Original Catfluencer: How a Victorian Artist's Feline Fixation Gave Us the Internet Cat

May 7th, 2019

Louis Wain painted this cat in gouache sometime after he was committed to a mental asylum. Its fur patterns are formed by lines resembling Gothic decoration. (Credit: Wellcome Collection)

Louis Wain—an illustrator who boosted the popularity of cats at the turn of the 20th century—is a meme. If you search his name online, you’ll find the “famous series” of eight colorful drawings, at least six of which feature a cat, looking progressively more “psychedelic,” long before taking psychedelic drugs was a fad. It’s true that the drawings were made in the 1920s and 1930s, after the artist had been committed to a mental hospital at age 63.

But the meme’s assertion that the vivid kaleidoscopic patterns and fractals he drew reflected the progression of his mental illness, now thought to be schizophrenia, doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Similarly, there’s no proof the famous cat lover was afflicted with Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite some cats carry that, despite popular assumptions, has not been proven to alter human behavior.

It is, however, appropriate that Louis Wain be a meme in our Age of the Internet Cat. Wain is the godfather of the cat craze. Without Wain, there’d be no Felix, no Cat in the Hat, no Garfield, no Keyboard Cat, no International Cat Video Festival. Before Wain, cats were still largely treated with suspicion and contempt in the United Kingdom and the United States. In Medieval times, Europeans blamed cats, thought to be witches’ familiars, for disease, infertility, drought, and crop failure, even though many farmers and merchants quietly let cats kill rodents. Felines were so reviled that live cats were frequently burned at Christian festivals. In England, squalling cats were set afire in a large wicker effigy at 17th-century celebration honoring an anniversary of Queen Elizabeth I’s rule.

This early 1900s postcard, “I Feel Rather Upset,” published by Ernest Nister, features Louis Wain’s beloved anthropomorphic cartoon cats. (Via eBay)

Slowly, attitudes toward cats softened around Europe. The French adaptation of the Italian fairy tale, Puss in Boots, which portrays an upright, talking cat as a clever helpmate to his owner, was published in 1697 and quickly became popular across the continent. Stylish 18th-century French courtesans began keeping kitties as cuddly pets, while major potteries started making cat figurines. But the transition took time. Chris Beetles, a London gallerist and world-renowned expert on Louis Wain, says that even in the 19th century, ferals roamed the streets of London, and “a lot of cats that people saw were mangy and dirty—they barely looked like animals; they were in such a disgusting state.”

In Victorian England, animal fancier Harrison Weir was the first to raise the status of pet cats beyond barn animals. Even he confessed he had felt wary of cats until he got to know a few, who thoroughly charmed him. As the first president of the National Cat Club of the United Kingdom, Weir put on the first cat show at the Crystal Palace in London in 1871, when Louis Wain was 10 years old. The spectacle drew 20,000 gawkers to see 170 exhibits including exotic Manx, African, and Persian cats, as well as a rare Siamese and a Scottish Wild Cat. Brits started to reconsider felines—perhaps they could be kept inside the home, to pet, admire, and treasure.

An early Louis Wain portrait of Peter. (Courtesy Chris Beetles Gallery, St. James’s, London)

That’s why when 23-year-old Louis Wain and his new wife brought a black-and-white kitten that they named Peter into their home in 1883, it was still an unconventional, but not completely outrageous, choice. Rodney Dale, an author of books on science and technology, became fascinated with Louis Wain in the late 1960s, and researched and wrote the first full bio on the artist, Louis Wain: The Man Who Drew Cats, first published in 1968, re-issued in 1991, and then in 2000, by Michael O’Mara Books and Chris Beetles Limited.

Wain, an aspiring artist who grew up a peculiar and sickly child, was known for making unconventional choices, such as marrying Emily, a woman 10 years his senior and the former governess of his younger sisters. As a couple, the Wains lived a meager existence in London, getting by on his regular journalistic drawing assignments for the “Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News.” Shortly after they married, Emily fell ill with carcinoma of the breast, and Peter the cat entertained, cuddled, and consoled her.

In his Wain biography, Dale wrote: “Peter received a great deal of attention, as he was very comforting to Emily, and Louis started to teach him tricks to amuse her. He spent a great deal of time sketching Peter as well, and filled sketch-book upon sketch-book with portraits of him in every conceivable pose. Emily pressed her husband to offer some of his drawings of Peter to editors, but he did not think that they would be interested—in spite of the fact that there were drawings of Peter hung all over the walls of their flat, which gave rise to delighted approval from their visitors.”

