Louis Wain: The artist who changed how we think about cats (2022)

By Tim Stokes
BBC News

  • Published

Louis Wain: The artist who changed how we think about cats (1)Image source, Bethlem Museum of the Mind

"He had 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."

So proclaimed the science-fiction writer HG Wells about the phenomenon that was Louis Wain - an illustrator who at the start of the 20th Century was a household name credited with changing people's feelings about felines.

Yet Wain's life was scarred by tragedy. His wife, who inspired the drawings that turned him into a national treasure, died days after the first of his cat pictures was published. Wain's inability to profit from his successes, and his failing mental health, led him to poverty and a pauper asylum.

He was rescued from his gruesome surroundings thanks to a campaign which even the prime minister of the day supported. In his new home at London's Bethlem Hospital, the artist decorated the building for Christmas in his own unique style.

Wain's fame was not enduring, although a new film starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, is set to thrust his story into the limelight.

Who was the man behind the cats?

Image source, Getty Images

Born in Clerkenwell on 5 August 1860, Louis Wain would find work as a teacher at the West London School of Art, where he had also been a student. He went on to become a freelance artist for trade journals and newspapers.

"He made his living producing engravings that would be published in publications such as the Illustrated London News at a time when they could not reproduce photographs," explains Colin Gale, director of the Bethlem Museum of the Mind.

Wain's talent shone through in the various subjects he tackled and he was rarely short of work. Yet it was a family tragedy that led to him becoming famous.

Image source, 2021 STUDIOCANAL SAS–CHANNEL FOUR

At the age of 23, he married his sisters' governess, Emily Richardson, but soon after she was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer.

"In the last years of her life they had a family pet, a cat by the name of Peter, and to amuse her he would do caricatures, just privately - they weren't for publication," says Mr Gale.

But after seeing the drawings, editors at the Illustrated London News, where Wain was a freelancer, offered to print some of his cat art. Days before Richardson's death, A Kitten's Christmas Party - a drawing featuring 150 cats that took 11 days to create - appeared in the newspaper.

(Video) Louis Wain

"They became an overnight sensation," says Mr Gale. "People loved his pictures of cats because they weren't simply of cats; they were of cats doing things which humans did."

Image source, Bethlem Museum of the Mind

There were cats playing cricket, cats digging up roads, cats riding bicycles.

Often these were created as Wain sat in public places and furtively sketched the people around him, but as anthropomorphised felines.

"Very often the drawings were there to poke fun at the way people behaved. He also did a few political satirical cartoons, so Winston Churchill as a cat, but it was all very gentle," the museum director says.

Image source, Bethlem Museum of the Mind

Merchandise such as Christmas annuals and postcards further spread his fame and Wain became known simply as "the man who drew cats".

In his 1968 biography of the illustrator, Rodney Dale wrote that Wain's images had such an impact that "the attitude of the general public towards cats, and their feeling for cats, was greatly affected".

Yet in spite of such success money was always a problem, as Mr Gale explains.

"He was never that good in business. He didn't enforce copyright for instance, so he ended up quite poor, which is why he ended up in Springfield Hospital."

Image source, Historical Picture Archive/Getty Images

The mental health of Wain, who had always been considered eccentric, deteriorated as he got older. He became increasingly verbally abusive and violent towards his sisters, with whom he lived.

In June 1924, at the age of 63, he was certified insane and taken to the paupers' ward of the hospital in Tooting, south London.

His discovery there by a journalist a year later led to a high-profile campaign to find him better care.

Image source, Getty Images

Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald was among those who backed the campaign - he would even go on to arrange for Wain's sisters to receive a small Civil List pension to recognise their brother's services to art.

HG Wells took to the radio in support of the illustrator, and before long enough money had been raised to move Wain to the more comfortable surroundings of Bethlem Hospital, then located at Southwark in south London. It is, of course, the institution from which we get the word "bedlam".

(Video) Louis Wain - The Mad Cat Artist - Schizophrenic or Purrfectly Sane?

"Stigma [about mental disorders] certainly did exist 100 years ago," Mr Gale says. "I've been an archivist long enough to know that some people looking at their family history are discovering ancestors who were placed in psychiatric hospitals and it had been kept a family secret.

"But in relation to Louis Wain, there was such a public affection for him that I suppose whatever condition he had - there's a certain amount of uncertainty about that - people just wanted to see him properly cared for."

