A Cat Compendium: The Worlds of Louis Wain

A Cat Compendium: The Worlds of Louis Wain


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A Cat Compendium: The Worlds of Louis Wain by Louis Wain

Louis Wain drew cats: cats playing poker, boxing, playing cricket, and doing almost any human activity. His pictures are widely available today as decorative motifs and popular prints, but in his day, the man dubbed the "Hogarth of cat life" was a celebrity who sold thousands of drawings and paintings to an insatiable public. From humble beginnings, Wain became a hugely successful popular artist, creating the Louis Wain Annual series and the first ever animated cat character, later acknowledged as the inspiration for Mickey Mouse. But after he lost his fortune, he lost his mind. He ended up in a provincial asylum, sketching psychedelic cats that were more fiend-like than feline. When his fate was discovered in 1925, the Royal Family and the Prime Minister joined a national campaign to rescue Wain. The artist never entirely recovered his health, but he was eventually moved to a better home, where he continued to draw and paint almost until his death in 1939. With a wealth of Wain's most famous drawings, as well as rare writings by and about the artist, this is an ideal book for both Wain fans and cat-lovers in general.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780720612295
Publisher: Owen, Peter Limited
Publication date: 05/10/2005
Pages: 112
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 6.50(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Peter Haining was a celebrated anthologist and the author of more than 60 non-fiction titles.

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Cat Compendium

The Worlds of Louis Wain

By Peter Haining

Peter Owen Publishers

Copyright © 2004 Peter Haining
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7206-1868-6


The Worlds of Louis Wain

In the spring of 1929, Bethlehem Royal Hospital in St George's Field, Lambeth, was a mental institution regarded with a mixture of pity and fear by many Londoners. The tall, somewhat forbidding building was, in fact, still referred to by some locals as 'Bedlam', and local gossip would occasionally refer to the hospital's past when curiosity-seekers went there to stare and make fun of the extraordinary antics of the lunatics locked in their cells.

By the 1920s, however, the Bethlehem was acknowledged as the world's oldest psychiatric hospital, and its history had been traced back as far as the thirteenth century. Originally located in Bishopsgate, where it had been a priory for the men and women of the Order of the Star of Bethlehem, it had, by the following century, become a hospital and in 1377 began treating 'distracted' patients.

It was during the reign of Henry VIII that the institution became notorious for the inhumane and brutal way in which the inmates were treated and became known as Bedlam. In 1675, the hospital was moved to new premises in Moorfields, and soon after that the freak shows began. These appallingly insensitive 'open days' allowed the citizens of London, for the price of a penny, to enter the buildings and amuse themselves at the expenses of the hapless inmates.

The hospital was immortalized in the public imagination in 1735 by the artist William Hogarth in a scene from A Rake's Progress, in which the terrible fate of a merchant's son whose debauched lifestyle had brought about his incarceration is depicted – reflecting contemporary medical opinion that madness was caused by moral weakness. Thankfully, a change in attitudes was soon forthcoming, inmates now being referred to as 'patients' and separate wards set up for the 'curables' and 'incurables'.

The scars of the past could not be entirely erased, however. The word bedlam was already in common usage for all lunatic asylums, as well as any place or scene of wild turmoil and confusion. The name 'Tom O'Bedlam' had similarly been coined to describe anyone who was discharged from the hospital and provided with a small tin plate so that he could legally beg on the streets of London.

The nineteenth century saw the Bethlehem Royal Hospital move a third time, to Lambeth, where it would remain until 1930, before becoming what is now the home of the Imperial War Museum. These new premises proved a far cry from the horrors of the old Bedlam – although some of the misconceptions about the place still persisted – individual rooms being provided for patients along a series of galleries.

In 1929, Room 7 on Gallery 2 was occupied by a quietly spoken man in old-fashioned clothes who gave the impression to staff and visitors alike of being more of an eccentric than a madman. Certainly his room was piled high with paper, books, newspapers, magazines and a host of other smaller items indicating that he was a hoarder, while his constant preoccupation with writing and drawing set him aside from most of the other patients.

Matters came to a head that spring when the authorities finally insisted that Room 7 had to be cleaned. The patient stood silently by, watching without any obvious sign of annoyance as two staff members began to shift the piles of junk. He made no move either when some mice ran out from behind the yellowing newspapers, sending the female cleaner shrieking into the corridor.

At this, the man began to search around in the jumble, evidently looking for something. When he found a piece of paper, he sat down on the bed and began to draw. Whether the picture was intended to be a joke, the subject was immediately recognizable to the cleaners as they again got on with their work.

The pencil sketch was of a grinning cat with saucer-shaped eyes and a rather distorted body and legs. Clearly the man who had drawn it was no ordinary patient; indeed, he had once been the most famous cat artist on earth and the creator of a unique world known as Catland. His name was Louis Wain.

When I was a child growing up in the years after the Second World War, I clearly remember a very strange little book that belonged to one of my cousins. It was entitled, innocently enough, The Louis Wain Kitten Book. It was about three inches square with a picture on every right- hand page and rhyming verses on the opposite page.

