Crazy cats and the tale of a tortured artist

A new exhibition of feline-themed paintings by the Edwardian illustrator Louis Wain reflects his descent into madness, says Claire Wrathall
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The Independent Online

Louis Wain was a man obsessed with cats. He was also one of the most popular commercial artists this country has ever known, a household name both here and in the United States. As a successful illustrator, he created not only the cinema's first animated cat, Pussyfoot, in 1917 - a precursor to Felix, Tom, Robert Crumb's Fritz, or, more recently, Stimpy and The Simpsons' Scratchy - but illustrated more than 200 books, including 16 editions of Louis Wain's Annuals. He was a regular contributor to British newspapers and magazines, and even had a cartoon strip in Hearst's New York American.

Louis Wain was a man obsessed with cats. He was also one of the most popular commercial artists this country has ever known, a household name both here and in the United States. As a successful illustrator, he created not only the cinema's first animated cat, Pussyfoot, in 1917 - a precursor to Felix, Tom, Robert Crumb's Fritz, or, more recently, Stimpy and The Simpsons' Scratchy - but illustrated more than 200 books, including 16 editions of Louis Wain's Annuals. He was a regular contributor to British newspapers and magazines, and even had a cartoon strip in Hearst's New York American.

Though some of his pictures of anthropomorphised cats in Edwardian domestic and sporting situations are familiar from greetings cards, Wain (1860-1939) is now best known as an artist who went mad, and many of his most interesting and original paintings are those he produced after he'd been diagnosed as a schizophrenic. Still based mostly on cats, his later work contains extraordinary, brightly coloured psychedelic images, or obsessively detailed patterns based on wallpaper or flowers. Indeed, the only place where his work is permanently on show is the museum at the Bethlem Royal Hospital in Beckenham, Kent, where his pictures - there are 27 in the collection, but not all are always on show - hang next to those by other celebrated inmates such as the painter Richard Dadd and the legendary dancer Vaslav Nijinsky.

Next weekend, an exhibition of Wain's pictures and ceramics opens at the Chris Beetles Gallery in London. An authority on illustration, Beetles has been collecting and dealing in Wain's work for more than 20 years, and though he estimates the number of original Wain drawings in existence to be in the "upper thousands", they are becoming scarcer as more collectors fall for their charms. He is also detecting increasing numbers of forgeries: "Six to eight a week," he says. "I'm getting so good at spotting them I can even recognise the hands of different forgers. Last week one was sold at a major London auction house for £800, though I'd told them it was worthless. What the forgers don't seem to appreciate about Wain is just how fine a draughtsman he was."

Although Wain was in his sixties when psychiatric illness finally got the better of him and he was hospitalised, his biographer, Rodney Dale, whose 1968 book The Man Who Drew Cats is republished in a new edition this week, hints at signs of madness throughout his tragic life, his mental instability exacerbated by a hopeless fecklessness with money. A sickly boy with a hare lip, he was tormented by dreams - "I seemed to live hundreds of years and see thousands of mental pictures of extraordinary complexity," he wrote subsequently of his childhood - and was not taught at all nor sent to school till he was 10. At 23, having trained at the West London School of Art and been taken on to teach there, he married his sisters' governess, 10 years his senior, incurring disapproval from both families. But within three years she had died of breast cancer. He confided subsequently in one of many utterances that suggest his sanity was compromised from his youth, that he believed their pet cat Peter "had been possessed with her soul".

Cats were not, according to Wain, popular pets in the 19th century. "When I first took to drawing and painting [them] they were treated as despised animals, looked on as vermin," he wrote in 1909. Despite this, there was a National Cat Club, to whose presidency he had been elected in 1890, and in which capacity he espoused bizarre theories on feline behaviour.

Cats, he believed, were the most easily trainable of animals, an assertion that will surprise cat owners (though the late, great circus performer Olga Yelding had a performing-cat act, Frederika and Her Amazing Cats and Dogs, that toured Britain in the 1940s and 1950s). He also maintained that cats were unusually susceptible to mental illness. "Brain disease is one to which they are subject," he wrote, "and cats are often driven mad or imbecile by excessive punishment or fright." Perhaps his oddest theory, however, was that cats are always able to find their way home thanks to an innate compass that works through an electrical charge in their fur to determine the earth's north and south poles. Along these same strange quasi-scientific lines, he held that a cat grooms "to complete an electrical circuit, for by doing so it generates heat and therefore a pleasing sensation in its fur".

