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Ground Zero for Cat Art?

You’d be hard-pressed to find a rabid cat lover who hasn’t been enchanted by the vintage illustrations of Louis Wain. He created a whimsical world of wide-eyed cats, each scene rich with detail and activity.

As a cat artist, I’m amazed at the number of cats featured in each of his illustrations as well as the number of illustrations he produced during his career.

Louis William Wain (5 August 1860 – 4 July 1939) was a London-born artist best known for his drawings, which consistently featured anthropomorphized large-eyed cats and kittens. In his later years he may have suffered from schizophrenia (although this claim is disputed among specialists), which, according to some psychiatrists, can be seen in his works.

He was the first of six children and the only male child. 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. When his father died, it was left to him to support his mother and sisters. He was successful as a freelance artist. At one point, he hoped to make a living by drawing dog portraits. But don't hold that against him.

He married his sisters’ governess, Emily Richardson, who was ten years his senior (which was considered quite scandalous at the time), and moved with her to Hampstead in north London. Emily died of breast cancer after three years of marriage. Prior to Emily’s death, Wain discovered the subject that would define his career. During her illness, Emily was comforted by their pet cat Peter, a stray tuxie kitten they rescued after hearing him mewing in the rain late one night.

Peter boosted Emily’s spirits and Louis began to sketch him, which Emily strongly encouraged him to have published. ]He later wrote of Peter, “To him, properly, belongs the foundation of my career, the developments of my initial efforts, and the establishing of my work.” Peter can be recognized in many of Wain’s early published works.

In subsequent years, Wain’s cats began to wear clothes, walk upright, smile broadly and use other exaggerated facial expressions. Anthropomorphic portrayals of animals were very popular in Victorian England.

Wain was active in the National Cat Club, acting as President and Chairman of the committee at times. He felt that he helped “to wipe out the contempt in which the cat has been held” in England.

Despite his popularity, Wain suffered financial difficulty throughout his life. He remained responsible for supporting his mother and sisters and had little business sense. Wain was modest, naive and easily exploited, ill-equipped for bargaining in the world of publishing. He often sold his drawings outright, retaining no rights over their reproduction. He was easily misled and sometimes duped by money-making schemes.

When his sisters could no longer cope with his erratic and occasionally violent behavior in 1924, Wain was committed to a pauper ward of a mental hospital. A year later, he was discovered there, and his circumstances were widely publicized, leading to appeals from such figures as H. G. Wells and the personal intervention of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.

Wain was transferred to the Bethlem Royal Hospital in Southwark, and again in 1930 to Napsbury Hospital near St Albans in Hertfordshire, north of London. Napsbury was relatively pleasant, with a garden and colony of cats, and he spent his final 15 years there in peace. While he became increasingly deluded, his erratic mood swings subsided, and he continued drawing for pleasure. His work from this period is marked by bright colours, flowers, and intricate and abstract patterns, though his primary subject remained the same.

Series of his paintings have commonly been used as examples in psychology textbooks to illustrate the changes in his style as his psychological condition deteriorated. However, given that Wain did not date his works, it is not certain if these works were created in the order usually presented.

H. G. Wells said of him, “He has 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.”

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