The kitten of the title was a mischievous creature with big eyes and a habit of getting into trouble. There was one illustration of the cat that caught my eye and struck me as very bizarre – as it still does today. The animal is lying on its back, reacting in horror to a man in Oriental clothes. The verse on the facing page read:

This cat had always lived at home upon its master's lap,
So it was very frightened when it first beheld a Jap.

I had to turn over the page quickly to learn that – as in all the best children's storybooks – the incident had a happy ending:

But it very soon was brave again and sorry for its folly,
When it found the little Jap was nothing but a sawdust dolly.

Today such a verse would no doubt be considered very politically incorrect. But I had never seen anything like it back in the 1950s, and it made a lasting impression. I may well have wondered who could have written such a strange story, but it was not until many years later that I found out who Louis Wain was and appreciated that the man and his life had been every bit as strange as some of his drawings. I also discovered that the book was in fact the only one that he had both written and illustrated among the two hundred or so titles bearing his name and that it had appeared at the very height of his fame in 1903.

It would take further research for me to learn that Wain had played a major part in making the cat the most popular of all domestic pets; that he had created a character, Peter, who deserves to be ranked alongside such classic animal storybook favourites as Winnie the Pooh and Rupert Bear, not to mention being a source of inspiration for the early stars of animation, Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse; and that his life had ended in obscurity, penury and schizophrenia.

Only his artwork has survived to reveal the genius of Louis Wain's Catland and to offer an insight into the life of the man who was once described as 'The Edwardian Cat Artist That Went Mad'.

Louis William Wain was born on 5 August 1860, in Clerkenwell, London, the eldest of six children of William Wain, a textile salesman, and his wife Julie, a designer of church fabrics. His birth was followed by that of five sisters: Caroline in 1862, Josephine two years later, Claire in 1868, Felicie early in 1871 and the last girl, Marie, just before Christmas of that same year. Wain might also have had a brother in 1866, but the infant was stillborn.

It seems that the eldest Wain child suffered poor health and did not go to school until he was ten years old. In the interim, he became prone to dreams, loved reading adventure stories set in far-off locations and invented fantasy worlds of his own. His education began at the Orchard Street Foundation School in Hackney and continued until 1877 at St Joseph's Academy in Kensington, where other pupils remembered him as an outsider who often seemed lost in thoughts he would not share. In fact, he was already contemplating a career as a professional artist, as he was to tell journalist Roy Compton who interviewed him forThe Idler just before Christmas 1895. In the subsequent article, which appeared in the January issue with a curious photograph of Wain peering through a crescent moon alongside a sketch of a cat's head he had made especially for the magazine, he said:

My mother tells me that in my childhood I had always a great appreciation for colouring and used to amuse myself for hours grouping shaded leaves. I used to wander in the countryside studying nature and I consider that boyish fancy did much towards my future artistic life, for it taught me my powers of observation and to concentrate my mind on the details of nature which I should otherwise never have noticed.

Determined to follow his instincts, Wain took a two-year course at the West London School of Art. Following this, he remained as an assistant teacher for another two years – partly out of necessity, as his father had died in 1880 and he now had to support his mother and five sisters. He did, however, begin trying to sell drawings to newspapers, magazines and even printers to supplement his income. These early works of art are said to have been clearly inspired by his admiration for Phil May, whose combination of observation and amusing caricature earned him the epithet 'the Grandfather of British Illustrators', Randolph Caldecott, whose children's books made him the 'Lord of the Nursery', and the cartoonist Harry Furniss, to whose magazine Lika Joka, launched as a rival to Punch, he would later contribute.

Louis Wain's own years of observing nature finally enabled him to sell his first freelance drawing, 'Bullfinches on the Laurels' to the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News in December 1881. Unfortunately, the painstakingly detailed picture was wrongly captioned 'Robin's Breakfast' – and, although Wain submitted another thirty drawings without success, his style so impressed the magazine's proprietor, Sir William Ingram, that the following year he was offered a position on the staff. Also that same year he fell in love with Emily Richardson, the governess employed to look after his younger sisters. Despite the fact she was ten years older than Wain and the family opposed their courtship, the couple were married in January 1884.

The marriage was to prove tragically short-lived – although it did provide the inspiration that would spark his career and put him on the road to fame. Shortly after setting up home in Hampstead, Emily Wain was found to be suffering from breast cancer and spent much of the remaining three years of her life in bed. To comfort and amuse her while Wain was working, a black-and-white kitten, named Peter, was introduced into the household. Of this cat Wain said later, 'To him properly belongs the foundation of my career, the development of my initial efforts and the establishing of my work.'

There are differing stories of how Peter came into the artist's life. One version claims that he was a stray who wandered into the house one day and stayed. Another says that he was given to Wain as a twentieth-birthday gift, while a third insists that he was a wedding present to Wain and his bride from his sisters. Whatever the truth, Peter's arrival was to prove a defining moment in the artist's life, as he also confessed to Roy Compton:

I had difficulty in obtaining a foothold, and started by making sketches for the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News at agricultural shows all over the country and got a keen insight into rural life. But it was Peter who first suggested to my mind my fanciful cat creations. I watched his antics one evening and I did a small sketch. Then I trained Peter like a child, and he became my principal model and the pioneer of my success. I suggested an idea to Sir William Ingram who had encouraged me greatly by taking some of my sketches which showed promise but were not sufficiently good to reproduce. I worked upon the cat pictures until they finally caught his fancy.

