LOUIS WAIN: Cat Artist
by ©Karen Lawrence
During the Victorian era in England, cats enjoyed a resurgence in popularity partly because of their ability to control the rat population, and partly because they were relatively easy to care for and people found they made excellent pets.
Cats breeding among themselves produced many strains of attractive kittens, and the deliberate breeding of cats began to be a recognized pastime. Cat clubs and cat shows became fashionable and in 1887 the National Cat Club was formed to enable both the well-to-do and the poor to enjoy the "Cat Fancy." (1)
The emerging Cat Fancy in England changed people's attitudes towards the cat, and the 1871 hosting of the Crystal Palace Exhibition show helped to focus positive attention on the cat. Louis Wain helped immensely in developing the changing attitude towards the cat. As a cat breeder and judge(2) and successor to Harrison Weir as president of the National Cat Club in 1890(3), Wain was also a cat artist extraordinaire.
Wain was born in England in 1860 and in his early years was interested in music, authorship, chemistry and art. Music was his first career choice but he was not sufficiently dedicated and turned to the world of art as an alternative.
"My mother tells me that from my childhood I had always a great appreciation for coloring, and used to amuse myself for hours grouping shaded leaves." (3)
It is highly likely that Wain inherited his appreciation for art and his artistic talents from his mother who worked as a designer for English churches and cathedrals, and also developed designs for Turkish carpets. (3) Through his ownership of cats, Wain developed a knowledge of feline structure and reproduced it accurately in his illustrations. While he preferred to draw cats that took on human characteristics, the correct representation of the feline structure was always present in his art.
While beginning to make a living as an illustrator, Wain married Emily and they shared their home with a kitten named Peter. Unfortunately, Emily became seriously ill with cancer shortly after their marriage and was confined to bed. Peter was a source of companionship for her and Wain kept her amused by sketching their cat. It was Emily who first convinced Wain to submit his drawings to a newspaper for publication, and this was the beginning of his reign as the best cat artist in England.
Wain was in demand for his drawings and they appeared in newspapers, on greeting cards and postcards, and in children's books. He contributed to "Comical Customers at our Fine New Store of Comical Rhymes and Pictures" in 1896 and to "Jingles. Jokes and Funny Folks" in 1898. 1902 saw the word "Catland" commonly associated with Wain's illustrations, and the publication of "Pa Cats, Ma Cats and their Kittens."
While postcards had first been introduced in 1870, it was 1902 when the post office first allowed the drawing to cover all of one side of the card. Postcard sales peaked between 1904 and 1910, and Wain's drawings were in demand for them. Unfortunately, Wain did not seem to have a head for business. He often sold his work at less than its value and did not copyright any of his drawings. As a result, people who already had his sketches merely transferred them to the postcards.(1) Through undervaluing of his own work Wain did not realize much of a financial return, nor did he make huge sums of money for his art. In fact, he was often penniless and at times, would resort to paying his creditors by drawing an illustration for them, or would gain entrance to a play by drawing a quick illustration on the back of a playbill or program. (4)
Wain eventually became reclusive and poverty-stricken. His drawing turned into an obsession and he was declared completely mad. He was committed to Middlesex Memorial Mental Asylum and eventually moved to a state hospital. He was rediscovered there by a bookseller and a renewed interest in his art took place. His care was subsidized by a fund that managed the sale of illustrations which he continued to produce. His art changed to more of a patterned style and his later works are today considered to be an excellent examples of schizophrenic art.
Wain's death in 1939 (see newspaper article) marked the end of an era for people who had grown up with his illustrations. Today, his work, though relatively unknown, has definitely increased in value. "The Pied Piper", a watercolor, commanded an asking price at auction of 3000-5000 UK pounds Sterling (approx. $5000-8000 US) and postcards can be had for 300-500 UK pounds Sterling (approx. $500-800 US). There were numerous books written about Louis Wain and his Catland illustrations, many of which are out of print. It could, however, be well worthwhile to scour used books stores looking for these gems. (See Out of Print books)
Today, photographs seem to have replaced paintings and wonderful artists like Louis Wain are, sadly, long forgotten.
Books about Louis Wain:
Several books are out of print but worth letting Amazon search for them for you. They may possibly be pricey, but Amazon will email you for approval of the price prior to shipping.
Louis Wain Collectibles
Louis Wain postcards, books and drawings from The London News occasionally come up at auctions on eBay and Amazon. One of these sites recently had a panorama consisting of 4 chromo plates ((a) at Bedtime, (b) helping Mother in the kitchen, (c) at the Cat's Tea Party, and (d) in the school room) available for $2,750! You can also find an extensive listing of available Louis Wain books at bibliofind.com. But be forewarned -- these items can be VERY pricey!
Reprinted with permission, CFA Yearbook 1999
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