Two cats that resemble Peter face off against dogs in an 1884 Wain engraving for the “Illustrated London News” named “A New Dog-Fancy: The Basset Hounds.” Note the kitten hiding under a book entitled “Sanctuary.” (® Illustrated London News Ltd/Mary Evans)

However, instead of pitching cat drawings to publishers, Wain spent the mid-1880s trying to make a living as a dog portraitist. “It is hard to realise that in those days the cat was far from universally accepted as a pet,” though the cat fancier societies were starting to have an impact, Dale explained. “Louis Wain wrote in 1909: ‘When I first took to drawing and painting [cats] they were treated as despised animals, looked on as vermin by sportsmen. … The man who would take an interest in the cat movement was looked upon as effeminate.'”

“Here’s a man in a pauper’s asylum, where in the wide world outside, there’s hundreds of thousands of images being produced of his cats.”

In 1886, the famed publisher Macmillan asked Wain to illustrate a children’s book titled Madame Tabby’s Establishment about a little girl who is accepted in to the court of the cat king and goes to Madame Tabby’s to learn proper cat etiquette. Published in fall 1886, the book was a hit with Victorian parents, Dale explained. That Christmas, “Illustrated London News” published an 11-panel Wain narrative called “A Kitten’s Christmas Party” featuring more than 150 cats. It made him instantly famous, which pleased Emily, who passed away on January 2, 1887—leaving Louis a widower at age 26.

“It is not, I think, too far-fetched to speculate that Louis Wain’s having met Peter changed the course of domestic history,” Dale declared in Louis Wain. “Certainly, the attitude of the general public towards cats, and their feeling (or otherwise) for cats was greatly affected by Louis Wain’s work. … Had Peter not found comfort on Emily’s sick-bed, he would not have made such a ready model for Louis Wain. And had he not received so much attention, he might well have not developed such a personality.”

A Wain illustration from the 1886 children’s book Madame Tabby’s Establishment shows the heroine meeting the cat king. (Via BookTryst.com)

Wain soon traded his more naturalistic and intricate cat drawings for iconic “Louis Wain Cat” cartoons, big-eyed anthropomorphic felines who seemed more than a little human.

“Wain’s breakthrough came in the 1890, when he was asked by William Ingram, his patron at the ‘Illustrated London News’ to do a double-page spread for the Christmas issue, which he filled with over a hundred cats in anthropomorphic style,” Beetles tells me over the phone from London. “It was really the introduction of the cat dressed as a human doing human things, having a party, playing music, and so on, and that image became a great hit. He’d already been sketching quite a lot of cats, but in a naturalistic way. He was working for the ‘Illustrated London News’ for years, and he’d go to dog shows, circuses, zoos, anything. But cats suddenly became very, very popular.”

Wain’s “A Cat’s Christmas Dance,” drawn for the “Illustrated London News” in 1890, features more than 100 anthropomorphic cats. (Courtesy Chris Beetles Gallery, St. James’s, London)

As the cat craze created a high demand for Louis Wain’s cartoon cats, Wain wrote that he found inspiration taking “a sketch-book to a restaurant or other public place, and draw the people in their different positions as cats, getting as near to their human characteristics as possible. This gives me double nature, and these studies I think my best humorous work.”

By giving felines a sense of humanity, Wain raised the status of cats in Western culture. “Really, he was portraying Edwardian society,” Beetles says. “He was just making it more acceptable for Edwardian society to enjoy itself and laugh at itself by putting it in the guise of cats. If you laugh at something, find it endearing, and love it, you’re not going to immediately maltreat it, are you? It’s an evolutionary fact that children are cute and endearing—and any baby animal is endearing—so that they’re treated more carefully and they’re loved more easily.”

An Edwardian wife demands a new hat in this early 1900s Louis Wain postcard. (Via eBay)

In a few short decades, Wain drew thousands upon thousands of these adorable human-like cats for newspaper illustrations, children’s books, comic strips, and comic postcards for such respected publishers as Raphael Tuck & Sons.

“He has made the cat his own. He invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world.”

“A huge number of Louis Wain postcards—something like 1,100—were produced by 75 different publishers over 40 years,” Beetles says. “All the ‘Louis Wain’s Annuals,’ which were also popular, portrayed animals in this anthropomorphic way. He popularized human beings as cats and vice versa, cats as human beings, but he wasn’t the first to do so.”

In a way, Louis Wain arrived at exactly the right time. With all the political, social, and economic upheaval of the 18th and 19th centuries, caricatures and visual satire exploded in popularity. In 1830s France, J.J. Grandville made prints of political figures as animals, setting the stage for more and more anthropomorphic cartoons, as 19th-century advances in printing technology allowed newspapers and magazines heavy on illustration to proliferate.

“A Mad Rush,” drawing in crayon by Wain. (Courtesy Chris Beetles Gallery, St. James’s, London)

“Louis Wain’s career happened to coincide with the rise of mass publication, as woodcuts gave way to process engraving, with all these hundreds of magazines coming out, like the ‘Illustrated London News’ and the ‘Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News,’” Beetles says. “It was a time when popular images got out to millions of people. Before that, it was just the slightly wealthier middle classes who could afford to buy woodcut prints, which was an expensive way of producing an image.”