Wain's first accepted cat picture did not, however, makes its appearance in the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News but in Sir William's companion weekly magazine, the Illustrated London News, to which Wain had already contributed several illustrations as a freelance artist. Notable among these were 'Odd Fish' – featuring a 'Rabbit Fish' and a 'Parrot Fish' but curiously no 'Cat Fish' – and a report with sketches of 'The New Dog Fancy'. The multi-panelled full-page illustration entitled Our Cats: A Domestic History that Wain contributed the issue of 18 October 1884 is today acknowledged as a ground-breaking example of a narrative drawing featuring animals.

The picture is a superb evocation of the cat in all its moods, with Peter appearing in no less than six of the panels. The artist's pet lets his sense of mischief get the better of him in several incidents, with the consequence that another cat belonging to the neighbouring Jones family is sent in his place to the Crystal Palace Cat Show where it wins first prize!

It seems safe to assume that the narrative – like all the other panels – was drawn from life. But far from the incorrigible Peter suffering as a result of his behaviour, he was destined to become hugely popular with the public; a popularity generated by dozens of drawings of the black-and-white cat with his unique markings that made him immediately recognizable in magazines and books and inspired the first attempt at creating an animated cartoon film Pussyfoot a decade ahead of Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse.

If one picture assured Louis Wain's fame it was A Kitten's Christmas Party, which Sir William Ingram commissioned for the Christmas 1886 issue of the Illustrated London News. The artist worked on the drawing as if his very life depended on it, drawing almost two hundred lively-looking cats enjoying a Christmas revel. When it was published, the illustration created a sensation, and, in order that even more people might enjoy the idiosyncrasies of the cats, Sir William later presented the original to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London for public display.

Tragically, only a week after this triumph – on 2 January 1887 – Emily Wain died. Despite the brevity of their marriage and his wife's poor health, Wain was heartbroken, and to some people he was never the same man again. He grew shy and morose and shortly afterwards moved to lodgings in New Cavendish Street. His only comfort was Peter, who would live for almost another decade before dying peacefully in 1898 – his features and character already immortalized.

It would be in another Christmas edition of the Illustrated London News in 1890 that the anthropomorphized Louis Wain cat that became so familiar to admirers was first established. For A Cat's Party Wain took the elements he had begun to develop in his earlier festive gathering and is credited with being the first artist to depict clothed animals standing upright on two legs. His cats were portrayed chatting to one another, listening to a piano player and singer and generally behaving in exactly the same way as men and women in any household at that time of year. Readers everywhere were entranced, and Wain would no longer have to worry about commissions for years to come.

Not all publishers wanted his comical cats, however. Some, such as the editor of the magazine Leisure Hour, required cats to behave like cats, as the charming example that illustrated an article 'Cats' by Hopkins Tighe in the February 1895 issue demonstrated. However, the Illustrated London New's sister paper, the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, was happy to encourage Wain to create more cats with human characteristics and a whole range of mannerisms and facial expressions. Some of his cats even began to behave like children – occasionally mischievous and naughty children – of which The Little Nipper, published in the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News in July 1898, is a perfect example.

The appeal of Louis Wain's cats was also to have a profound effect on the public's attitude towards the feline species in general, as he was to claim some years later – with no sense of false modesty – when quoted by the Evening Times:

I have tried to wipe out, once and for all, the contempt in which the cat has been held in the country and raised its status from the questionable care and attention of the old maid to a real and permanent place in the home. I have myself found, as the result of many years' inquiry and study, that all people who keep cats, and are in the habit of nursing them, do not suffer from those petty little ailments which all flesh is heir to, viz. nervous complaints of a minor sort. Hysteria and rheumatism, too, are unknown, and all lovers of 'Pussy' are of the sweetest temperament.

While Wain's claims for the 'curative' powers of the cat might be regarded with some amusement, there is no hint in his words that he had any suspicion of the ill health that would eventually blight his own life. Indeed, he was soon being regarded as an expert on the feline species and, in 1890, was invited to become president of the National Cat Club. He joined in enthusiastically with the club's activities – devising its badge and the motto 'Beauty Lives By Kindness', encouraging scientific breeding of the more exotic cats and instituting the first feline stud book.


Excerpted from Cat Compendium by Peter Haining. Copyright © 2004 Peter Haining. Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


HOW I DRAW MY CATS From Home Notes, 20 August 1898,
PROFESSOR FREDERICKS' PERFORMING CATS From the Illustrated London News, 22 December 1888,
THE CAT'S PARADE Verse by Jetta Vogel with illustrations by Louis Wain,
NINE LIVES: THE PROVERBIAL LIFE OF THE CAT From the Louis Wain Annual, 1902–1915,

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