Acid Cats

Louis-Wain-Cat Design
Louis Wain-Cat Design

Although Louis Wain’s psychedelic and abstract cat designs that he created during the last fifteen years of his life, while confined in a  psychiatric institution, show many of the hallmarks that characterise Art Brut, namely elaborate detailing, obsessive symmetry and the horror vacui (fear of empty space); he was formally trained and was for a number of years one of the foremost commercial artists of Edwardian England, illustrating over a hundred books and releasing a highly successful annual of cats for over a decade.

Cats were Wain’s main subject throughout his career, from the naturalistic early studies through the large-eyed anthropomorphic cats strolling around on two legs playing golf and smoking cigars at the height of his success, to the brilliant ceramic Futurist cats before the final period of hallucinated decorative splendour.

The affectation and centrality that cats held for Wain was born out of a personal tragedy. At 23 the young artist had married his sister’s governess, Emily Richardson, who was ten years older, which was the cause of considerable scandal at the time. Shortly into their marriage Emily began to suffer from breast cancer; during her illness her main source of solace and comfort came from Peter, a stray black and white cat they had rescued on a rainy night. At Emily’s urging Louis began sketching Peter, drawings that were soon published and made Wain an very much in-demand illustrator, an event Emily unfortunately didn’t live to see.

Although Louis Wain’s work was hugely popular he lacked financial acumen so when he was initially institutionalised in 1924 it was in the pauper’s ward of Springfield Mental Hospital in Tooting, South London. When it was discovered that one of England’s most beloved illustrators was languishing there, a widely publicised appeal was launched and supported by such figures as the writer H.G Wells and the Prime Minister, and he was transferred to Bethlem Royal Hospital in Southwark, London and eventually to the relatively pleasant Napsbury Hospital in Hertfordshire, which had a large garden and a colony of cats.

The actual nature of Wain’s mental illness is the matter of debate, it has been suggested either adult-onset schizophrenia or Asperger’s Syndrome. His work was presented in supposedly chronological order by the psychiatrist Walter Maclay as an example of the creative deterioration of schizophrenics; a specious narrative that needless to say I totally disagree with. The abstractions represent a different, experimental aspect of Wain’s cat oeuvre, not a decline.

Below are examples of Wain’s cat drawings from throughout his career, with greater emphasis on the acid cats of the later period.

92 thoughts on “Acid Cats

      1. Yay! I can feel my allergies acting up already, haha! I love cats, but I’m allergic. People laugh because I have a cat, and allow myself to suffer because I love him so hard. 🙂

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  1. What a story! I’m glad he was plucked from the ash heap and given a pleasant place to live and work. Really love the whole range of artwork. I am very much a cat person too. I agree that you never really ‘own’ a cat, they ‘own’ you. Bravo, your majesty!

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    1. Thank you… you know how Cakeland attracts the visionaries, the eccentrics, the obsessives and the cranks. Unkind and uncharitable people may call them losers as they lives were beset with all kinds of difficulties but there luminosity is a better guide to life than many a success story.

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      1. Exactly right. The easy way, the ‘normal’ way, doesn’t float my kite. The world is so much more interesting when you look at it out of the corner of your eye. So what if you stumble once in a while? I love all these varied styles. And I think you know how I love the highly intricate designs. I’d venture to try something like that myself one day.

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      2. I love the art brut (though Wain wasn’t art brut because of his training but there are similarities) style. Very Blake, creating their own personal system rather than be enslaved by another’s.

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      3. It’s very courageous. A special kind of fortitude. And/or complete confidence that they’ve found the right way. I’d take an ounce of that…

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  2. This is fascinating. His artistic talent doesn’t suffer but evolves to a more creative and vivid level. I have only had one cat, a Persian I found abandoned at Matheson Hammock Beach so I named her Matheson. I’m a dog person but love cats. My favorite painting here is the blue flower eyed kitty. So beautiful!!

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    1. Thank you Heart and glad you like. I agree that his art doesn’t suffer though obviously his life did. It is almost he is trying to capture the Platonic Ideal form of Cats in the later stage. I am a cat person but I love dogs as well. Animals have a general tendency to follow me round, I am that kind I suppose.

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    1. Yes it actually irritated me as it was denigrating the work to fit a theory that strips sufferers of mental illness any aesthetic value, whereas some are astonishing. I did a previous piece on art brut that highlights this style of art, though Wain isn’t technically art brut as he was formally trained. Thanks for the comment and please check out the art brut post, I think you will find it interesting.

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  3. It’s been a while I’m following your blog, and I just like you to know how much I, along all your other readers, appreciate your posts, sometimes because they are very informative in a art historian perspective, sometimes because they really hit me personally (as an artist) always very interesting, thank you. Looking forward to more!

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  4. Omg this is so well written. Followed 🙂 I also aspire to spread awareness of neurological diseases through the love of FOOD in Singapore, Nigeria and other parts of the world 🙂 Do also follow my blog post and check out my posts at https://autismyouths.wordpress.com Here’s to a great friendship. Appreciate it ❤️

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    1. He was very talented, though he did suffer a breakdown, but that doesn’t distract from the brilliance of the later works. I love them as well, I spotted a reference in Bojack Horseman the other day so I had to repost.

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      1. Well I always try to unearth buried treasures…plus I am really fond of cats (as I am their King) so this is one of my favourite posts. Glad you enjoyed Christine and thanks as always for your comments and support.

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      2. Thank you that means a lot to me Christine. I love writing about the art and artists, though sometimes I think I need to concentrate on either the art posts or the essays or the poetry or the fiction. But sticking to one subject isn’t my strong suit.

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