Louis Wain’s world of sublime felines began in Hampstead
Edwardian artist Louis Wain, who died, mad and in obscurity is now a household name – and highly collectable
�The silly season is back, and with it the return of Chris Beetles’ annual show of cat art – his 32nd. This year there are more than 200 pictures, with some gems by Beetles’ favourite: Edwardian artist Louis Wain, who died, mad, in obscurity and is now a household name – and highly collectable.
Ironically, Wain began his career as a press artist with serious drawings of dog shows for the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News in the early 1880s. At the time, he was newly married and living in north London – first in Elizabeth Terrace, Hampstead, then in England’s Lane in Belsize Park.
His modest household included a black and white cat called Peter who insinuated his way into his master’s affections and changed “catty” history. Before long, Wain’s wife Emily was diagnosed with breast cancer and became bedridden, with Peter acting as companion while Louis drew dogs on commission and, ever more frequently, Peter for pleasure.
“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.” This was all Louis wrote about his marriage. He seems to show more feeling for Peter than for Emily’s suffering.
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Wain credited Peter with enabling him to find his metier as an artist. Of the cat’s death in 1898, he wrote: “He died in my hands, a boy kitten again, talking and answering me as of old.” Though regarded as an eccentric when he wrote this, Wain still had a firm enough grasp on reality to maintain his four sisters and mother in the then fashionable Westgate-on-Sea in Kent through his prolific output of humorous drawings of cats with human characteristics.
By the time the family moved to Brondesbury Road in Kilburn in 1917, the mental illness which was to confine him to asylums for the last decades of his life was manifesting itself. The death of his sister Claire that year is thought to have unhinged him and he began to imagine his sisters were robbing him. Other delusions included being the organiser of a non-existent Crystal Palace Cat Show. He was certified insane in 1924 and died in Napsbury hospital, St Albans, in 1939.
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The Wain works on display range from an idyllic scene of a group of amiable cats in appropriate apparel for rowing on the river to the frightening felines with crazed eyes in Mother and Child. Among images by contemporary artists are endearing depictions of cats in play or at rest in homes and gardens by Lesley Fotherby, who was born in north London in 1946. She studied botanical illustration at West Dean College , Sussex, has won several medals in this field, and combines cats and flowers in the delicate, fluid composition Cat, Kittens and Poppies.
From Saturday until September 8 at 8-10 Ryder Street SW1, 10am to 5.30pm.