Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Louis Wain: The Man Who Drew Cats

Wain and his sisters moved to 41 Brondesbury Road Kilburn in September 1916. He became known as ‘the man who drew cats’ and his pictures showed cats doing various human activities.

Louis was born on 5 Aug 1860 in Clerkenwell. He was the eldest child and only son of William Wain, a textile designer and salesman. His French mother Felicia Boiteux, also designed carpets and church fabrics. He had five younger sisters.

Louis was a sickly child, and it seems he was born with a cleft lip and was bullied at school which he only attended from the age of ten. But his genius for drawing was evident early on. After his sisters gave him a kitten for his twentieth birthday, he began to produce the cartoons.

People thought Louis was ‘odd’. He played the piano in a very jerky peculiar way, and would tell people that he had written an opera which was in rehearsal for the London stage, but this was only existed in his head. He also believed that he had harnessed electricity from the ether and that he was being pursued down the street by a giant ball of energy. He avoided people and became very isolated.

When his father died in 1880, Louis became the main bread winner for his mother and five sisters. He worked as an illustrator and his drawings appeared in several journals including the Illustrated London News. Later, postcards and books of his work became extremely popular.

In 1884 Louis shocked his family by running off and marrying Emily Mary Richardson, the governess his mother had hired to look after the children. He was 23 years old and she was ten years his senior. They lived at 42 England’s Lane in Belsize Park, and took in a stray black and white kitten soon after they arrived. ‘Peter’ was a comfort to Emily, when she became ill and bed ridden. To entertain her, Louis drew pictures of the cat. Emily encouraged him to sell them, but he was more comfortable drawing dogs, rabbits, fish or birds. The Illustrated London News agreed to publish drawings of Peter and these brought Louis to the attention of the public. Louis said: ‘He became my principal model and pioneer of my success.’

Sadly, Emily died of breast cancer just three years after they had married, and Louis was convinced that the spirit of his dead wife had transferred into the cat.

Louis had become estranged from his mother and sisters over his marriage, but they thought that he should not live alone. They reconciled, and in 1895 the family all moved to Westgate-on-Sea where they stayed for about 20 years.

In 1901 his sister Marie suffered vivid hallucinations of bloodshed and murder. She believed that she had leprosy and tore her clothes off in public. She needed to be restrained and was committed to an asylum where she died in 1913.

Louis, who was not good with money, tried a number of commercial ventures, including designing and manufacturing a range of futuristic ceramic cats. But the consignment was torpedoed crossing the Atlantic during WWI, and the venture failed.

41 Brondesbury Road, on the corner of Hazelmere Road

The strain of having to produce more and more pictures took a toll on Louis’ already disturbed psyche. Obsessed with order, he began to rearrange the furniture in their Brondesbury Road house, sometimes on an hourly basis. He believed that his sisters were plotting to kill him and when he tried to throw one of them downstairs, they reluctantly had him certified insane in June 1924. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and said that he was, ‘bothered by spirits day and night for six years.’ This decline dates from the death of Caroline, another of his sisters.

He was in the pauper ward of the Springfield Hospital Tooting, when Dan Rider, a bookseller, visited the Hospital where he was a Guardian. Rider said:
‘I saw a quiet little man drawing cats.’
‘Good Lord man, you draw like Louis Wain.’
He replied, ‘I am Louis Wain.’

Rider helped set up a benefit fund, supported by HG Wells and the Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald. This enabled Louis to be transferred to Bethlem Royal Hospital where he continued to paint and draw his cats. But he was still ill. He refused to wash and he demanded than the nurses bring him his favourite drink of Bovril and soda. Left on his own he would drink paraffin. After five years at ‘Bedlam’ he was moved to Napsbury Hospital near St Albans. He died there aged 78, in July 1939.

Mother and Child

Shortly after Wain’s death, Dr Walter Maclay a psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital, published an article in which he argued that Wain’s illustrations demonstrated his progressive schizophrenic decline over time. Although the theory was accepted for many years, it has now been discredited. This is shown in Rodney Dale’s biography of Wain where he proved that the eight pictures Maclay used for his theory were undated.

In December 2012, Dr David O’Flynn gave a talk about Wain and Walter Maclay, called ‘Two Men and Eight Cats’. There is a short version on You Tube which is well worth seeing:

Recently it has been suggested that Wain did not have schizophrenia but was suffering from Asperger Syndrome, which is commonly confused in adults.

In October 2011 the Willesden Library held an exhibition of Louis Wain’s life and work.

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