Image source, Bethlem Museum of the Mind

Image source, Bethlem Museum of the Mind

At Bethlem, Wain was found by staff to be a quiet and co-operative patient. His treatment was centred on making his environment as pleasant as possible.

"He was freed from those financial concerns then and just did it for love, and the hospital recognised that and gave him everything he needed to continue," explains Mr Gale.

One Christmas, hospital staff asked if he would like to help decorate the building. Wain decided to use the mirrors there as his canvas.

Cats taking part in various Christmas-time activities began appearing on the walls of the hospital.

These creations form part of a Wain exhibition at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind, which is on the site of the working psychiatric hospital.

Image source, Bethlem Museum of the Mind

Image source, Bethlem Museum of the Mind

Image source, Bethlem Museum of the Mind

Wain left Bethlem Hospital in 1930 when the institution was moved to its present location in Beckenham, south-east London.

He was transferred to Napsbury Hospital, near St Albans, where he would continue drawing until his death in July 1939.

Image source, Bethlem Museum of the Mind

For Mr Gale, the exhibition and film are not only a way to bring Wain back into the public consciousness but also to help promote a better understanding of mental health.

"I suppose people might think 'mental distress, disorder - gosh the artworks must all be very dark', or else they might think 'creativity and madness, isn't that linked, isn't that what drives art?'.

(Video) The Electrical Life of Louis Wain - Official Trailer | Prime Video

"Louis Wain is a great example of saying all that is just nonsense. Yes he was unwell in later life and in care, but actually painting was just part and parcel of who he was and what he did.

"The works just exude pure joy and mischievousness and fun."

Bethlem Hospital

The world's oldest psychiatric institution

Image source, Bethlem Museum of the Mind

  • Founded near Bishopsgate in central London in 1247 as a priory of the Church of St Mary of Bethlehem to serve knights setting off for the Crusades
  • Referred to as a hospital by 1329; there is evidence of Bethlem being used to house the insane from 1403
  • Moved in the second half of the 17th Century to nearby Moorfields, where until 1770 sightseers were able to gaze at patients in the institution's two galleries
  • Relocated south of the River Thames in 1815 to a building which now houses the Imperial War Museum, before being moved to its current site in 1930
  • Bethlem Royal Hospital continues to provide care as part of the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust

Image source, Bethlem Museum of the Mind

Animal Therapy: The Cats of Louis Wain runs at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind - which is based in the hospital's former administration wing - until 13 April.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain opens in UK cinemas on New Year's Day.

All images subject to copyright

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(Video) The Kaleidoscope Cats of Louis Wain

FAQs

Louis Wain: The artist who changed how we think about cats? ›

So proclaimed the science-fiction writer HG Wells about the phenomenon that was Louis Wain - an illustrator who at the start of the 20th Century was a household name credited with changing people's feelings about felines. Yet Wain's life was scarred by tragedy.

Who popularized cats as pets? ›

One hundred years ago, Louis Wain transformed the humble feline from vermin-catching critter to beloved beast with his whimsical drawings of anthropomorphized cats.

Did Louis Wain have schizophrenia? ›

Louis Wain was an English artist best known for his drawings, which consistently featured anthropomorphized cats, and that suffered from schizophrenia. His work deeply changed as the disease evolved and his mental state deteriorated.

Did any of Louis Wain's sisters marry? ›

None of his five sisters ever married. At the age of thirty, his youngest sister was certified as insane, and admitted to an asylum. The remaining sisters lived with their mother for the duration of their lifetimes, as did Louis for the majority of his life.

What is Louis Wain known for? ›

Wain went on to become a popular commercial artist best known for his humorous, endearing depictions of wide-eyed cats engaging in an array of human antics. Throughout his life, Wain was regarded as an eccentric character.

Why was Louis Wain obsessed with cats? ›

Shortly after the success of “A Kitten's Christmas Party,” Emily died on January 2, 1887. After her death, Wain began to suffer from depression and cats soon became an obsession for him. As a result, the style in which he depicted them started to change.

Why did cats become so popular? ›

Cats became even more popular in the 1800s when they began to be adopted as pets by all classes. It is during these years that the cat pet trade began to take off and some of the first cat food brands were established. Cats would have also been introduced to North America and Australia in the 1800s.

Are cats schizophrenic? ›

However, there are no studies or research that proves cats have schizophrenia; we simply cannot get inside their minds enough to know. But, there is an unexplained disorder in cats called feline hyperesthesia syndrome (FHS) that can mimic a lot of the signs of schizophrenia.

