general consensus that artists are tortured souls fighting inner demons. Perhaps that’s what reassures ‘normal’ people – we may not be brilliant or creative, but at least we have a healthy psyche! Except that we don’t, but that’s a conversation for another day.

« It is also highly possible that his experimentation in style was inspired by the family’s background in textile design. […] Indeed, these later kaleidoscopic cat patterns were often constructed around a clear grid system, revealing them as careful compositions rather than the product of impulsiveness coming from someone who is gradually losing his perceptive skills. Additionally, some of Wain’s later work was figurative and proves that he continued to be an accomplished and coherent artist whilst in a mental health care setting. » [source]

In 1930, Wain was transferred to Napsbury, which had a colony of cats, and stayed there fairly peacefully until his death in 1939. I hope he’s surrounded by friendly cats, wherever he may be now.

~ ds

* As a matter of fact, a movie about his life, The Electrical Life of Louis, was released in 2021 .

** I am obviously not saying that Wain introduced anthropomorphism to art, as that has been around since the days of early human history, but he did make a large dent in the public’s perception of cats.

*** Such skills have to be taught, as artistic temperament need not necessarily go hand-in-hand the inability to handle everyday matters such as finance, but add that to the list of ‘things we should do as a society’.