Who was Louis William Wain?

Louis William Wain (1860-1939) was a talented artist who is famous for his anthropomorphic cats which were regularly clothed and which were often found on greeting cards and in satirical illustrations. He was a prolific artist whose work was not confined to wide-eyed humanized cats and kittens because he also drew country scenes and other animals.

This is an opportune time to remember Wain as a film about him is about to be released starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy.

Louis Wain Illustrations
Louis Wain Illustrations. I believe that they are now in the public domain.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles:- Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

It might be fair to describe his life in three parts.

Early life

His early life and later years were difficult but in-between he was very productive and became famous. He was the first of six children and the only male. His five sisters lived with their mother throughout their entire lives and never married. The youngest sister was declared insane. He lived with his mother for a large part of his life. He was born with a cleft lip. His doctor told his parents not to send him to school until he was 10. And at school he played truant, often wandering around London.

Louis Wain
Louis Wain. Photo in public domain.

Later life

In later life he was diagnosed as schizophrenic and ended up in a mental institution. He spent 14 years in asylums and he died in one, in Napsbury Hospital, near St Albans, Hertfordshire. I photographed this hospital in the late 1960s as a photographic assignment when I was a student. It was a dour and unforgiving establishment, a classic mental institution of the era. It was a very sad place with patients who were seriously mentally ill.

But Louis Wain may have been misdiagnosed as to his schizophrenia. Perhaps he shouldn’t have been there although in the early 1920s he became paranoid and violent at home and his sisters could no longer cope with his erratic behaviour. He was then committed to Springfield Mental Hospital in Tooting initially.

Louis Wain painting
Louis Wain painting. A classic style for the great man.

Ironically, it has been suggested that his schizophrenia was brought about by toxoplasmosis. Today this is a well-publicised parasitic protozoan of which the domestic cat is the primary vector passing toxoplasma gondii oocysts in their faeces for a very short period of time during their life. However, the disease has been used to malign and denigrate the domestic cat by cat haters. There is no proof that I know of that he suffered schizophrenia because of toxoplasmosis. There have been allegations that the disease makes people mad but this is completely unproven and as scurrilous in my view.

Some experts argue that his drawings later in life, after he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, supports the diagnosis because of the abstract patterns behind the cats. These were described as “wallpaper cats”. But others say that the wallpaper backgrounds are simply a reflection of Wain’s recollections of his mother’s fabrics.

The middle years

In between the start and the end of his life he was a prolific and highly talented artist becoming internationally renowned for his cloyingly sweet and sugary but highly accomplished illustrations of anthropomorphised kittens and cats with huge eyes and cute faces behaving as if they were humans.

Financial difficulties

It is said that Louis Wain was naïve and lacked business acumen and as a consequence he was constantly exploited and unable to monetize his exuberant talent. He went to New York, America in 1907 to make some money but came back poorer because he was talked into investing in a start-up business that was disastrous. He drew some comic strips while he was there and he was widely admired but as he criticised New York he received some criticism in return.

Wain suffered from financial difficulties throughout his life partly for the reasons stated above and partly because he was responsible for supporting his mother and his sisters.

Wain was involved in several animal charities and he was the chairman of the National Cat Club on two occasions in 1898 and in 1911. He drew their badge.

Doubts about diagnosis of schizophrenia

In 2001 Dr. Michael Fitzgerald claimed that it was more likely that he had Autistic Spectrum Disorder rather than schizophrenia. He says that if he genuinely was schizophrenic his art would have suffered badly but it didn’t. His technique and skill did not diminish.

Unfortunately, his works have been used as examples in psychology textbooks to show how the change in his style of painting illustrates his deteriorating mental health. But it is said that he did not date his works and therefore it would be difficult to use his work in this way. The more abstract patterns used in later works was explained by Rodney Dale, the author of Louis Wain: The Man Who Drew Cats as an example of Wain experimenting with patterns and cats and that he was producing conventional cat pictures when supposedly schizophrenic.

Peter and his marriage

It seems to me that he was hard done by both at the beginning and at the end of his life. I must mention his marriage to Emily Richardson who sadly died of breast cancer three years after their marriage. They adopted a stray black-and-white cat who they called Peter. He drew pictures of Peter. Emily was impressed and asked him to get them published. She died before this happened but he continued to make cat sketches and he later said of Peter that he was the foundation of his career.

To him, properly, belongs the foundation of my career, the developments of my initial efforts, and the establishing of my work.

Many of his early published works show illustrations of Peter.

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