By the turn of the 20th century, drawing human-like animals became a way to poke fun at human idiosyncrasies and hypocrisy, strange social mores, and political friction without offending anyone in particular. Around the same time, republishing old fairy tales and animal fables took off as a late-19th-century fad in children’s literature. Even new titles tapped into the zeitgeist: 1865’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1883’s The Adventures of Pinocchio, and 1894’s The Jungle Book all feature animals that speak and behave like humans.

The Adventures of Friskers and His Friends, written by Marian Hurrell and illustrated by Wain, was published in 1909. (Via eBay)

The trend of having pampered house pets—as opposed to useful, working animals like hunting or sheep dogs—had sprung out of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the middle class. By the mid-19th century, average Victorians had more free time and disposable income to make their homes lovely and inviting, to take up social causes, to explore zoological and botanical hobbies, and to dote on two-legged and four-legged members of the family alike.

“The middle-class movement produced an environment within which cats could thrive,” Beetles, a self-proclaimed cat lover, explained to me. “People could get interested in them, start to notice the differences and breed them, and write lots of articles about how to treat them properly. Wain was all part of that. So the cat loonies aren’t confined to our age.”

It’s worth noting that cats became seen as adorable shortly after childhood was sanctioned as a precious time of life; before the 19th century, kids were viewed as miniature adults and put to work on farms and factories at an early age without much pathos.

Busy parents tend to their kittens in this J. Beagles postcard by Louis Wain from 1907. (Via eBay)

“In a way, cats became, with their sweet and sympathetic qualities, rather like children,” says Beetles, who reminds me that Charles Dickens was also pulling heartstrings by writing about the plight of impoverished children in the mid-19th century. “It was a time of great sentimentality when Christmas, the nursery, and children’s stories became prevalent. So children, then animals, were beginning to be at the forefront in everybody’s lives. And because of that and their intrinsic qualities, they were loved and treasured. It wasn’t just out of sight and out of mind.”

The very first issue of “Our Cats” came out on Nov. 1, 1899. (Via Cat-o-Pedia)

Wain’s love for Peter imbued him with a love of all cat-kind, Dale explained in Louis Wain. In 1891, Wain became the president of the National Cat Club, and used his platform to champion the well-being of the animals, as he did with his illustrations. In his lifetime, he was also involved with the Society for the Protection of Cats and the National Anti-Vivisection Society. In 1899, the National Cat Club launched a journal called “Our Cats,” which was published weekly for 14 years, and, as Dale reported, detailed Wain’s life and musings, as he was the biggest name of the club. Thus, Louis Wain might have been the first celebrated cat blogger. He loved to write and espouse his views on every topic under the sun, especially if the topic concerned cats. Peter, of course, was the cat he held in the highest esteem.

Wain wrote, “My old pet Peter was a black-and-white cat, and, like most of his kind, was one of the most remarkable cats for intelligence I have known. A recital of his accomplishments would, however, have very few believers—a fact I find existing in regard to all really intelligent cats. … Suffice it to say, that Peter would lie and die [play dead], sit up with spectacles on his nose and with a post-card between his paws.”

“Mrs. Tabby’s Academy,” in pen ink, watercolor, and bodycolor. (Courtesy Chris Beetles Gallery, St. James’s, London)

For a brief time, the Wains heard things going “bump” in the night and thought they had a ghost. But Peter “was ultimately caught in the act of lifting the corner of the door-rug and letting it fall back in its place,” Wain explained. “He had grown quite expert in his method of raising and dropping it at regular intervals until he heard that his signals had produced the desired effect, and the door was opened to admit him.”

“Our Cats” let Wain air his strangest theories about cats, which were based on observation and speculation rather than sound science. Wain seemed to believe both that cats could be extremely intelligent, while also having fragile brains that could be rendered blank by loud noises or sudden disruptions to their surroundings.

“The cat loonies aren’t confined to our age.”

“Cats are often driven mad or imbecile by excessive punishment or fright,” Louis Wain declared. “You can sufficiently frighten a cat by the tones of your voice, as a rule—mark how any cat shrinks when you speak roughly to it.”

In fact, Wain believed that a change of scenery was so shocking to a cat’s physical and mental being, that “the digestion suffers, the cat cannot eat well, and very often dies before the brain can recover its equilibrium.” Curiosity killed the cat, indeed.

