The tragic life of Louis Wain: Victorian painter who popularized cats

1 year ago 135

He was the cat’s meow.

One 100 years ago, Louis Wain transformed the humble feline from vermin-catching critter to beloved beast with his whimsical drawings of anthropomorphized cats. His cute kittens and cigar-chomping tabbies — sometimes done successful achromatic ink, sometimes successful electrical neons — threw snowballs astatine 1 another, played poker and drank brandy, and made each sorts of mischief. They appeared successful books, magazines, newspapers and postcards each implicit Victorian England.

Now, a caller movie, “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch, successful prime theaters present and streaming connected Amazon Prime Video Friday, tells his story.

“He made the feline his own,” the science-fiction writer H.G. Wells erstwhile said. “He invented a feline style, a feline society, a full feline world. British cats that bash not look and unrecorded similar Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves.”

Painting of cats by Louis WainLouis Wain made a sanction for himself with whimsical drawings of cats.

Despite his chaotic popularity, Wain died successful 1939 astatine the property of 79 astir penniless and successful a psychiatric hospital. By the mid-20th century, helium was astir each but forgotten.

“He was a benignant of tragic leader successful immoderate ways,” David Luck, an archivist astatine the Bethlem Museum of the Mind, located successful England’s Bethlem Royal Hospital, wherever Wain stayed for a time, told The Post. The depository has a caller accumulation of his enactment opening Dec. 4, “Animal Therapy: The Cats of Louis Wain.”

“He was idiosyncratic who tried his champion to unrecorded the beingness that helium wanted to unrecorded and to make the enactment helium wanted to create, and it took a existent toll connected him,” Luck said.


Born successful 1860, Wain, shy and sensitive, was the eldest kid of an English textile-trader begetter and French mother. When his begetter died successful 1880, the 20-year-old Wain abruptly had to supply for his parent and 5 younger sisters. 

Black and achromatic  photograph   of Louis WainThe existent Louis Wain has been described arsenic a “tragic hero.”Corbis via Getty Images

A skilled draftsman — helium sketched rapidly with a pencil successful each manus — helium began selling his quality and carnal sketches to London newspapers. 

When helium was 23, helium fell successful emotion with his sisters’ governess, the feline-loving Emily Marie Richardson, and the 2 wed (courting overmuch scandal, owed to the bride’s inferior societal standing) successful 1884. Shortly after, Richardson was diagnosed with bosom cancer, and Wain drew pictures of her kitten, Peter, to cheer her up.

“Peter was her changeless companion,” Wain wrote successful his diary. “His was the genius which gilded galore a sorrowful hr and lightened galore a burden.”

Richardson urged Wain to merchantability his charming feline drawings, and successful 1886, the Illustrated London News commissioned a kitten-themed dispersed for its Christmas edition. It caused a sensation: Soon, Wain was dashing disconnected feline drawings for books, newspapers, magazines, postcards and more.

Wain’s creation deed astatine the close time.

“The Victorians were peculiarly keen connected dogs, arsenic they seemed to embody their values of loyalty, fidelity and trust,” said Jane Hamlett, prof astatine Royal Holloway, University of London. Whereas cats — often associated with witches and spinsters — “were seen arsenic sly and sometimes viewed with suspicion.”

Painting of cats by Louis WainThe Victorians loved dogs, but Wain’s paintings helped beforehand the origin of cats arsenic pets.

“The question of whether Wain helped to popularize the feline arsenic a favored is besides a spot of a chicken-or-the-egg problem,” historiographer Stephanie Howard-Smith told The Post. “The cat’s prima was connected the emergence successful Victorian Britain — the archetypal feline amusement was held successful London successful 1871 … In 1872, the canine nutrient shaper James Spratt filed a patent to manufacture feline biscuits. [Cats began to] look successful fashionable favored memoirs … and successful household photographs.”

Yet contempt specified success, Wain struggled. His woman died successful 1887. He channeled his grief into his creation — which grew much colorful, much detailed, much surreal and abstract — but helium ne'er copyrighted his enactment and didn’t gain a penny disconnected the galore reproductions of his illustrations. He became progressively paranoid and erratic, and successful 1924, his household certified him insane. 


A twelvemonth later, a bookseller discovered him scribbling distant successful the pauper ward of the psychiatric infirmary Springfield. Scandalized, the acquaintance started the Louis Wain Fund to assistance rise wealth to determination the creator from dire Springfield to the much comfy Bethlem (the connection “bedlam” is derived from its nickname). Notable figures similar H.G. Wells and adjacent King George V drummed up enactment from fans.

Yet Wain’s past days weren’t tragic: Luck said that helium had predominant visitors, and that the hospitals helium stayed astatine provided him with creation materials and adjacent cats. He continued to marque and merchantability commercialized illustrations, which his sisters would prime up connected their visits, successful summation to coating his much experimental psychedelic cats. 

Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy successful  "The Electrical Life of Louis Wain"Benedict Cumberbatch stars arsenic Wain successful “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain,” retired Friday.©Amazon/Courtesy Everett Collec

In the past 10 years, his enactment has been rediscovered by London dealers, and his collectors see the instrumentalist Nick Cave and the creator Tracey Emin.

“His enactment is hallucinatory, paradisiacal, childlike, intense, kind, warm, ecstatic,” the creator David Tibet told The Post erstwhile asked astir Wain’s appeal. “He saw cats successful a mode that nary different creator had done before, oregon has since, and lived utterly successful what helium described arsenic ‘Catland, sometimes called Pussydom’ — the cleanable Paradise of Purrs, wherever cats spell to play forever, successful gorgeous colors.”