You are on page 1of 2


Louis Wain: his life, his art and his mental illness
Aidan McGennis
Ir J Psych Med 1999; 16(1): 27-28

This year we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the death of that famous cat artist, Louis Wain. It is therefore appropriate to reflect briefly on his life, his art, and in particular the rather controversial nature of his mental illness. Louis Wain was born in London in 1860, the eldest child of William, a textile traveller, and Felicia, a designer of carpets. Louis had five younger sisters. As a child he was regarded as physically weak, not starting school until the age of 10 where his academic performance was indifferent, and from which he played truant frequently. In 1877 he went to the West London School of Art, qualifying in 1880. His first job was that of an art teacher, but he needed to supplement his income from this job by doing freelance illustrations for magazines. Eventually he gave up art teaching and became a full-time illustrator, working initially with the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. In 1884 he married Emily Richardson, a governess in the Wain household and 10 years his senior. Their happy marriage ended two years later when Emily died of breast cancer. During her illness a stray black and white kitten joined the Wain household. The kitten was named Peter and he was a great comfort to Emily in her terminal illness. While Louis sat frequently by his wifes sick bed he began drawing Peter from every possible angle. This was the first time he showed any interest in drawing cats, as prior to that he had been a general illustrator. At Emilys insistence he submitted drawings of Peter to various publications and they were eventually accepted and published. His cat drawings soon caught the attention of the editor of the Illustrated London News for whom he was then working and he was commissioned to do a centrefold for the Christmas 1886 issue of that magazine. What appeared was A Kittens Christmas Party1 and it achieved overnight fame and success for Wain. Sadly Emily died just a few weeks later, and in considerable pain. Wain reacted to her death by bonding even more firmly with Peter whom he perceived as forming a real link with Emily since he believed Peter contained something of Emilys soul or spirit. Such responses to grief are not necessarily pathological as Murray Parkes 2 has said: any of the psychological defence mechanisms familiar to psychiatrists can come into operation at such times and can influence the ways in which grief is expressed. When Peter died in 1898 Wain described the event in very eloquent terms: he lived to the March of 1898, and died in my hands, a boy kitten again talking and answering me as of old. It was a few minutes lived in the past between us again, with all its memories alive.3 From Emilys death onwards his artwork became almost exclusively cat-focused. Initially he depicted cats in the
Aidan McGennis, DPM, FRCPsych, Consultant Psychiatrist, St. Brendans Hospital, Rathdown Road, Dublin 7, Ireland.

conventional representational way but by 1890 his cats had become humanistic in character, being frequently depicted in comic situations. The public loved the new Louis Wain cat drawings and he soon became a household name. He was made president of the National Cat Club and was patronised by the aristocracy, including the Royal Family. Prodigious is the only word to describe his art work output. Primarily he worked as an illustrator, producing thousands of cat drawings for various magazines and newspapers. But he also illustrated at least 150 books and did the artwork for about 600 different postcards, countless posters, prints, calendars and advertisements. Paintings both in oil and water-colour were produced but these were mostly commissioned work. Unfortunately he was a poor manager of money so instead of becoming extremely wealthy from all his work, he was just surviving financially. In 1895 Louis returned to live with his mother and sisters, the family then moving to Westgate-on-Sea, a select seaside resort in Kent. He remained there for the next 20 years. As his father had died in 1880 Louis was now the only male and the only bread winner in the family. His youngest sister Marie developed delusions that she had leprosy and that her teeth were falling out. At the age of 29 she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital where she died in 1915. From 1907-1910 Wain was in the United States, mostly New York, where he continued his cat art work. In January 1910 he left the United States to rejoin his dying mother but sadly she died before he reached home. For the next four years he worked hard to provide for himself and his four surviving sisters. The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 caused a reduction in the postcard business and along with shortages and rationing reduced the demand for Wains work. In 1917 his eldest sister Caroline died from influenza and her death appears to have had a destabilising effect on him. On his admission to Springfield Hospital in 1924 he dated the onset of his illness to seven years previously which would have coincided with her death. Caroline appeared to have been the key person in the family as she made most of the main decisions for the rest and her loss therefore affected him badly. He grew suspicious, and accused his surviving sisters of stealing his money. Sometimes he would move furniture around the house at different times of the day and night, believing this would protect him from imaginary enemies. Finally after pushing two of his sisters, he was hospitalised and diagnosed as having schizophrenia. His sisters visited him most weeks, bringing him art materials and taking away any finished work which they would then sell. In this curious way Wain continued to support his sisters even though he was an inpatient in a psychiatric hospital. In 1925 following an outcry at his treatment as a public patient, and the involvement of the then prime minister Ramsey McDonald, he 27