Cats appear to have electromagnetic waves radiating off of them in this Wain artwork. (Courtesy Chris Beetles Gallery, St. James’s, London)

Like many people in the 1880s and 1890s, Louis Wain was fascinated with electricity and thrilled by all the incredible inventions powered by it. At the time, the ability to harness electricity was new and poorly understood by the general public. Thanks to experiments of Hertz, Tesla, and Edison, the possibilities of electricity seemed endless—could it explain human life, promote healing, transmit messages to God, or communicate with ghosts? John Humphrey Noyes, founder of the Oneida community, preached that sex turned humans into batteries, generating spiritual electricity that brought believers closer to God. Wain—who was more obsessed with cats than sex—posited his own theories about living batteries.

“Peter is a small electrical battery, my wife a larger one, the larger one attracts electricity from the small one; the passage of the fluid from one body to another generating heat,” Wain wrote. Furthermore, he asserted, the fur pattern of, say, a tabby cat, would be determined by the cat’s electromagnetic polarization.

“Strangely enough, I once had an impression that a cat’s tendency was to travel north, and to face north as a magnet does, and that this tendency had some intimate association with the electrical strength of its fur,” Wain wrote. “In brief, I looked upon a cat as a lightning conductor on a small scale, and that according to its temperament, negative or positive, did it face north or south, or just as the points of its fur were attracted by the negative or positive poles of the earth.”

In Wain’s imaginary cat world, his cat people like to swim and bathe in water. (Courtesy Chris Beetles Gallery, St. James’s, London)

Even the cat’s daily ritual of tongue-bathing, Wain believed to be related to its charge. “Its main object in washing, to my mind, is just to complete an electrical circuit, for by so doing it generates heat and therefore a pleasing sensation in its fur,” he concluded.

Besides Peter, Louis Wain adopted a handful of other cats—including a Siamese cat named Bigit, a blue cat called Fitzgoblin, and a black Persian named Prince. He wrote that Fitzgoblin “is a weird creature with glowing red eyes, and he seems to have two individualities—the one possessing the fore part of his body and the other the rear. It is most curious; his long lanky hind legs seem to act as an ever-varying rudder, and he often gets such a pace into them as to jump in front of his fore-quarters—to his evident astonishment. In fact, neither Fitzgoblin nor anyone else can foretell from moment to moment where he is going or how his frolics will end!”

“He was a household name in the way ‘Peanuts’ is in America—and he was still broke.”

According to Dale, Wain eventually had so many cats on his property that he couldn’t keep track of them all. “There were, of course, other cats apart from Peter in Louis Wain’s life, but one hears less and less of them individually after the turn of the century, probably because he had so many that he could not possibly work as hard as he did and still have time to make friends with them,” Dale wrote. “As his reputation grew, more and more people thought of him as an ever-open door for receiving stray cats and unwanted kittens. As one observer put it, he had ‘so many cats that their kittens left the house and took up residence in the garden, becoming quite wild and snarling and spitting at the visitors who walked up the path.'”

Louis Wain pets a cat at his drawing table around 1890. Note the wallpaper in the background. (Courtesy Chris Beetles Gallery, St. James’s, London)

However, if you visited Louis Wain, who also had several pet dogs, you might not meet a cat at all. “One who visited the family as a child in 1904 recalls Louis as a ‘tall, dark, pale man with a moustache,’” Dale wrote. “‘He was very reserved and stood aloof at the far end of the rather dark room, cluttered with furniture and ornaments in the Victorian manner, gazing down still and silent at half-a-dozen dogs, who sat in a semicircle, gazing up at their master.’ … The young visitor was infinitely disappointed that there was not a cat to be seen.”

While Wain’s work and advocacy brought joy to millions of humans and their feline companions, his life was not a happy one. After Emily died, he never remarried. According to Dale, friends and associates described him as a “sad, sallow” man with a harelip, a bushy mustache, and crooked nose. His father had passed away when he was 20 years old. After he reconciled with his estranged mother and five never-married sisters in 1894, he became their sole provider. (Wain’s sisters Claire and Felicie were talented artists in their own right, but didn’t pursue careers in art to keep the spotlight on their famous brother.)

Unfortunately, Louis Wain was inclined to give his work away, and didn’t have the social skills or business savvy to negotiate rights with the newspaper, magazine, book, and postcard editors who regularly published his illustrations and comic panels, Dale explained. Eventually, the publishers had so many Wain drawings on hand—of anthropomorphic cartoon cats dressing and behaving as humans in every imaginable scenario—that they didn’t accept new ones and never paid him for reuse.

This Louis Wain postcard, “An Xmas Present,” was published by C.W. Faulkner & Co. and postmarked in 1905. (Via eBay)

“When I read through everything on Wain I could over the years, I was always struck by how unbusinesslike he was, how he was always broke, even when he was fantastically popular,” Beetles says. “He was a household name in the way ‘Peanuts’ is in America—and he was still broke. And he had the added burden of being responsible for five sisters and a mother who’d become bankrupt; her business had gone wrong. And the sisters earned very little, as part-time governesses and doing a bit of teaching. But largely, he was the breadwinner who had to support the ladies at home. That’s very stressful when you’re not able to do deals.

