In 1886, a little-known artist named Louis Wain contributed a rollicking illustration of festive cats to the Christmas edition of the Illustrated London News, a prominent weekly paper. Titled “A Kitten’s Christmas Party,” the drawing featured nearly 200 felines reveling in holiday festivities: They make speeches, play games and indulge in boozy punch. The Victorian public, which had only recently begun to view cats as cute pets rather than feral pests, was enthralled. Wain went on to become a popular commercial artist best known for his humorous, endearing depictions of wide-eyed cats engaging in an array of human antics.
Throughout his life, Wain was regarded as an eccentric character. But his behavior eventually became disconcertingly erratic, and in 1924, he was certified “insane” and committed to an asylum. Now, reports Brian Boucher for Artnet News, the Bethlem Royal Hospital in southeast England, where Wain lived until 1930, has mounted an exhibition of his cat art, timed to coincide with the United Kingdom release of The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, a recent biopic featuring Benedict Cumberbatch as the feline-loving artist. (Readers in the United States can stream the film on Amazon Prime Video.)
“Animal Therapy: The Cats of Louis Wain” is currently on display at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind, located on the hospital’s grounds in Beckenham, Kent. The exhibition, which can also be viewed virtually, features an array of artworks that show “the influence of cats on Wain’s work, and how they are bound up with his personal life and artistic success,” Rebecca Raybone, the museum’s registrar, tells Nadia Khomami of the Guardian.
The origins of Wain’s cat obsession are indeed profoundly personal. In 1884, he married Emily Richardson (played by Claire Foy in the new film), who had worked as a governess to Wain’s sisters. Soon after, Richardson, who was ten years Wain’s senior, was diagnosed with breast cancer. The couple’s cat, Peter, was a great comfort to her. Wain drew pictures of their pet to entertain Richardson, who died in 1887 after a three-year convalescence. “I remember well the sigh of relief that came from her as the genial warmth of [Peter’s] body assuaged her pangs and soothed her into peaceful slumber,” the artist once wrote.
Wain often depicted cats in cheeky, anthropomorphic scenes. His kitties play cricket, slide down snowy hills on toboggans and excitedly clutch tiny cat dolls. Their eyes are big and slightly devious—a signature of his work. But even Wain’s simpler drawings are rife with humor. One pared-down work on display at the Bethlem features only the head of a grinning cat and a very cat-like caption: “I Am Happy Because Everyone Loves Me.”
According to the Bethlem’s website, the artist’s illustrations won widespread fame between the 1880s and the outbreak of World War I in 1914. But Wain was a poor businessman who often failed to turn a profit, and the war left him impoverished. As his financial situation worsened, so, too, did his mental state. Beginning in the early 1920s, wrote Lisa Hix for Collector’s Weekly in 2019, the artist grew obsessed with rearranging furniture. He also claimed that spirits were torturing him and, on multiple occasions, even physically attacked his sisters.
Wain continued to create quirky cat art after his hospitalization in 1924. The new exhibition features, for example, a series of Christmas-themed artworks that he painted onto mirrors during his stay at Bethlem, after the staff asked him to help decorate the ward. Sporting impish expressions, the cats eat plum pudding and sing carols.
The artist was institutionalized at Bethlem—more commonly known as Bedlam—between 1925 and 1930, when he was transferred to Napsbury Hospital, near St. Albans. He remained at Napsbury until his death in 1939 at age 78.
“Animal Therapy” also includes several “Kaleidoscope Cat” drawings in which Wain rendered his feline subjects in vibrant colors and intricate patterns, some of them dizzyingly abstract. Psychiatrist Walter Maclay discovered the paintings in a junk shop in the 1930s; he later arranged them in a sequence and touted them as illustrations of Wain’s descent into madness.
As Colin Gale, director of the Bethlem Museum, tells Andrew Pulver of the Art Newspaper, the kaleidoscope artworks were never dated, and their placement in a sequence was purely speculative.
“The paintings are clear evidence of experimentation by Wain in color and pattern,” the exhibition argues, “but not of mental deterioration.”
With its array of exuberant artworks, the show offers a nuanced portrait of an artist who, in the years after his death, has often been misunderstood and overlooked.
“Visitors will be rewarded with a fascinating, vibrant and spirit-lifting show,” Gale tells the Guardian. “Wain’s pictures made him a household name during his lifetime, and we hope to play our part in returning him to prominence.”
“Animal Therapy: The Cats of Louis Wain” is on view at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind in Kent, England, through April 2022.