At the turn of the century, Louis Wain became a household name as ‘The Man Who Drew Cats’. His drawings of cats appeared in periodicals and his own annuals and then, increasingly on prints and postcards. While his early work was already distinctive, in a gently humorous way, the onset of schizophrenia gradually transformed his style, making it bright, highly patterned and apparently in keeping with Jazz Age Modernism.
Louis Wain was born in London on 5 August 1860. His father was a textile salesman and his mother designed carpets and church fabrics. A sickly child, he was educated at the Orchard Street Boys and Infant School, South Hackney, and at St Joseph’s Academy, Kennington.
He trained at the West London School of Art (1877-80), remaining there as an assistant master until 1882. From his father’s death in 1880, he had to support first his mother and five younger sisters and soon after a sick wife. He supplemented his income by working as a freelance illustrator (initially influenced by Caldecott and May), and in 1882 he joined the staff of the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. He began to make his name with humorous cat drawings, primarily in the Illustrated London News, the staff of which he joined in 1886. He was the first to work consistently within the convention of depicting clothed and standing animals. His anthropomorphic vision of the world soon brought him much fame and as a result he was elected President of the National Cat Club in 1891. However, he was not a good businessman, and in 1907 he may have been sued for debt. In the same year, he moved to the United States to make a new start, producing strip cartoons for the New York American (1907-10). Back in England, he experimented with animation in 1917, in the films, The Golfing Cat and The Hunter and the Dog. After the death of his sister Caroline in the same year, he began to suffer a mental decline, becoming a schizophrenic, as his work clearly revealed. ‘His cats became frenzied and jagged, sometimes disappearing into kaleidoscopic shapes’ (Frances Spalding). When, in 1925, he was found in the paupers’ ward of Middlesex County Asylum, an appeal was launched on his behalf, and he was transferred to a comfortable room with his paints in the Bethlem Royal Hospital, Southwark. The appeal reached twice the target sum in a month, a sign of the public’s continuing affection. He died in the Middlesex County Asylum, Napsbury, near St Albans, on 4 July 1939.