How a stray Hampstead cat changed the life of artist Louis Wain

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy and is out now in cinemas - Credit: Studio Canal

The life and feline drawings of eccentric artist Louis Wain feature in a new film starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy.

But the story of how he came to draw comic humanized cats for a living has its origins in a stray Hampstead kitten that changed his life.

Born and raised in Clerkenwell, Louis was the sensitive, imaginative eldest of six children. But when he fell in love with his younger sisters' governess Emily Mary Richardson, the family didn't approve. The pair married on January 30, 1884 at St Mary's Chapel in Holly Place Hampstead and lived first in Elizabeth Mews then at 42 Englands Lane.

Peter by Louis Wain

Artist Louis Wain and wife Emily adopted a stray Hampstead kitten called Peter who inspired his first cat drawings - Credit: Courtesy Chris Beetles Gallery, St James's, London

Ten years Louis' senior, Emily was diagnosed with breast cancer soon afterwards and spent her remaining three years as an invalid. But their heartbreak was helped when they rescued a stray black and white kitten after hearing him mewing on a rainy night. As the film shows, Emily's spirits were lifted by Peter's arrival, and Louis, who had trained and taught at West London School of Art, began to make sketches of him which Emily encouraged him to publish.

As Wain later told interviewer Roy Compton: "I trained Peter like a child, he became my principle model and the pioneer of my success."

Wain's first cat picture appeared in the Illustrated London News in October 1884. Titled Our Cats: A Domestic History it featured several panels of Peter in different moods. Two years later, magazine owner Sir William Ingram commissioned A Kitten's Christmas Party for the December 1886 edition which caused such a stir it was put on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Louis Wain drawing

At the height of his career Louis Wain drew popular postcards, greetings cards, posters and illustrations of anthropomorphised cats - Credit: Courtesy Chris Beetles Gallery, St James's, London

Sadly Emily died a week later on Jan 2, 1887 as Wain described: "I see him now, lying on the sick bed, just as he always was, his paws and body resting on my wife’s arm and I remember well the sigh of relief that came from her as the genial warmth of his body assuaged her pangs and soothed her into peaceful slumber.”

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Heartbroken, Wain and Peter moved to Marylebone where the artist grew introverted and morose. But it was the start of a career that saw him produce hugely popular postcards, illustrations, posters and animations of anthropomorphized cats wearing evening dress, playing instruments, fishing or dancing on hind legs.

Louis Wain image from exhibition at Chris Bettles Gallery London 2022

Chris Beetles Gallery has been the main dealer in Wain's work for the past 40 years and contributed artwork for Studio Canal's biopic The Electrical Life of Louis Wain - Credit: Courtesy Chris Beetles Gallery, St James's, London

Wain reconciled with his family and in 1917 they lived at 41, Brondesbury Road, Kilburn. But after several financial disasters and a diagnosis of schizophrenia, he ended up destitute in a mental asylum, and after a national appeal by the prime minister himself, spent his final years in a comfortable rest home where he continued to paint until his death in July 1939. He is buried in St Mary's Cemetery, Kensal Green.

For the past 40 years Chris Beetles Gallery in St James has been the main dealer in Wain's work. They contributed images to the film The Electrical Life of Louis Wain are are holding an exhibition of 60 original artworks including pieces borrowed back from significant collections. A spokesman said: "This comprehensive show of all phases of Louis Wain's art, from naturalistic, to anthropomorphic, to fractal and psychotic, resonates with the visual impact of the remarkable biopic."

One of the featured artworks in Louis Wain's Cats which runs at Chris Beetles Gallery in St James throughout January 2022

One of the featured artworks in Louis Wain's Cats which runs at Chris Beetles Gallery in St James until January 29, 2022 - Credit: Courtesy Chris Beetles Gallery, St James's, London

Louis Wain's Cats, at the Chris Beetles Gallery, Ryder Street, runs until January 29, and The Electrical Life of Louis Wain shows at Kiln Cinema from January 14-20, a few streets from Wain's former home.