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Louis Wain and His Cats


Louis Wain was a British artist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, best known for his whimsical and chaotic drawings of cats. If you’ve come across any of Wain’s art, you know it’s memorable. The cats and kittens are depicted with large, wide eyes, often with crazy, spiky fur, and with psychedelic patterns and backgrounds. The cats are anthropomorphized, wearing clothes, having conversations, playing musical instruments and more. If you are a fan of cats, or unusual children’s art, they are utterly charming.

Wain’s story is rather a sad one, unfortunately, in many regards. He was born into a family with a lot of mental illness, and was the only one of six children in the family ever to marry. His longtime devotion to cats began when he was married in his early twenties. His wife Emily fell ill with breast cancer, and Wain found that their kitten, Peter, lifted his sick wife’s spirits immeasurably. He began to dress the kitten up and teach him to do little tricks to make his wife happy. He also began to sketch Peter, and it was on a promise to Emily that he persevered and published his first drawings.

Wain was a highly productive artist for the following three decades or so, providing work for countless children’s books, as well as advertisements and features in magazines. His love of cats defined his entire oeuvre (though he did branch into dogs, from time to time), and he became chairman of The National Cat Club in 1898, and even had his own Louis Wain’s Annual from 1901-1915.

But Wain’s success did little to secure his financial future – he had a mother and five sisters to support, and was a poor businessman, often selling his work outright with no thought to copyright or royalties, and was taken advantage of frequently.

Around 1907, Wain’s own mental health began to decline rapidly, and the previously affable, good-natured artist became paranoid, suspicious and delusional as schizophrenia began to take hold. He was committed in 1924, to the pauper ward of a mental hospital. When news of his circumstance reached the public, there was outcry from many, including H.G. Wells, who championed Wain’s cause. Wain was, as a result, moved to a much more pleasant hospital with abundant green space (and even cats), and he spent the remaining years of his life there in relative peace.

Some students of Wain’s art have claimed that the deterioration and change in Wain’s mental state can be clearly demonstrated through a study of his drawings and paintings, while others argue that is problematic. The latter claim that Wain’s frenetic, chaotic, psychedelic-patterned cats were experimentation with for, color and style, and that Wain also continued to create more conventional (albeit playing sports and talking) cats well into his later career. It is tough to know whether to lend any credence to the theories, as few if any of Wain’s works were dated, anyway.

Regardless, for a cat lover, an art lover, or a collector of vintage children’s books, Louis Wain is not to be missed.

And if you can’t get enough weird children’s books about cats, be sure to check out Mee-a-ow! Or, Good Advice to Cats and Kittens by R.M. Ballantyne.

Enjoy this selection of Wain’s cats, depicting great variation in his artistic style over the years.

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Beth Carswell

About Beth Carswell

I've been reading, selling, researching, loving and writing about books with AbeBooks since 2000.

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