Is schizophrenia inherited? ›

Genetics. Schizophrenia tends to run in families, but no single gene is thought to be responsible. It's more likely that different combinations of genes make people more vulnerable to the condition. However, having these genes does not necessarily mean you'll develop schizophrenia.

What causes schizophrenia? ›

It's not known what causes schizophrenia, but researchers believe that a combination of genetics, brain chemistry and environment contributes to development of the disorder.

How accurate is the movie The Electrical Life of Louis Wain? ›

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is based on a true story and is fiercely accurate in its depiction of Louis' life. A talented illustrator, Wain chose to focus his art on the feline population, and his colorful, often psychedelic drawings of cats drove his success. Wain was quite famous for his cat art by the 1800s.

What happened to Louis Wain Sister Marie? ›

His youngest sister Marie was committed to an insane asylum in 1901 and died March 3rd, 1913. From 1901 until 1915, the 'Louis Wain's Annual' full of his drawing, poems, and stories, was released yearly, then semi-regularly until 1923.

How old was Emily Richardson when she married Louis Wain? ›

Emily Richardson was Wain's wife. Richardson was his sisters' governess, and was responsible for his sisters' education and general learning. Their marriage was considered scandalous due to the fact that Wain was 23 at the time of the marriage, while Richardson was 33, marking a 10 year age gap between the pair.

Why did Louis Wain go insane? ›

There has been some speculation that Wain's schizophrenia was caused by toxoplasma gondii—a parasite found in cat's excreta. Whatever began his illness, Wain was incarcerated in various asylums and mental hospitals for years at a time. The changes to his life were reflected in his art.

Did Louis Wain sister have mental illness? ›

Out of the six, he was not the only one who eventually suffered from a mental disorder, suggesting that mental illness ran in his family. None of his sisters ever married. His youngest sister was dubbed "insane" and spent the ladder of her life in an asylum.

What was Louis Wain's style? ›

Louis Wain was a British artist best known for his bizarre paintings and prints of anthropomorphized cats playing golf or having tea. “He has made the cat his own. He invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world,” the author H.G. Wells said of Wain.

What did Louis Wain do for cats? ›

"He had 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."

Do cats see humans as cats? ›

Unlike dogs, our feline friends treat us like other cats, author says. Since cats first got their adorable claws into us about 9,500 years ago, humans have had a love affair with felines. Today more than 80 million cats reside in U.S. homes, with an estimated three cats for every dog on the planet.

Do cats forget their owners? ›

“This will depend on your cat's personality and friendliness, but it is thought that most cats do miss their owners when they leave, and we do know that they will remember their owners because of how strong their memory is.”

How do cats see humans? ›

A cat's vision is similar to a human who is color blind. They can see shades of blue and green, but reds and pinks can be confusing. These may appear more green, while purple can look like another shade of blue. Cats also don't see the same richness of hues and saturation of colors that we can.

When did people start getting cats as pets? ›

All domestic cats, the authors declared, descended from a Middle Eastern wildcat, Felis sylvestris, which literally means "cat of the woods." Cats were first domesticated in the Near East, and some of the study authors speculate that the process began up to 12,000 years ago.

Who brought cats to America? ›

He says that many cats came to the Americas by ship with early colonists. Known as shipcats, they were used to get rid of rodents and protect the boat's food supply. Koudounaris says, "It was a one-way trip.

How did cats become pets? ›

By analyzing the ancient DNA of cat remains found in port cities, the scientists concluded that cats were brought along on ships, most likely to help protect food storages on board by killing rodents (Ottoni et al., 2017). This allowed cats to spread across the world.

When did humans domesticate cats? ›

However, more recent evidence shows that feline domestication probably occurred about 10,000 years ago or more in the Middle East, in the region of the Fertile Crescent.

Videos

1. Louis Wain | Art and Schizophrenia
(Pandora)
2. LOUIS WAIN'S Cat 🐱Drawings: Pro Artists React
(Art Prof: Create & Critique)
3. The Electrical Life of Louis Wain: Drawing CATS 🐱
(Art Prof: Create & Critique)
4. Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy star in THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN | Official Trailer
(StudiocanalUK)
5. Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy on Louis Wain: The Man Behind The Cats | Film4
(Film4)
6. Arts @ APL: Artist Louis Wain
(City of Allen - ACTV)

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