But then in Wain's world, or at least in his pictures, there was nothing unusual about blue or green cats; cats who wore clothes or rode bicycles; cats with disarmingly human facial expressions of delight, disgust, bafflement and frustration. And yet somehow, thanks to his very real skill as an artist, his pictures have real wit, and stay just the right side of sentimental.

Shortly before the First World War, when paper became scarce and commissions were few, he also produced a series of radical glazed-ceramic cats true to the tenets of Futurism and Cubism. Very few have survived because a large consignment of them destined for the US sank in the Atlantic when the cargo ship they were on was torpedoed. Even so, there are eight to be seen in Chris Beetles's exhibition this month.

Perhaps the highlight of the exhibition - which contains examples of all his styles and media: pencil, pen and ink, crayon, gouache, watercolour and oil - is a small watercolour called The Bowling Match: three cats, one of them blue, all of them standing on their hind legs, each with an expression of intent, are engaged in a game of bowls. Behind them is a great gothic pile, not unlike the sort of institutions Wain lived in, surrounded by finely detailed herbaceous borders and bucolic English countryside. This is Catland, the fantastic setting of so many of Wain's pictures. But in the background is a tiny human figure, walking with a stick. Wain himself, maybe?

There are also some good examples of his "mad" paintings, particularly one of a cat's head that is reminiscent of a samurai helmet: cobalt, viridian and magenta, with burning yellow eyes, all against a luminous orange background.

The Bethlem archive contains a wider range of the work he did in hospital, notably the famous Kaleidoscope Cats, a series of eight paintings that the consultant psychiatrist Dr Walter Maclay, the author of a study on art produced by those suffering from mental illness, concluded in the 1930s offered an insight into the state of Wain's mind as it degenerated. The first is a fairly naturalistic-looking animal shown in profile, but the others are progressively less naturalistic and more riotously decorative. By the third picture, the "cat" has saucer eyes of colourful concentric circles, and an aura of multi-hued, obsessive patterns. By the seventh and eighth pictures, it is scarcely recognisable at all: only the approximate shape of its ears and the vaguest suggestion of facial features reveal it as feline in the remotest sense. With its fierce symmetry and exuberant and intricate design, the effect is more of an Indonesian mask or kite. But this only works if the pictures are viewed in the order Maclay imposed on them, and it has since been proved false.

Wain did indeed create bizarre depictions of crazed and abstract cats in hospital, but he also continued to illustrate conventional ones. In many ways, the most revealing and certainly most affecting of the pictures in the Bethlem archive is a small, simple drawing in chalk and coloured ink of grinning cat captioned: "I am happy because everyone loves me." The cat may be laughing, and its eyes may be bright, but it has something of its author's ineffable sadness about it. However delightful his pictures, Wain was deeply unhappy and even at the age of 38 had already been described by the editor of Punch as "one who has been in hell".

During his lifetime Wain numbered among his admirers not just the tens of thousands who bought his books, but Princess (later Queen) Alexandra and the writers John Galsworthy and H G Wells, who wrote "He invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world. English cats that do not look like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves." And when, in 1924, he was finally admitted to a pauper ward at Springfield Hospital, the Surrey County Asylum (his sister Marie had been certified insane in 1901), the then prime minister Ramsay MacDonald, another Wain enthusiast, arranged personally that Wain should be transferred to the Bethlem Royal Hospital (now the Imperial War Museum), where he could be better cared for, and saw to it that his dependent sisters should receive a Civil List pension. A public appeal also raised more than £2,300 to pay for his care.

Wain spent the rest of his life in institutions, but he continued to work, producing not just his signature psychedelic paintings, but more conventional illustrations, which he would give to his sisters to sell, as well as sketches for the nurses, and fanciful Christmas decorations for the ward, some painted on mirrors.

In 1986, the curator of York City Art Gallery, having been censured by its various funding bodies for not attracting enough visitors, staged a public exhibition of 100 Louis Wain pictures. It drew 20,000 people in three weeks. Roll on a major Wain retrospective.

 

'Louis Wain and the Summer Cat Show': Chris Beetles Gallery, SW1 (020 7839 7551), 19 August to 8 September; a new edition of 'Louis Wain: The Man Who Drew Cats' by Rodney Dale is published on 19 August by Chris Beetles, £30 hbk, £20 pbk; Bethlem Royal Hospital Museum, Beckenham, Kent (020 8776 4307), is open on weekdays, but telephone ahead first

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