|c1918 English grinning Tom-cat by Louis Wain. Silver plated bronze, height 3.75 inches. The following information about the artist was based on the article by Clare Smales in The Mail on Sunday. |
His feline fantasies drove him insane, but now a new exhibition in London celebrates his genius. The name of Louis Wain may not be instantly familiar, but the way he painted and drew cats with such human expressions and emotions has totally changed our perceptions of them.
Born in 1860 in London's Clerkenwell district, with a harelip, and avoided by his school fellows, Louis Wain played truant and roamed the London streets far from his home. He fell in love with Emily Richardson, the governess to the youngest of his five sisters and brought scandal and ostracism by his family when they set up home in Hampstead, North London.
They were blissfully happy. He was eking out a living travelling to dog shows around the country, selling his sketches to the Illustrated Sporting News. But Emily became bedridden with breast cancer and died three years later, just as, thanks to her, the struggling artist was becoming well known.
It was for Emily's amusement, that Louis did many sketches of their black and white kitten, and it was she who encouraged him to submit his picture "A Kitten's Christmas Party" to the Illustrated London News. Requests for his cat pictures came flooding in and his love of cats grew into a passion.
Because of Wain's pictures cats replaced dogs as the nations number one pet, and his ability to look deep into the feline psyche and convey in his paintings their special quality made his work much sought after. But he paid a heavy price, and his obsession eventually drove him mad. He was certified insane in 1924 and locked away in an asylum.
He had by then fallen back into obscurity and was committed to a paupers ward in Tooting, until admirers of his work, including The Prime Minister of the day, Ramsey MacDonald, Princess Alexandra and H.G. Wells heard of his plight. They contributed to a fund which paid for a room of his own in the beautiful surroundings of Napsbury Hospital near st Albans, where he died, aged 78, drawing apparently happy, to the end.
The current interest in his work is phenomenal and the prices of his pictures has risen to £15,000. His biography by Rodney Dale is reprinted in a glossy new colour edition.
He was born in 1860 and started to draw cats in his early twenties. By the turn of the century, his was a household name, for he had created the Louis Wain Cat, a special type of mischievous feline which found universal acclaim. But he was obsessed with drawing cats, and when the demand for them eventually diminished, he was not able to come to terms with the situation. He had heavy family commitments, but no one would buy his work-his only means of making a living. His mind failed and he was admitted in poverty to a mental hospital. After a time, he was "discovered" there, and a number of influential people set up a fund to enable him to spend the rest of his days in comfort. He died in 1939.
Since Wain's death, the two main groups interested in his works are cat lovers and those interested in the art of schizophrenics. Wain is especially fascinating to those who study the art of the mentally ill because he had one main subject, cats, there are examples of his art from both before and during his illness.
It would be sad, though, if he were merely treated as a curiosity, a popular artist of novelty cat pictures or a tormented soul worthy only of psychological study since even his drawings from his time spent in asylums show great genius of both idea and execution.