The inspirational artist behind Cheshire & Wain's new cat collar collection
‘He invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world. English cats that do not look and live like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves’
H G Wells
Celebrated British artist, Louis Wain, has been a constant wellspring of inspiration to us at Cheshire & Wain. I fell in love with Wain's cats from a very young age - always a cat obsessive, framed Louis Wain prints hung in my childhood bedroom and remain a favourite in my home today! These cats piqued my imagination; I would dream up stories and imagine the exciting lives they lead until they became familiar and fond friends of mine.
One of the pictures that hung in my childhood bedroom
But Louis Wain did not have an easy life; he struggled with mental illness, was shy and introverted, and struggled in business. Despite the profound popularity and the incredible volume of work he produced throughout his working life, he fell for some years into obscurity.
Capturing a stylish Edwardian society, Wain depicted felines at play, partaking in tea parties, indulging in drinks parties and other popular pursuits with an air of mischief and good humour.
Louis Wain - Garden Party (Chris Beetles Gallery)
Wain had a real knack for capturing the vivid personalities of cats. Despite human society being the reference for his feline tableaus, there is still the sense that we are looking at cats and not humans when observing his work. That is what I find so captivating and charming. Their giant eyes are unmistakably catlike and act as windows into a unique and magical world - a 'Catland'! The scenes he painted are often bright, flamboyant, and filled with frenetic energy - you can almost hear the hubbub and feel the atmosphere tumbling off the images.
But in 1924, as his cats circulated on the popular postcards of the time, Wain himself was forgotten, certified insane, and in a pauper's hospital with diagnosed schizophrenia.
In 1925, Daniel Rider, a liberal publicist, bookseller, and committee member who visited asylums, came across a 'quiet little man sketching cats' during a visit to Springfield Hospital. Rider went to inspect his work and recounted the meeting thus:
'"Good Lord, man, you draw like Louis Wain"
"I am Louis Wain", replied the patient
"You're not, you know", I exclaimed
"But I am," said the artist, and he was.'
Rider, shocked to find the man in such a place, set up the Louis Wain Fund to raise money to move him to a better hospital and to support his sisters.
Through Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald's intervention and a public broadcast message written by H. G. Wells, Wain was transferred to the Bethlem Royal Hospital, where conditions were much better. His fame and status made him an important patient at Bethlem. He enjoyed some freedom from commercial demands, deadlines and debt, honing his artistic practice and experimenting with more abstract and futuristic ideas.
Sadly, his health continued to decline; he became feeble and less in touch with reality. In later life, Wain believed he was 'filled with electricity' and had healing powers. If left unattended, he would attempt to drink liquid paraffin or rub it into his hair. Constantly complaining about the cold, he wrapped up in a thick tweed suit, woollen waistcoat, gloves and a cloth cap even on the hottest days in Summer.
But despite his declining mental state, it did not seem to affect the quality or impressiveness of his art. During his hospital years, he produced his famous kaleidoscopic cats and an extensive collection of paintings depicting idyllic countryside scenes brimming with vibrant colours, flowers and cats; a visual feast for any cat lovers eyes!
Louis Wain - Flower Cat
Wain continued to paint until he suffered a stroke in November 1936 and was left bedbound. On the 4th of July 1939, he died and was laid to rest at St Mary's Cemetery in Kensal Green. His grave has since fallen into disrepair; it is a great sadness for one of the most well-known and popular artists of his time to be so quickly forgotten.
But that is soon to change!
An upcoming biographical film starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Wain should bring this incredible man and his eventful life back into recognition. I can't wait for the release of 'The Electrical Life of Louis Wain' (release date is still TBA) and the 2021 version of Chris Beetles magnificent book 'Louis Wain's Cats', which will include a foreword by Cumberbatch.
Benedict Cumberbatch as Louis Wain in 'The Electrical Life of Louis Wain' film
In the meantime, we pay homage to Wain in our latest cat collar collection, inspired by his wide-eyed fantastical felines and the colour explosions in his work. Introducing Electric Blue, Chartreuse, Purrsimmon and Pastel modelled by our very own curious kitty, Penelope.
The Louis Wain Collar collection launches on the 17th of July 2021
Electric Blue Collar - photo by Rachel Oates