Once upon a time in Edwardian England, there was a man who drew cats. Unlike typical cats of the time, he depicted his anthropomorphic felines in light-hearted situations and created CATVILLE which was a parallel world filled with whimsical creatures living their furry lives often clothed with human personas. A glimpse into the beautiful imagination of the eccentric artist, Louis Wain, offers some insight and understanding of one man’s obsession. Despite his struggles with mental health, he created a legacy of images still loved today and forever changed the public’s perception of cats.
Wain was born in England in 1860 and enjoyed early success with his lovable depictions of cats. Although cats were often viewed with contempt at that time and associated with witchcraft, Wain’s portrayals were lighthearted and lovable. Somehow he managed to warm the hearts of the English people and soon his art was so popular that almost every home in London boasted a print of his fanciful felines and he became one of the most popular and prolific artists in history.
At one point, he used his art as currency and would give his sketches to people in lieu of cash. For that reason, his art was widely popular and in the hands of the general public, making him an artist of the people. He did not care about licensing and most of his work was given freely and done without restrictions which led to poverty in his later life.
His early days were spent as a freelance artist and he feared he would never be taken seriously for his cat illustrations. He worked with many journals and his illustrations included animals and country scenes. It was not until he was 24 that he sold his first cat illustration to The Illustrated London News. For the next few years, his popularity grew but it was shadowed by the sadness of his personal life that was a stark contrast to the joy in his illustrations.
Wain married Emily Richardson in 1883. She was his sisters’ governess and 10 years his senior and although scandalous for the time, he married the love of his life and they moved to Hampstead in north London. Soon after they married, Emily became ill with breast cancer and her health continued to diminish over the next three years. During this time, Wain drew pictures of Peter, a black and white stray cat that they had adopted after he showed up on their doorstep during a thunderstorm. Peter proved to be the only thing that could raise Emily’s spirits and Wain drew furiously to amuse her and taught him tricks to distract her from her illness. She encouraged him to publish the drawings and to follow his heart by doing what he loved.
His career blossomed when he was commissioned by The Illustrated London News to submit multiple works of his cat illustrations as well as A KITTENS CHRISTMAS PARTY which was a huge success. Unfortunately, Emily passed away during this time and she was never able to share in his revelry.
From that point on, Wain spiraled and began to lose his battle with anxiety and depression. He was lost in a dark place and turned inward. He never recovered from the loss of his Emily and despite the popularity of his work in children’s books and prints, his heart remained broken.
H.G Wells was a fan of Wain and touted his accomplishments. During a 1927 radio broadcast, Wells said, “He invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world. English cats that do not look like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves.” He and the Prime Minister of England later moved Wain from a pauper ward of Springfield Mental Hospital in Tooting to a more reputable hospital. He lived out his days creating colorful imagery until his death in 1939. Art was a balm for his tortured soul and his creative expression was inspired by cats, which were his therapeutic outlet. There is modern day speculation about his condition but none should overshadow the wealth and wonder of his artistic contributions.
He managed to find delight in his darkness and captured the complicated beauty of cats through his psychedelic imagination. He did not die a rich man or enjoy a happily ever after life, but he did manage to leave a legacy of art and spurred a public fondness for cats that would be forever cherished.
Cheers to the curious world and beautiful imagination of a crazy cat man.