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Louis Wain

  • Mark Hill
  • 14 Apr 2010

The unusual sight of fashionably dressed cats Playing cards, drinking tea, or fishing on a riverbank are nothing out of the ordinary in the work of Louis Wain. Wain (1860-1939) was the first artist to consistently depict clothed and standing animals. His pictures were witty and charming and, as H. G. Wells once said, he "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."

Louis Wain poster

Wain trained at West London School of Art and remained there as an assistant teacher until 1882 when he left to become a freelance artist. After his father’s death in 1880, Wain was forced to support his mother and five younger sisters. At the age of 23, he married his sister’s governess, Emily Richardson, but she was soon diagnosed with cancer, and died only three years after their marriage.

Louis Wain postcardTo amuse his wife during her illness, Wain taught their cat, Peter, to wear spectacles and pretend to read. He began to draw extensive sketches of the large black and white cat, which led to his obsession with all things feline. In Wain’s pictures, his cats soon began to walk upright, exhibit exaggerated human facial expressions, and wear sophisticated contemporary clothing.

Despite his popularity, Wain was a poor businessman and suffered financial difficulty throughout his life. After the death of his sister, Caroline, in 1917, he began to suffer from schizophrenia and was moved to the pauper’s ward of Middlesex County Mental Asylum. An appeal was launched on his behalf, and reached twice the target sum in a month: a testament to the public’s continuing affection for his work. Louis Wain

Louis Wain illustrated approximately one hundred children's books, and his work appeared in papers, journals, and magazines, including the Louis Wain Annual, which ran from 1901 to 1915. His work was regularly reproduced on picture postcards, and these are highly sought after by collectors today and can fetch up to £50. Wain also designed several Cubist-style ceramic cats for the Austrian manufacturer, Amphora. At a recent auction, one of these cats sold for £8,200.