Louis Wain was an artist in the Victorian era who broke with traditional norms of color and subject matter; the latter being his obsession with cats, which he promoted through his work. He brought to the attention of the British public a softer, more playful side to cats that was not appreciated before then. He struggled throughout his life with familial, and mental challenges, which he also expressed through his art. His works grew to be loved by all of London society, and his fame spread across the Atlantic, bringing the love of his art (and cats) to the American public too. This is the life and art of a truly unique artist who stole the hearts of the British people.
The Early Life of Louis Wain
Born August 5, 1860 in London, Louis Wain was the eldest of six children and the only male child. His father ran a business in textiles, and his mother was a French woman who designed church embroideries and carpets. Louis was born with a cleft lip, and the doctor advised that he should not go to school or be taught until he was ten years old. Society had seen fit to challenge his development from the very beginning, which may have led to his mental challenges later in life.
He skipped school often, wandering the different parts of London. As a boy, Louis Wain considered various careers in the arts. He claimed he also wanted to be a musician or an author. He developed his artistic talents by studying and subsequently teaching at the West London School of Art. Louis was never fond of his job as a teacher, and he taught out of necessity rather than any passion.
In 1880, his father died, and Louis was expected to provide for his mother as well as all his sisters. He rented a small apartment where he stayed to work on his illustrations. He quit teaching and found great success as a freelance artist, drawing animal and country scenes. Louis was a skilled draughtsman and was ambidextrous, having the ability to sketch with a pencil in each hand.
Louis Wain, Emily Richardson, & Peter
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At the age of 23, Louis Wain met Emily Richardson, who was the governess at his sister’s house. The two fell in love and got married on January 30, 1884, to the disapproval of both families. Not only were they from across the class divide, but she was ten years his senior, which was deeply frowned upon. Louis’ family displayed their dissatisfaction by refusing to attend the wedding. Emily’s family followed suit.
Tragically, however, Emily was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after the wedding, and she died three years later. After they were married, the couple took in a stray black and white kitten named Peter. This cat became much loved, comforting Emily during her illness right up to her eventual death.
Louis Wain was inconsolable, and Peter became his link to his late wife and also his inspiration for his cat-themed art. Peter also achieved his own fame by being associated with Louis Wain, and the two would often make appearances in public together.
Louis Wain’s Life as an Artist
In the 1880s, Louis Wain worked for several popular publications, including the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, where he drew mainly country houses and estates as well as livestock. He also considered specializing in drawing pictures of dogs, but the entrance of Peter into his life had a massive effect on his attention to cats.
He later also worked for The Illustrated London News. Given the negative attitude towards cats at the time, the publication was naturally apprehensive about publishing some of Louis’ pictures of cats. Nevertheless, the editor went ahead, and in 1884, a multi-panel drawing of the moods of the domestic cat was published, with some of the panels featuring Peter. The pictures became a huge success, drawing widespread attention. In 1886, the editor of the Illustrated London News commissioned Wain to draw pictures of anthropomorphized cats, and his first artwork of this particular genre was published. This picture was the one that skyrocketed Louis Wain into fame, and he became a household name throughout London. The rest of his career would be characterized by this subject matter and style.
As his art evolved, his cats became progressively more anthropomorphic, standing on two legs and wearing clothes. His illustrations showed cats in all manner of human activities, such as having tea parties, house-cleaning, and a huge variety of sports. Louis Wain would spend the next thirty years churning out massive amounts of artwork for a number of publications. From the 1890s and into the 1900s, he would average over 600 illustrations a year, working for journals and illustrating books and cards. In one year, he produced 1,500 illustrations. Throughout his career, Wain also released 16 incredibly successful Christmas annuals.
His work completely transformed the image of cats in Victorian society. Before then, cats were considered nothing more than mousers keeping the rodent population down. They were stigmatized and regarded by some as being unclean and even evil. Some societies tried to change these ideas, but they were consigned to the periphery of English society. Louis Wain’s projection of cats being loveable, silly creatures completely upended the previously accepted beliefs, and cats became immensely popular throughout London and the rest of Britain.
Wain’s love of cats also led him to be involved in a number of charities and clubs. He was declared president of the National Cat Club in 1898 and 1911 and worked for charities such as the Governing Council of Our Dumb Friends League, the Society for the Protection of Cats, and the Anti-Vivisection Society.
In 1907, Louis Wain traveled to New York, where he promoted his work, and drew illustrations for various publications owned by the Hearst Corporation. His work was well-received, although his negative attitude towards New York City gave him bad press. Nevertheless, Wain stayed in America long past his four-month plan and ended up being there for two years. Unfortunately, he invested all his money in a lamp that provided everlasting light and required no oil. The lamp never went into production, and Wain lost his entire investment. Upon hearing that his mother was gravely ill, he traveled back to England, only to receive news that she had died while he was at sea.
In 1914, Louis Wain branched out into ceramic art. He created a number of small, futuristic-looking cats, dogs, and other animals. The designs were brightly colored and noticeably Cubist in nature.
Louis Wain’s Struggles
Throughout his career, Louis Wain was taken advantage of. He was not attentive to bureaucratic details and often sold his work without copywriting it first. This brought him into conflict with his sisters and his mother who he was charged with looking after financially. Throughout his life, his financial struggles would be a constant factor.
Louis Wain also had psychological difficulties. Although not confirmed, it is likely he suffered from schizophrenia. One of his sisters also had the condition and was declared insane; she lived as a patient in an asylum. Wain’s condition worsened as he got older, and certain triggers in his life exacerbated the condition. The death of his cat, Peter, in 1898 was a huge blow to his mental health. Peter was his only living connection to his wife, and after Peter died, Louis Wain went into a deep depression; it is debatable whether he ever fully recovered.
By 1924, Louis Wain’s behavior had become uncontrollably erratic and sometimes even violent. His family decided to have him committed to the Springfield Mental Hospital in Tooting, where he stayed in a pauper ward. A year later, the public found out where he was and appealed to have him transferred to someplace more pleasant.
Among the appeals was that of famed author H. G. Wells, who had become an admirer of Wain’s work. The Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, intervened personally, and Wain was transferred to much better conditions at Bethlem Royal Hospital in Southwark. He was transferred again in 1930 to Napsbury Hospital near St. Albans. It was there that his demeanor became much calmer. Napsbury had large gardens and a colony of cats, which greatly improved his mood.
Through all of this, Louis Wain continued creating art, which took on a more colorful and psychedelic appearance. This shift in style might be attributed to his mental health, although this can never be ascertained for certain. In 1936, Wain suffered a stroke, and by May 1939, he was bedridden and unable to move. Louis Wain died at the age of 78 on July 4, 1939.
Louis Wain’s Legacy
It is estimated that Louis Wain drew around 150,000 cats during his career. He fell into relative obscurity as Britain dealt with the Second World War. It was decades later that interest in his work was renewed, with a biography in 1968 and an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1972.
Since then, exhibitions of his works became commonplace, and in 2021 a movie was released, “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain”, with Benedict Cumberbatch playing the eponymous character.
Louis Wain’s life was one of internal and external tragedies. He suffered mentally and through events around him. Despite this, he was a man who poured love into his art, and through his art, there is a gentle kindness that continues to generate delight in audiences to this very day.