Louis Wain: England’s cat-daddy of feline art

Louis William Wain (English, 1860-1939), ‘Carol Singing,’ artist-signed mixed media painting to be auctioned Aug. 23, 2020 by Helmuth Stone Gallery in Sarasota, Florida

SARASOTA, Fla. – It’s possible that no human being understood the mind of a cat better than English illustrator Louis Wain (1860-1939). His anthropomorphic paintings of cats captured the imagination of the Edwardian era and helped elevate the profile and popularity of our feline friends to unprecedented heights.

Born and raised in London, Wain was a lackluster student who was often truant from school. It is said that he spent much of his childhood years wandering around London. Later, he studied at the West London School of Art and eventually became a teacher there.

His time as an educator was short. He quit his teaching position to become a freelance artist, and in this role, he achieved substantial success. He specialized in drawing animals and country scenes, and worked for several journals including the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, where he stayed for four years, and The Illustrated London News, beginning in 1886. Through the 1880s, Wain’s work included detailed illustrations of English country houses and estates, along with livestock he was commissioned to draw at agricultural shows. His work at this time includes a wide variety of animals, and he maintained his ability to draw creatures of all kinds throughout his lifetime. At one point, he hoped to make a living by drawing dog portraits.

At the age of 23, Wain married his sisters’ governess, Emily Richardson, who was 10 years his senior — considered quite scandalous at the time. The couple moved to Hampstead in north London. Not long afterward, Emily began to suffer from breast cancer. She died three years into their marriage. Prior to Emily’s death, Wain discovered the subject that would define his career. During her illness, Emily was comforted by their pet cat Peter, a stray black and white kitten they had rescued after hearing him mewing in the rain one night.

Emily’s spirits were greatly lifted by Peter, and Louis began to draw extensive sketches of him, which Emily strongly encouraged him to have published. She died before this happened, but he continued to sketch cats. He later wrote of Peter, “To him, properly, belongs the foundation of my career, the developments of my initial efforts, and the establishing of my work.” Peter can be recognized in many of Wain’s early published works.

An early Louis Wain illustration of anthropomorphic cats. Public domain image in the USA

In 1886, Wain’s first drawing of his distinctive anthropomorphized cats was published in the Christmas issue of the Illustrated London News, titled “A Kittens’ Christmas Party.”The illustration depicted 150 cats, many of which resembled Peter, doing things such as sending invitations, holding a ball, playing games, and making speeches, spread over 11 panels. Still, the cats remain on all fours, unclothed, and without the variety of human-like expression that would characterize Wain’s later work. Under the pseudonym of George Henri Thompson, he illustrated numerous children’s books by Clifton Bingham published by Ernest Nister.

In subsequent years, Wain’s cats began to walk upright, smile broadly and use other exaggerated facial expressions and would wear sophisticated, contemporary clothing. Wain’s illustrations showed cats playing musical instruments, serving tea, playing cards, fishing, smoking, and enjoying a night at the opera. Such anthropomorphic portrayals of animals were very popular in Victorian England and often appeared in prints and on greeting cards.

Wain was a prolific artist over the next 30 years, sometimes producing as many as several hundred drawings a year. He illustrated about 100 children’s books, and his work appeared in papers, journals, and magazines, including the Louis Wain Annual, which ran from 1901 to 1915. His work was also regularly reproduced on picture postcards that are highly sought after by collectors today. In 1898 and 1911 he was chairman of the National Cat Club.

Prior to Wain’s fanciful portrayals, cats had often been viewed with contempt in Britain, but his artwork helped to foster a new attitude of endearment toward them. Original Louis Wain art is usually found in the UK, but a beautiful example called “Carol Singing” will be auctioned on August 23 by Helmuth Stone Gallery in Sarasota, Florida. Bid absentee or live online through LiveAuctioneers.