“He was hopeless about copyright,” Beetles continues. “He never got any residual fees, because he’d always sell everything outright. Somebody would buy an artwork, and they’d do a print, they’d do a tin, they’d do a book—every way in which the image could be used—for that one fee. So he didn’t get secondary rights in either direction. He was, in that respect, exploited.”

The people who knew Wain personally described him as an eccentric, a neuropath (a.k.a. a neurotic), and “an example of the thin borderline between genius and insanity,” as Dale quoted one acquaintance. Wain claimed to love physics and acquired patents for two bicycles and a rangefinder. He told friends he’d written an opera that no one’s ever found. “He used to improvise at the piano very competently, strange melodies played in a very jerky, nervous way—what I would call agitato playing,” Wain’s friend, Collingwood Ingram, wrote. “And he used to improvise wild, fantastic solo dances in the same style.”

The covers of two early “Louis Wain’s Annuals” for 1902 and 1905 feature the artist’s so-called “smooth” style cats. (Via A Pure Vintage and AbeBooks)

So throughout his life, Wain—who may have been on the autism spectrum—was always seen as a little odd. We also know that poor mental health ran in his family. In 1901, Wain’s youngest sister, Marie, who was exhibiting signs of mental illness, was committed to an insane asylum, Dale wrote. She died on March 3, 1913, and the Wain family never spoke of her again.

The year 1901 also marked the first issue of “Louis Wain’s Annual,” a publication full of his cat drawings, poems, and stories, which came out yearly until 1915 and less frequently until 1923. Louis Wain reached his height of popularity in 1903, Dale explained, but by 1907, tastes were beginning to change as the market was oversaturated with his work. To salvage his financial situation, he traveled to New York City in October 1907, where Hearst Newspapers contracted with him to draw comic strips called “Cats About Town” and “Grimalkin.” When Wain returned to England in early 1910, after the death of his mother, his job prospects were grim.

Able to draw quickly with both hands, Wain would dash off cat drawings for charity events throughout his career. “He was obviously a generous personality,” Beetles says. “Over the years, I’ve seen hundreds of gifts where he’s given quick sketches to people and annotated them with ‘Best Wishes.’ He was spontaneous, generous, and penurious—he had no money.”

Depicting a cat with a monocle, as you see in this detail of a postcard, was one of Wain’s jabs at the upper crust of Edwardian society. (Via eBay)

According to Dale, the persistently broke artist even used his cat drawings as currency. “Wain’s fame, and his ability to execute lightning sketches, often enabled him to avoid incurring some small expense,” Dale wrote. “After the war, when he was very impecunious, he made full use of his talents in this way. For instance, one day he went into a chemist’s shop in Farringdon Road and bought a box of lozenges. He then asked the manager to wrap the box so that it could be sent through the post—presumably he was doing one of his strange little kindnesses for a friend with a sore throat. By way of thanking the manager, he asked for a piece of paper and drew him a laughing cat.

“Another correspondent writes: ‘In 1921, I was employed at the British Industries Fair at the White City. One day, I was standing near an entrance turnstile when a man approached and gained admittance by a somewhat unusual method. Instead of tendering a business card or cash to be allowed in, he asked for a piece of scrap paper, upon which he made a rapid sketch which he solemnly handed to the attendant, who responded by allowing him to pass through the turnstile.'”

Like any artist, Louis Wain found new inspiration in the movements on the cutting edge of art, which in the Edwardian Era were Cubism (1907) and Futurism (1909). With the help of Max Emmanuel and Co., he produced nine strange designs for cat-shaped porcelain flower vases he called “Futurist Cats” in 1914.

Wain’s sketches for the futurist, cubist cats that Max Emmanuel and Co. produced as ceramic flowerpots. (Courtesy Chris Beetles Gallery, St. James’s, London)

The models “were really hideous,” Dale wrote. “The addition of the signature ‘Louis Wain’ to each one could have done little either to sell them or to enhance the artist’s reputation. The ‘delightful cubist cats’ were launched in June, at a private view at Emmanuel & Co., and a reviewer gives us a very good idea of what they were like.

“‘The futurist cat is the latest thing in freak ornaments,’” the reviewer wrote. “‘It has been evolved from the fertile brain of Mr. Louis Wain, the inimitable cat expert, whose idea of applying the tenets of futurism to the construction of china cats has resulted in the creation of some truly wonderful feline fancies … It can be said at once that if not exactly things of beauty, they are a joy for ever.

“‘Yellow cats and blue cats, green cats and pink cats, and even pale heliotrope cats, were grouped on futurist shelves, and they were the quaintest, oddest tribe imaginable. Their faces, designed on crude cube lines, were the limit of grotesqueness, and were calculated to draw a laugh from the most miserable of men.’”