Ir J Psych Med 1999; 16(1): 27-28

was transferred to the Bethlem Royal Hospital in Southwark, where he received private patient care and where he remained until 1930. In that year he was transferred to Napsbury Hospital near St Albans, where he died on July 4, 1939, having spent the final years of his life continuously in psychiatric hospitals. This then is the stark outline of Louis Wains life What then of his art? There is no doubt that Louis Wain was a very accomplished draughtsman. He had a natural drawing ability which was enhanced by formal training and his initial work was as a graphic artist working in pencil or pen and ink. His line drawings were done boldly, confidently, and with great accuracy. Buildings he drew for the Illustrated London News were said to have photographic accuracy. He also used more difficult graphic media such as red Venetian chalk and silver point. He found red Venetian chalk difficult to work with so he tended to reserve it for special commissions, such as from the Royal Family. Some of his red Venetian work has a hard-to-define, almost ethereal quality about it. Most of his oil paintings were done early in his career and in his oil portraits of cats he captures the face and in particular the gaze of the cat often in a very empathic way. However, it is probably in his water-colours that his best work was done. Some visually striking colour effects were achieved by his great sense of colour and the courage to break with the conventions of the day. His style was always developing and never static. While earning his basic income as an illustrator he nonetheless continued to develop his style and to experiment. The striped cat style was a Wain invention which appeared about 1915. 4 He was possibly influenced in this by Picassos many harlequins which began to appear from 1901.5 There was definite evidence that he experimented with cubism. In 1914 he produced a series of futuristic cat ceramic figurines, boldly cubist in design but not a commercial success, and only a few of them have survived. Scientific matters always interested him, especially electricity and magnetism, even though he had no formal training in physics. Nonetheless he applied what he knew about magnetism and electricity to his observations of cats and their behaviour, and he eventually produced various theories about how cats might be influenced by these two elements. He then successfully incorporated these themes into what came to be known as his magnetic and electric cats. In the magnetic water-colours the cats are portrayed in magnetic fields while in the electric cats the cats look as if they have just got an electric shock with their fur standing up and a jagged red edge about them. This attempt to incorporate a visual portrayal of intangible physical forces into art must make Wain almost unique. What effect did his schizophrenia have on his art? Probably little. Clearly when acutely ill he didnt paint or draw at all, but when more stabilised he would tend to paint in his usual way. Some pictures which were done in one or other of the psychiatric hospitals show cats changing into virtual wallpaper patterns. These probably represent the influence of seeing his mother designing carpets, a task at which she was quite gifted. Wain was to incorporate the carpet theme quite successfully into a number of his pictures.6 Some water colours of Wain were discovered in the mid 1990s which were different to any seen before: if anything they resemble the psychedelic 28

movement of the 1960s. So a very versatile artist indeed, who is still springing surprises on us. Finally, I dont think his schizophrenia just developed in 1924 at the age of 64. Rather I believe that he suffered from a low grade form of the illness for years before that. For example a letter he wrote to the editor of the Morning Post in 1902 entitled The Doomed Empire7 shows classical schizophrenic thought disorder and it is a wonder that it was published at all. He did have odd beliefs and behaviours for many years, but not of such intensity as to have him portrayed as psychotic. Instead he came across to most people as being eccentric, something entirely acceptable in an artist. There is no doubt however that on admission to Springfield he was floridly psychotic. The transition from mild to severe schizophrenia occurring under the influence of adverse life events such as bereavement has been described by Birley and Brown8 in their classic article of 1970, a linkage now widely accepted amongst psychiatrists. In summary therefore, Louis Wains schizophrenia did not begin in 1924 but existed in a mild form for many years, then developed into a severe form in response to Carolines death. In hospital after a period of time the illness once more settled down to a mild form and he resumed his art work. He suffered a cerebro-vascular accident in 1936 and probably a second one later with the result that by 1939, the year of his death, he showed many features of dementia which was probably atherosclerotic in origin. Mental health professionals have been very interested in Louis Wain because of the belief that some of his pictures show a visual representation of the progression of his schizophrenia. This applies particularly to the Guttman/Maclay collection which has been reproduced in text books of psychiatry9 and psychology 10 and more recently in a poster 11 sponsored by a pharmaceutical company. This view has been trenchantly criticised by Patricia Allderidge12 who is the curator of the Art and History Collection at the Bethlem Royal Hospital where the collection resides. She stated there was no evidence as to when any of these drawings were actually done, and that they represented at least three quite different distinctive styles. However, her most serious criticism is that the order in which they are now seen is entirely artificial. It appears that Dr Maclay found some or all of these pictures in a little shop in Camden Hill after Wain had died and then arranged them in what he judged to be the order of a clinical progression. The consensus belief now is that the pictures are no more than samples of Louis Wains work at different times. Complex and poignant aptly describe the Louis Wain story, but it is also inspirational to those who suffer from schizophrenia as it shows how the illness can be combined with a very productive and creative life.
References 1. Wain LA. Kittens Christmas party. Illustrated London News. Christmas Number 1886: 24-5. 2. Murray Parkes C. Bereavement. Br J Psychiatry 1985; 146: 11-7. 3. Dale R. Louis Wain: the man who drew cats. 2nd Ed. London: Michael O'Mara Books Ltd in association with Chris Beetles Ltd, 1991: 23. 4. Dale R, ibid. 1991: 80-1. 5. Boone D. Picasso. London: Studio Editions, 1993: 46. 6. Dale R, op cit. 1991: 120. 7. Wain L. The doomed empire. Morning Post 1902: 15 October . 8. Birley JLT, Brown GW. Crises and life changes preceding the onset or relapse of acute schizophrenia: clinical aspects. Br J Psychiatry 1970; 116: 327-33. 9. Kolb L. Modern Clinical Psychiatry. London: WB Saunders Company, 1977: 438. 10. Dworetzky JP. Psychology. 4th Ed. New York: West Publishing Company, 1991: 496-7. 11. Wain L. Schizophrenia thorough the eyes of a cat. Poster Published 1997 by Living with schizophrenia PO Box 913, Mundelein, IL 60060-9956, USA. 12. Allderidge P. Cats!: An exhibition of the works of Louis Wain 1860-1939. London: Chris Beetles Limited, 1986: 8-10.