The Man Who Drew Cats
John Wain was a wealthy silk manufacturer from Leek in Staffordshire. His son, William, converted to Catholicism, and as a result was disinherited by his father. William moved to London to make his own way in life, took lodgings and found employment in the one trade he knew — textiles.
William was welcomed into the family circle of Louis Boiteux, an artist of French extraction, and in 1859 married his daughter, Julie. Their first child, Louis Jr., was born a year later. Louis was a sickly child who did not go to school until he was 10. He was born with a cleft lip, which in adulthood he camouflaged with a moustache.
In adult life he verged more than once on a nervous breakdown, and finally, in 1924, following abusive letters concerning his sisters, he was certified insane. He was admitted to the paupers’ ward at the Springfield Hospital, Tooting, in London. However, with the help of, among others, then Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald, himself an admirer of Louis Wain’s work, an appeal fund was set up to raise money, and Wain was transferred to Bethlehem Royal Hospital and Bedlam, a psychiatric hospital in London where he died in 1939. There he spent the last few years of his life drawing cats from dawn until dusk. The hospital’s famous history has inspired several horror books, films and TV series.
The young Wain decided on art for a career, and he studied at the West London School of Art. In those early days it was the artist, not the camera, that recorded events for everyday publications, and he joined the staff of one of the best-known publications, The Illustrated London News. He soon found himself travelling the country reporting on all types of livestock shows, and it was this that introduced him to the dog world.
He became a considerable draughtsman, and his detailed drawings of the heads of winning dogs at one of the Kennel Club shows, obviously well observed and finely drawn, are evidence of this.
Known as “The Man Who Drew Cats” in his early years as an artist, he also drew countless dogs, but even then cats were beginning to creep into his art. One of his early narrative dog drawings, titled “A New Dog Fancy,” which he completed in 1884, features five sitting bemused Basset Hounds in a drawing room being wrecked by two mischievous cats, with a third hiding inside a book standing up like a tunnel. Wain had probably been introduced to Bassets at one of the Crystal Palace dog shows he had been reporting on for The Illustrated London News.
Another of Wain’s early narrative dog pictures, “Crumbs from a Great Man’s Table,” features another breed he had probably become acquainted with at dog shows, a Bloodhound. The “Great Man” lies patiently beside his kennel watching some small birds pecking at what’s left on the plate.
At a dog show on the Isle of Wight, Wain asked the wildlife photographer Gambier Bolton if he could sketch one of his prize dogs for a small fee, telling him what a hard struggle he was passing through in his endeavor to make a living as a canine artist. Wain’s portraits of dogs don’t always have a narrative, but in many, like the Bulldog sitting on a step in front of a closed door, one is drawn into the picture, wondering just what the dog is thinking.
Had Wain been given the opportunity to become an artist drawing the top dogs of the time, I’m sure he would have had considerable success. His drawing of the Mastiff Ch. Crown Prince has everything successful breeders would want to see in their stock — conformation, balance, muscular condition. Wain has even managed to convey in profile the dog’s expression. But above all, like some of the popular commission artists, Maud Earl and Arthur Wardle included, he uses a degree of “artistic license,” for Crown Prince looks a much better Mastiff than he does in contemporary photographs.
Perhaps the photographs are nearer the truth, for the late Douglas Oliff writing in 1988 noted that the dog was yellow-eyed, Dudley-nosed, lacked mask, was not straight in front and crippled behind, the latter a defect he passed on. Nevertheless, he won well, had an active stud career and when his owner, Dr. Forbes-Winslow, auctioned his dogs in 1884, Crown Prince sold for 180 guineas — a high price for the era.
In the drawing Wain did a few years later to help publicize Willsons pet shop, the best known one in London at the time, dogs are now the secondary figures to what became instantly recognizable as a Louis Wain cat.
His love affair with cats, which developed into an obsession, started when he was given a cat as a present —"Peter the Great.” Wain became involved and held office in many cat clubs and, through his involvement and being a public figure as an artist, he made people aware of their responsibilities to their pets. He showed that pets were not toys to play with or status symbols to be cast aside, but had and expressed feelings and held a place in society. It has been said, not lightly or flippantly, that Wain meeting “Peter” changed the course of domestic pet history.
As Wain’s condition worsened, his pictures evolved into a kaleidoscope of colors, and at times it became difficult to decipher the cat within. Around the time he was committed to the psychiatric hospital he practiced with ceramics, producing more than 20 different cubist animals, chiefly cats, an occasional pig and one dog —"The Lucky Bully.” The Bulldog cubist spill vase modelled circa 1925 became the best known of his ceramic animals.
Perhaps few other artists’ work changed so much as Wain’s did, from the detailed, realistic drawings of the 1880s to the cubist models of the 1920s. With such a vast output there is rarely any shortage of Louis Wain art on the market, and recently good-quality art postcards by Wain have become highly collectable.