This Louis Wain painting was inspired by the Japanese British Exhibition of 1910, held at White City, London. (Courtesy Chris Beetles Gallery, St. James’s, London)

World War I broke out in 1914, and legend has it a torpedo hit the cargo ship carrying a good deal of Wain’s “Futurist Cat” inventory, sinking his investment in them, Dale explained.

“The Cubist Cats that he produced for ceramics are a particular fascinating part of his output,” Beetles says. “He was just years ahead of his time. Steven Spielberg was producing those sorts of things in robotic form a hundred years later. That was another wonderful idea that completely failed at a business level. Wain earned nothing from them. And if half your stock goes down on the way to America, it doesn’t help.”

Wain’s sister Caroline died of the flu on April 14, 1917, when she was 53 years old and he 56. According to Dale, Wain blamed his three living sisters, Josephine, Claire, and Felicie for her death, and over the next seven years, became increasingly hostile toward them in the house. As his work dwindled in the early 1920s, he accused his sisters of stealing his things, became obsessed with rearranging furniture, and feverishly wrote about spirits that were tormenting him and projecting electric currents toward him. At one point, he choked and shoved Claire out of the house, and on another occasion, pushed Josephine from the top of the stairs. (Fortunately, she caught hold of the banister before she tumbled all the way down.) The sisters were at wit’s end. They called a doctor, and Wain was certified insane on June 15, 1924.

All Sorts of Comical Cats, with drawings by Wain and verses by Clifton Bingham, was published by Ernest Nister in 1902. (Via eBay)

At first, his impoverished family could only send him to the pauper asylum, Springfield Hospital, Dale explained. When they came to visit him, the sisters would take any sketches he made to sell and pay the bills. “Claire and Felicie started to give private sketching lessons, for they felt that they could now use their artistic talents without hurting Louis,” Dale wrote. “Felicie had some success as a painter of miniatures, and Claire developed a technique for painting on glass, decorating bowls with competent floral patterns. She also practised the old craft of fore-edge painting on books, illustrating many works with suitable scenes in this manner, which found their way into private collections the world over.”

In 1925, Dan Rider, whom Dale described as “the liberal publicist, bookseller, and tenants’ champion,” was touring Springfield to check on how well it treated its destitute patients, and was shocked and appalled to find Louis Wain in the ward. “Here’s a man in a pauper’s asylum,” Beetles explains, “where in the wide world outside, there’s hundreds of thousands of images being produced of his cats.”

This Louis Wain postcard, published by Raphael Tuck & Sons and postmarked 1902, shows Louis Wain Cats caroling. (Via eBay)

Without consulting Wain’s sisters, Rider and several influencers of era established the Louis Wain Fund in August. At that point, children who’d grown up loving Wain’s comic cats were about 30 years old, and so their childhood nostalgia was ripe for a fundraising appeal on his behalf. Word of Wain’s misfortune got to the prime minister, who saw that Wain was transferred to a private room in the posher Bethlem Royal Hospital on August 24, Dale explained. A few days later, a popular actor read a message by H.G. Wells praising Louis Wain on BBC radio to promote the fund: “He has made the cat his own. 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.”

By October, after more than a month at Bethlem, Wain felt well enough to produce new works for a retrospective of his art meant to raise funds on his behalf. The exhibition at XXI Gallery included 80 Louis Wain originals, and the catalog, Souvenir of Louis Wain’s Work, sold in the thousands. Thanks to these campaigns, Wain was well-cared-for for the rest of his life. In 1930, he was transferred to Napsbury Hospital in the Hertfordshire countryside, which was surrounded by trees and lush gardens populated by a feral cat colony. Nine years later, Wain died of hardened arteries and kidney failure just a month shy of his 79th birthday on July 4, 1939.

A slightly disturbing drunk cat is featured in this postcard, “We Won’t Go Home Till Morning,” postmarked 1906. (Via eBay)

Because of Wain’s mental demise, it’s long been the hobby of armchair psychologists to speculate on how Wain’s illness may have manifested in his art. For example, after the turn of the century, Dale wrote, some of his comic cats took on a “spiky” long-haired appearance, which some have suggested were “fiendish” representations of the devils in his mind. Beetles acknowledges that Wain’s cats seem to take on a more sinister edge around the time of World War I.

“From 1915 on, the Wain cats start to get a little bit strange,” Beetles says. “The cats tend to be slightly jagged and angry and look like they’re highly charged. Around the corners of the picture and along the margins, he’d often write low-grade paranoid delusional remarks. This became very frank and obvious after 1924 when he was put into an asylum.”

