When Louis Wain’s wife, Emily, was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer in 1884, the couple’s cat, Peter, was a great source of comfort to her.
The Victorian artist would sketch photos of Peter’s antics to amuse his wife, and after her death, Wain continued to draw cats. His anthropomorphized depictions became so popular that he achieved worldwide fame for creating an endearing cat world that put the animals in a new, positive light.
Wain's illustration work was so influential that he is credited with changing people’s feline feelings, from viewing them as contemptible feral pests to cute and fascinating pets.
Louis William Wain was born in Clerkenwell, London, August 5, 1860, the eldest of six children and only son. He often skipped school as a youth and spent much of his childhood wandering around London. He eventually studied at the West London School of Art and became a teacher there.
After his father died in 1880, Wain left school to support his mother and five sisters, becoming a freelance artist. He successfully worked for several journals and specialized in drawing country scenes and various animals.
When Wain was 23, he married Emily Richardson, his sisters’ governess. She was ten years his senior, which was scandalous at the time. Peter entered their life when they rescued him as a stray kitten.
“Peter was her constant companion,” Wain wrote in his diary. “His was the genius which gilded many a sorrowful hour and lightened many a burden.”
Wain’s drawings of Peter were meant just for his wife, but she encouraged him to get them published, and The Illustrated London News, where he freelanced, printed some. Though the initial reception was lukewarm, Wain continued drawing cats.
His big break came in 1886 when he was asked to illustrate The Illustrated London News’ holiday issue. “A Kitten’s Christmas Party” — an eleven-panel drawing featuring 150 cats, many of which resembled Peter — appeared in the newspaper days before his wife’s death. Wain depicted catss reveling in various holiday festivities, including sending invitations, playing games, making speeches, and dancing up a storm to holiday tunes. The drawing enchanted the Victorian public, and Wain became an overnight sensation.
Though the cats in the drawing did not yet have his signature human-like expressions and remained unclothed on all fours, in subsequent years, Wain drew his cats walking upright with big smiles and wearing fancy and sophisticated clothing. His cats engaged in human activities: they smoked, golfed, had tea parties, went to the opera, tobogganed down snowy hills, played with tiny cat dolls, rode bicycles and fished.
Wain’s signature anthropomorphic style and scenes of the cats proved hugely popular in Victorian and Edwardian England. At the start of the 20th Century, he was a household name. His drawings were featured in children’s books, greeting cards, newspapers and prints.
Before Wain, cats in England were mainly held with contempt and viewed as menaces, but his work helped to humanize them and to be seen as animals worthy of love and admiration.
“He made the cat his own,” the acclaimed sci-fi writer H.G. Wells once said. “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.”
Wain was viewed as a leading feline authority. He was elected president of the National Cat Club in 1890 and hosted its annual cat show in London. He was involved in several charities to bolster love and appreciation for felines.
He also remained inspired by Peter. “To him, properly, belongs the foundation of my career, the developments of my initial efforts, and the establishing of my work,” Wain wrote of his cat, who died in 1898 at 15.
Wain enjoyed fame until the start of World War I in 1914. Unfortunately, he was a lousy businessman. Never copyrighting his work, he didn’t earn any money off the numerous reproductions of his illustrations, and the war left him impoverished. As his financial situation worsened, it had a dire effect on his mental health, as did the deaths of two sisters: one died in 1913 after spending several years in an insane asylum for schizophrenia, and his oldest sister died in 1915.
Wain became increasingly erratic and paranoid, and in 1924, his family certified him insane, and he was admitted to the pauper ward of Springfield Hospital in London. When this was discovered by chance a year later, there was a public appeal that Wells and London’s prime minister Ramsay MacDonald joined to get him better care, and he was sent to Bethlem Royal Hospital, also in London.
At Bethlem, Wain continued drawing his cats. He would also decorate the hospital in his unique style each Christmas by painting mirrors with mischievous-looking cats singing carols and eating plum pudding.
During his time at Bethlem, Wain created his psychedelic “Kaleidoscope Cat” drawings, which are celebrated today. He painted his felines bursting with colors and intricate patterns. In the 1930s, a British psychiatrist found these paintings in a thrift store and arranged them in a certain sequence, touting them as illustrations of Wain’s descent into madness.
However, according to the Bethlem Museum of the Mind, a museum focusing on the history of Bethlem Royal Hospital, the kaleidoscope artworks were never dated, so putting them in a sequence was purely speculative. The paintings proved to be experimentation in pattern and color, not actual evidence of mental deterioration.
In 1930, Wain was transferred to another hospital, where he remained until he died in 1939 at age 78.
Wain’s work has often been overlooked and misjudged. But a critically acclaimed 2021 film, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and available to watch on Amazon Prime, puts his story in the limelight. Today, his paintings can be viewed at Bethlehem Museum of the Mind.
Wain would likely be happy to know that the animals he helped go from being seen as loathsome creatures to beloved companions are still cherished today by hundreds of millions worldwide. Art dealers and collectors have also rediscovered his art in the last decade. Wain’s work can fetch significant amounts at auction, with some pieces reaching tens of thousands of dollars. Bonhams sold several pieces in 2022 for five figures.