There was a time at the turn of the 20th century when England’s most reproduced artist was a Cat Artist. Between 1895 and 1905, over forty books illustrated by Louis Wain were published, along with postcards, miniatures and related keepsakes. Like another cat artist, Eugen Hartung (Mainzer cats), Wain depicts a world in which cats rule and dogs drool, where each tableau is chock full of frisky and frentetic feline activity. He is the first artist known to have documented Cat Scout life.
Born with a cleft lip, Wain had a difficult childhood and was frequently a truant. Even so, he eventually studied at the West London School of Art and was a teacher there for a short time. When he was 20, his father died and Wain was left to support his mother and his five sisters. He left his teaching position to become a freelance artist. He specialized in animals and country scenes, including livestock at agricultural shows. He fancied the idea that he might make a living drawing dog portraits.
When he was 23 he married his sisters’ governess, Emily (Scandal! She was ten years his senior!) Soon afterward, Emily was diagnosed with breast cancer. During her illness, their pet cat Peter was a tremendous comfort to Emily. Peter came to them as a stray black and white kitten, crying pitifully at their doorstep one dark and stormy night.
Louis began to sketch him extensively, and Emily strongly encouraged him to have his work published. Peter is easily recognized in many of Wain’s early published works, although Emily did not live to see the publications. (Upon Emily’s death three years after her confinement, Wain allegedly claimed that Peter became the vessel of at least a portion of Emily’s soul.)
Wain said of Peter, “To him, properly, belongs the foundation of my career, the developments of my initial efforts, and the establishing of my work.”
Wain’s first illustration of anthropomorphized cats, “A Kittens’ Christmas Party,” was published in 1886. The illustration depicted 200 cats, many of whom resembled Peter. It took eleven days to draw and spanned two newspaper pages.
But unlike the Wain cats that we’re most familiar with now, these early cats remain nekkid and on all fours. As his work matured, his subjects began to assume human expressions, walk upright, engage in boisterous everyday activities, and wear kyoot clothes.
His cats were like the typical Edwardians of his day: enthusiastically upper middle class with a keen sense of propriety. His work quickly captured the imagination of every cat lover who saw one of his paintings. H. G. Wells wrote, “He invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world. English cats that do not look like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves.”
“A Christmas without one of Louis Wain’s clever catty pictures,” Frances Simpson wrote in The Book of the Cat (1903), “would be like a Christmas pudding without currants.”
Wain was elected president of England’s National Cat Club in 1898 and 1911. He felt that he helped “to wipe out the contempt in which the cat has been held” in England.
Wain was a prolific artist, sometimes producing as many as several hundred drawings a year. He illustrated about one hundred children’s books, and his work appeared in papers, journals, and magazines, including the Louis Wain Annual, which ran from 1901 to 1915. The postcards of his work were pawpular in their day and are highly sought by collectors now.
But Wain’s story is steeped in sadness. After WWI, he was destitute. The price of his illustrations declined, partly because there were so many of them. He had no business sense, failed to retain rights to his work, and made some bad investments; he was an easy mark for swindlers. A shipload of his futuristic porcelain cats was torpedoed en route to the U.S. The world was changing, and interest shifted from Edwardian pastimes to the next new thing.
Wain was swallowed up by mental illness. He is commonly thought to have been schizophrenic, but some believe that Asberger’s Syndrome better explains his symptoms. One of his sisters was institutionalized, and he had shown signs of mental illness early on, although it did not impact his ability to work. In his 60s, depressed and destitute, that changed.
By 1924, when his sisters could no longer cope with his erratic and sometimes violent behavior (he brutally attacked one of them), he was committed to the pauper’s ward of a mental institution. A year later, he was discovered by a fan and wide appeals were made from such figures as H.G. Wells and the Prime Minister to transfer Wain to a better facility. Ultimately, he spent his last 15 years reportedly happy in Napsbury Hospital, north of London. It had a garden and a colony of cats.
As his erratic mood swings subsided he was able to draw for pleasure and his work from this period has aroused discussion among psychiatrists and art historians alike. It becomes increasingly abstract and kaleidoscopic, saturated in retina-searing color. Was this change caused by his illness? Was he “seeing” differently? Was it simply a natural development of artistic style, similar to the transitions of the work of impressionists, cubists and fauves as representational art was eschewed in favor of more abstract styles.
No one will ever know for certain. But there’s no doubt that this tortured soul sprinkled delight onto the lives of hundreds of thousands of cat lovers, and paved the way for the later success of Eugen Hartung (Mainzer cats).