Wain painted this cat surrounded by a wallpaper pattern after he was committed to a mental home. (Via WikiCommons)

An article on Wain written in 1931 contained an apocryphal anecdote about how Wain’s right hand “seized the pencil” from his left to draw an evil-looking cat. According to Dale, this story was likely inspired by the first account of a woman thought to have “multiple personalities” in 1929, which suggested sometimes one of her personalities would take hold of just part of her body.

But being committed to a mental home, particularly one as pleasant as Napsbury, actually released the elderly Wain from his stressors and gave him the space to experiment. He felt freed from the burden of making commercially viable artwork for black-and-white print publications, despite the appeals of his sisters. He had access to crayons and colorful gouache paints, and like his experiments with Futurist Cats, Wain used the opportunity to experiment with patterns found in wallpaper and carpeting. Such textile design had been a part of Wain’s life since childhood, as his father was a drapery salesman and his mother designed and executed embroidery for her church.

“We know that this interest in pattern became more pronounced in hospital,” Dale wrote. “Wain would fill up the background to pictures with ‘wallpaper’ designs, and at other times would just draw the wallpaper per se. Again, he experimented with what some have called the ‘disintegrating’ cat, but to my mind this is nothing more sinister than a highly-coloured, two-dimensional, symmetrical cat/pattern experiment, with similar motives to those which had earlier led to the ‘futurist mascot cats.’ It seems to me a distinct possibility that … Louis Wain suddenly made the delighted discovery that there were catty faces hidden in the traditional carpet patterns, and he proceeded to develop this theme.”

Beetles says Wain always had a wonderful sense of design and color. “He also had a background that was steeped in the production of tapestries, silks, and stained-glass windows and all these other visuals, which crowded in on him as he produced fractal, kaleidoscopic images that were arresting, charming, and very interesting. A lot of those did go into the open market because his sisters would come to the Napsbury hospital and take them away and sell them.”

One of Louis Wain’s “wallpaper cats” in gouache, from his asylum days. This painting is supposed to be a cat standing on its hind legs, made up of “early Greek” patterns. (Courtesy Chris Beetles Gallery, St. James’s, London)

In the 1930s, clinical psychiatrists Drs. Walter Maclay and Eric Guttmann were studying the art produced by people declared mentally ill as well as the effects of hallucinogenic drugs like mescaline, Dale explained. A few weeks after Wain’s passing in 1939, Maclay came upon eight undated works at a junk shop that Wain had produced while committed, and arranged in them in an order that suggested to him a clinical progression of mental disease. These eight artworks make up the “disintegrating cat” memes about Wain we see haunting the web today.

“In brief, I looked upon a cat as a lightning conductor on a small scale.”

Two are more conventional cats, one an owl-like geometrical design, two are cat masks done in “Indian” and “Japanese” styles, and at least one of these images might relate to Wain’s assertion that cats are electrically charged batteries. “One is, as curator Patricia Allderidge delightfully puts it: ‘A cat surrounded by an aura of jagged coloured lines which reflects its outline, looking like nothing so much as a cat which has stuck its foot in a live electric socket and is quite enjoying the experience,'” Dale wrote. The remaining two could be described, as Dale asserted, a “completely abstract symmetrical design in which one may discern innumerable ‘faces’ if one tries.”

A “wallpaper cat” Wain painted in a Sicilian pattern. (Courtesy Chris Beetles Gallery, St. James’s, London)

While we might want to assume you’d need to be having a psychedelic trip to picture such hypnotic, swirling color patterns, we have to remember the kaleidoscope was invented in 1816, and by the time Wain was a child in the 1860s and 1870s, the handheld gadget was being mass-produced as a toy.

Plus, Dale did the research, and has receipts to prove that Wain was still drawing and painting his famous cartoon cats around the same time as the trippy fractal and paisley patterns. It’s simply not true that his mental state had deteriorated to the point that he thought cats looked like the cosmic, kaleidoscopic designs he was making. Also, modern mental-health experts say that schizophrenia does not alter one’s perception in the same way that psychedelic drugs like LSD do, as psychiatrist Dr. David O’Flynn explains in this 2012 video from the Bethlem Museum of the Mind below:

Even in the 1930s when Wain was in his 70s, Claire and Felicie would visit and ask him to draw cute kittens and clever cats that they could sell or put into books, Dale wrote, instead of his “wallpaper rubbish,” as they called it. After some amount of nudging, he would acquiesce. Wain also left behind cartoon cats painted on mirrors as Christmas decor at his mental hospitals. “In 1935, for example, he painted a Christmas scene showing three kittens at a table with crackers and a plum pudding on it,” Dale wrote. Only a stroke, suffered in 1936, took away Wain’s physical ability to make coherent art.

