You might not have heard of Louis Wain, an unquestionable cat fanatic, loving husband & schizophrenia sufferer. But his is a story of many tails…
He found out that his wife was slowly dying of breast cancer and in an attempt to put a smile on her face & make each day just a little easier – he would draw their household cat Peter. Back in the Victorian era, cats weren’t doted on or remotely considered members of the family at all; they served a purpose of catching mice and keeping the rats at bay but little else.
Not so in the Wain household.
Over the years, Louis began to experiment with his portraits giving Peter life-like qualities. Some illustrations had his favourite feline fishing, smoking, playing music and even holding the odd tea party!
His work quickly became extremely popular in Victorian England, simply because nobody had ever really taken an interest in the common household cat – let alone in such a whimsical way. From posters & greeting cards to hundreds of children’s books his work was celebrated and enjoyed.
“He has made the cat his own. 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
But sadly, time wasn’t kind to Louis – not only did he lose his beloved wife, but virtually all his money due to several ill-advised business ventures gone awry. As age began to creep up on him, his mental instability became increasing prevalent. Despite always being considered quite charming but odd, he regularly began having difficulty in distinguishing between fact and fantasy. Sadly, in 1924 his sisters choose to have him committed to the Springfield Mental Hospital as they could no longer care for or endure his violent behavior and erratic outbursts.
You can imagine the conditions living on poverty line during that era in a loosely regulated institution…
Fortunately, the famous H.G. Wells & then Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald, both avid friends & supporters of the artist ensure that he was moved to a more welcoming institution – one which had a bevy of cats no less.
Many claim that Wain’s schizophrenia was precipitated by toxoplasmosis, a parasitic infection that can actually be contracted from cats. But no conclusive link has been firmly established as of yet, despite on-going research in this area.
Yet even during the very final years of his life where the vice-like grip of the diseases started to strangle his mind, he continued to paint and draw. However, his celebrated & whimsical illustrations morphed into darker & more abstract entities – infinitely more complex and intense. A reflection on the nature of his disease and its powerful effect on his mental state.
Today, they serve as a representation of one mans journey from a life & happiness to a final chapter that was as confronting & as confusing as his final works.