100 years before cats conquered the internet, Louis Wain built a whole cat world

Master of Cat College by Louis Wain. All images in this feature are courtesy of and © Chris Beetles Gallery.

London gallery owner Chris Beetles discusses the often-tragic life and incredible work of the Edwardian Britain's best-loved cat artist.

More than a century before cats took over the internet by gif and by meme, Edwardian artist Louis Wain enamoured Britain with his fanciful portraits of anthropomorphic felines. His wildly popular images spanned annuals, postcards and periodicals, depicting cats and kittens at work and at play. Later, his proto-psychedelic paintings portrayed wondrously abstract, fractal-patterned pictures, where sometimes only the essence of the cat could be glimpsed.

As part of the British Library's Cats on the Page exhibition and series of events about illustrated cats, collector and gallery owner Chris Beetles gave a talk that toured the often-tragic life of Louis Wain, punctuated by images from the artist's incredibly prolific career.

Born in Clerkenwell, London, on 5 August 1860, to his textile business owner father and French mother Felicia, Louis was the first of six children and the only boy. For much of his life Louis lived with his sisters, Claire, Marie, Julie Felicie, Josephine, and Caroline.

During his education, Louis was a "wanderer," says Chris, who would imbibe "all sorts of images that I think turn up later in his life." Although he wasn't a stellar student in many of the academic subjects, he nevertheless excelled in certain areas like music and sport, and would go on to study at the West London School of Art.

"He was very sporty, and he was very arty," Chris says. These interests would go on to inform the activities of many of his cats, with sports and music becoming repeating themes for Louis's illustrations and postcards. These reflected the "age of leisure" of the Edwardian times, where in the pictures cats might be seen with instruments such as the cello or trombone, enjoying a round of golf, or out rowing by the English coast.

Ynd The Band Played On 

His father died when Louis was 20, and his mother became bankrupt some years following as she tried to continue to run the family textile business, Church Fabrics, that employed 12 people at its height. They lived at Brook Street, Mayfair at this time, with three servants of the household.

A new governess was introduced for Louis's sisters, Emily Richardson. Richardson was 10 years Louis's senior, and she and Louis fell in love. The two quickly moved in together in Belsize Park, north-west London.

Their love would be cut short. Soon after they married, Richardson developed inoperable breast cancer and it was during this time that she was consoled by her and Louis' beloved black and white cat, Peter, who they had rescued from the rain as a stray kitten. Louis drew Richardson with Peter many times over this period, the spark for the cats that brought him to fame.

Louis's professional work had been mostly natural illustrations or agricultural drawings, with his first published piece, Bullfinches On The Laurels, appearing in 1881. He would illustrate for anyone who would hire him, but in 1886, he persuaded the editor of Illustrated London News, William Ingram, to take a chance on a double-paged spread in the Christmas issue, titled Kittens Christmas Party (below). It was a "sensation," says Chris. "He was never out of work for the rest of his life. He became a household name on the strength of that."

Although dominant in his left hand, he was ambidextrous, and could perform tricks like mirror writing, something that Beetles says is interesting to speculate about with his symmetrical work later in life.

Louis could draw as many as 150 cats an hour, but he was capable of "any medium," whether crayon, pen and ink, watercolour or oil, and had also worked in silver point. He even wrote an opera - since lost - but it's a format considered more lowbrow that put Louis in his place in illustration history.

"I suppose he will live on because of the millions and millions of postcards that are out there," says Chris. "This is Louis's legacy, and it is no wonder, because his years of fame - 1900 to 1914 - coincide with the great age of the postcard."

Over 100 publishers produced postcards featuring more than 1,100 of Louis' images.

"And so, millions of sets were out there," says Beetles, pointing to recurring characters such as the wide boy or man about town, usually "connected to a cigar or a pretty girl, having drunk too much".

"He invented the striped cat, the spotty cat," Beetles adds. "These were wonderfully popular postcards, and his sporting ones were particularly popular in a sporting age."

Prima Donna of the Night

In 1901 Louis Wain's first annual was published. There were six different publishers, but all of them were edited by Louis himself and featured essays from various people such as William Ingram of Illustrated London News. But above all else they were full of cats in Louis's distinctive style."They were just cats cats cats and people loved them," says Chris.

Louis left for America in 1907 where he worked at Hearst Newspapers for three years on comic strips. Although he had raised some money by this time, he lost it all on a patent for an oil lamp, a commercial failure.

At his height, Louis was far and away the "most famous cat artist in this country," says Beetles, a "celebrity" and that "everyone knew Louis Wain". The audience "took him to their heart and loved his cat images".

He wasn't the first or even the only cat artist of the era: Harrison Weir, for example, put on the first cat show at Crystal Palace in 1871 when Louis was just 11. "So cats were being treated seriously and were being cared for," says Chris of Harrison, who founded and became the first president of the National Cat Club – which Louis would become president of in 1891 for five years, although he remained on the committee for much longer.

The Fire of the Mind

By the time the last few of his annuals were being published, Louis's bad business sense was beginning to be felt. He had never retained his copyright, and so images were sold on and recycled, saturating the market. A change in popular taste, combined with the start of the First World War and all of its associated troubles, contributed further to the pressure.

He created ceramics around this period, of slightly abstract cats with names like the Lucky Knight Errant, although many of these were thought to have been lost when a shipment to America was sunk by torpedo during the War.

After the death of his mother in 1910, his sister Mary in 1913 and sister Caroline in the flu epidemic of 1917, Louis increasingly became paranoid, and would accuse his remaining siblings of theft. He was "in and out of an agitated mental state," says Chris, and would erratically re-arrange furniture over and over. Louis was certified insane in 1924 and despite his previous fame, was transferred to the pauper's ward at Springfield Mental Hospital, Tooting.

This was where bookseller, publicist and Fabian, Dan Rider, who was touring the hospital, discovered a "quiet little man drawing cats".

"Good lord man, you draw like Louis Wain," Dan said he exclaimed in his memoirs. The illustrator replied: "I am Louis Wain."

"You're not, you know."

"I am."

"This was too much for Dan Rider," says Chris. "He got up the Louis Wain fund, he involved Ramsay MacDonald in making an appeal, and Ramsay MacDonald went on air, saying Louis Wain was on all our walls 15 to 20 years ago - probably no artist has given a greater number of young people pleasure than he has."

"[Louis] made the cat his own. He invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world," HG Wells famously said as part of an appeal on behalf of the artist. "British cats that do not look and live like Louis Louis cats are ashamed of themselves.”

Louis was first moved to the Bethlem psychiatric hospital in Southwark, London, but later transferred to Napsbury Hospital in Hertfordshire, with its more tranquil surroundings, feline visitors, and gardens. It was here that many of his most lavish and colourful works were produced; vivid floral arrangements, astral felines populating psychedelic realms and intricate, symmetrical patterns. His cats would sometimes appear to dissolve into fractal, kaleidoscopic shapes points out Chris.

Sicilian

Although some commentators have claimed it was these images that showed a deterioration of his mind, the pictures are often presented in a questionable chronology to support their theses.

"He would decorate the wards," says Chris, with his pictures accompanied by captions wishing good luck good health and happiness. "They loved him at Napsbury ... sometimes [the cats] get a bit charged, a little bit edgy ... but the happiness is restored in bright colours, in fabrics and tapestries redolent of his childhood."

All images are courtesy of and © Chris Beetles Gallery. Chris Beetles Gallery runs an annual Louis Wain show, sign up to the mailing list for further news. The British Library's Cats on the Page exhibition is free to attend and is open until 17 March 2019. For more about Louis, read this interview with musician, artist and Wain fan David Tibet.

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