While Dr. Walter Maclay’s theories have been thoroughly debunked, Beetles says, his bad ideas have been perpetually recycled—including in an influential 1950 book, Psychotic Art. “Lots of Ph.D. students have come along and written the same tosh,” he says. “It’s rubbish. There’s not an increasing decline according to how jagged the images go. Those images are from different times, and he was producing things of great naturalistic setting and great sweetness at the end. Everything didn’t dissolve into mad shapes. He produced thousands of pictures, and very few of them are these fractal cats. There’s no evidence at all that as he got older, the cats were increasingly bizarre. It’s an academic caprice and academically lazy.”

In fact, Beetles says, Wain’s work got gentler in the last decade of his life, after he was transferred “to the lovely open spaces out in the Hertfordshire countryside at Napsbury asylum, where he lived, I think, with some contentment. A lot of the later work isn’t jagged, it isn’t highly colored, and it doesn’t break up. It is often very beautiful, idyllic countryside scenes, what I would describe as a Shangri-La, the perfect world. So his imagination did go to a utopian idyll, because he lived without stress in Napsbury asylum, which I suppose is good use of the old-fashioned word, ‘asylum,’ isn’t it?”

A gouache painting Wain made of three cats singing Christmas carols after he was committed to a mental hospital. (Credit: Wellcome Collection)

Even though Wain produced thousands cat drawings in his lifetime, preserved, as Dale put it, “in books, some in postcard albums, some in scrapbooks, some framed and displayed,” he was on the verge of fading into obscurity in the mid-20th century.

Rodney Dale’s Louis Wain: The Man Who Drew Cats, with colorplates from Chris Beetles. (Courtesy Chris Beetles Gallery, St. James’s, London)

In the introduction to the 1991 edition of his Louis Wain biography, Dale explained that in the 1960s relatively few young people had heard of Wain. Dale published his deep dive on the artist’s life in 1968, and within a few years, Brian Reade from the Victoria and Albert Museum approached Dale about helping to put together a Louis Wain retrospective for Christmas 1972, the largest exhibition of Wain’s art ever produced. The exhibition sparked the interest of a young art dealer and collector named Chris Beetles.

“By that time, my book had been remaindered, but requests for copies started to roll in steadily, and have been doing so ever since,” Dale explained. In 1983, Beetles put on his first show of Louis Wain art, and since then, he’s hosted a major Wain exhibition annually for 36 years. It’s become a must-do event for Wain lovers around the world. “Louis Wain’s name is now firmly established, his works command sums which have increased many hundred-fold,” Dale wrote in 1991.

Beetles, the preeminent dealer of Louis Wain art today, says Wain is an even hotter ticket in 2019, more than 100 years after his heyday, thanks to the internet. “There’s an enormous interest in him, and the interest just rises year by year by year,” Beetles says. “He’s out of copyright, so his cat images can be accessed with great ease online, and his life story is more and more out, because it’s a good story associated with cats, which are ever more popular. He’s perfect material for it all.

This drawing by Wain has text that reads “Caught! Keep your mouth shut and let me open your mind for you.” (Via WikiCommons)

“A good indication of how he’s regarded is the number of forgeries that appear on the market,” Beetles continues. “Whenever an artist rises in price or rises in interest, in come the forgers. I’m asked to adjudicate on about four or five a week, and I see on eBay and auctions about 10 to 20 a week. Forging Wains is an industry, but so it is with Matisse, so it is with Picasso. Anybody who is popular eventually becomes forged.”

Wain was a poor negotiator who devalued his own work, but he deserves the accolades he’s receiving now. “Most of what he did for the public was good,” Dale wrote. “He helped to improve the lot of the cat, and to raise its status. In doing so, he promoted interest in animal welfare generally. Through his art, he gave an enormous amount of pleasure to a great many people of all ages, and gave generously of his talents to help any good cause.”

Louis Wain raised the esteem of cats, Rodney Dale—and later Chris Beetles—raised the esteem of Louis Wain, and now we are blessed with endless access to online videos of adorable cats and their wacky antics. For that, we should all be grateful.

A cat in front of a Shangri-la type utopian idyll, in a painting Louis Wain made while at Napsbury Hospital. (Courtesy Chris Beetles Gallery, St. James’s, London)

(To learn more pick up a copy of Rodney Dale’s “Louis Wain: The Man Who Drew Cats” or Chris Beetles’ “Louis Wain’s Cats.” Find more of Wain’s art at Chris Beetles Gallery and see artworks from Wain’s asylum years at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind.)

2 comments so far

  1. raymondbennet Says:

    This article is full of cats and I love it. Great artwork!

  2. F Decker Says:

    My college Psych textbook, published in the late 1980s, featured the famous 4-panel series of Wain’s fractal cats and made the progression claim, in the chapter on Schizophrenia.
    Thank you for correcting this myth and telling the truth about this remarkable man and his wonderful cats!


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