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.