Are cats who do not look and live like Louis Wain cats ashamed of themselves, as H.G. Wells alleged?
Did the 2021 film The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, based on a biography and script by Simon Stephenson, tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about the artist widely credited with reinventing human perception of cats?
A film of only 111 minutes can only include attempted re-creations of what are perceived in retrospect to be the most meaningful moments of a lifetime, in Wain’s case a 78-year lifetime of mostly intense creative activity.
Mad genius, or was Wain really mad at all?
Therefore, Stephenson and director Will Sharpe obviously had to take some shortcuts and do a great deal of condensation.
But did The Electrical Life of Louis Wain unduly clean up, sanitize, and exaggerate the career, character, and influence of a mad genius?
Or was Louis Wain ever actually mad at all?
That Louis Wain was a genius, there seems to be no doubt.
Exemplar of mental deterioration?
Louis Wain has variously been alleged to have been one of the originators of Victorian anthropomorphism and sentimentality about domestic animals, one of the first psychedelic artists, and an exemplar of mental deterioration afflicting creativity.
Always eccentric, with widely varied interests and talents ranging from boxing, swimming, bicycling, and running to composing music and experimenting with chemistry and electricity, Louis Wain purportedly became deranged to the point of inability to look after himself, as opposed to merely becoming partially incapacitated from age and injury.
This is due to the purported effects of schizophrenia; toxoplasmosis; severe depression following the loss of his wife Emily Richardson to breast cancer in 1887, after only four years of marriage; and the stress of supporting his mother and five sisters for most of their lives, following his father’s death when Louis Wain himself was only 20.
Many reasons to lose his mind––but did he?
Contributing factors are commonly said to have included familial disapproval of his marriage to Emily Richardson, ten years his elder, originally hired as governess for his sisters, and the madness of his middle sister Marie. Committed to an asylum in 1901, Marie died there in 1913.
Further, Louis Wain suffered a traumatic head injury, including a skull fracture, when he fell from the step of a London bus in 1914.
Amid all that, though, and taking into account that Louis Wain did a chronically poor job of managing whatever prosperity occasionally came his way, one might also observe that as an artist he was exceptionally productive, working without complaint through every misfortune; never shirked his perceived responsibilities; and appears to have been well-liked by practically all of his many talented acquaintances.
15 years in Bedlam & other asylums
Indeed, Wain did spend the last 15 years of his life in mental hospitals. Wain was committed in 1924 by the three survivors among his five younger sisters to the pauper’s ward at the Springfield Mental Hospital in Tooting, England, due to erratic behavior, obsession with conspiracy theories, and sometimes violent outbursts.
Wain was recognized there a year later by bookseller Dan Rider, who examined one of his sketches and remarked, “My God, man, you draw just like Louis Wain!”
Responded Wain, “I am Louis Wain.”
Even in the mental hospital, recounted biographer Simon Hitchman in Lost In Catland: The Life of Louis Wain, Wain remained artistically prolific, supplying his sisters with material they could sell to supplement their own meager earnings as decorative artists.
Contributed art to his own relief fund
“Every week they visited Louis at Springfield,” Hitchman wrote, “bringing him crayons and sketch-books. At the end of their visits they took away any new art work he had produced.”
Rider contacted Mrs. Cecil Chesterton, sister-in-law of the author G.K. Chesterton. In August 1925 they formed an appeal committee on Wain’s behalf.
Enlisting the help of novelist H.G. Wells and then-British prime minister Ramsey Macdonald, among other luminaries, the committee raised funds to have Wain moved to more congenial facilities at the Bethlehem Royal Hospital in Southwark, a nearly 700-year-old institution descended from the original Bedlam, reputed as the world’s first mental asylum.
There Wain produced drawings the sale of which helped to finance a 1930 relocation to the Napsbury Hospital near St. Albans in Hertfordshire, north of London.
Wain died at the Napsbury Hospital in 1939, three years after suffering a disabling stroke.
“Invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world”
Pronounced H.G. Wells in his August 17, 1925 broadcast appeal for donations to help Louis Wain, “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.”
Though possibly no cat has ever actually known shame, this is how Louis Wain might have preferred to be remembered.
As Louis Wain himself wrote, “I have tried to wipe out, once and for all, the contempt in which the cat has been held in the country and raised its status from the questionable care and attention of the old maid to a real and permanent place in the home.
“All lovers of ‘Pussy’ are of the sweetest temperament.”
“I have myself found, as the result of many years’ inquiry and study,” Wain testified, “that all people who keep cats, and are in the habit of nursing them, do not suffer from those petty little ailments which all flesh is heir to. Viz. nervous complaints of a minor sort. Hysteria and rheumatism, too, are unknown, and all lovers of ‘Pussy’ are of the sweetest temperament.”
But Louis Wain fell victim to scurrilous bad press as early as 1931. An extensive wire service report, headlined “Louis Wain’s Fiendish Cats,” declared in a subhead that, “The British Artist, Famous for His Kindly, Loveable Pussies, Becomes Insane and Now Draws Only Demon Cats With Malevolent Faces––A Strange Example of Dual Personality, the Doctors Explain.”
“Fiendish creatures, with a baleful light in their eyes”
According to that account, “Wain, though right-handed in all other things, for some mysterious reason could draw cats only with his left, and until 1925 had produced thousands of delightful drawings of soft, pretty, agreeable, purring pussies.
“Then one day the artist’s right hand, instead of hanging idle, suddenly took the crayon from his left and began drawing cats with a skill quite its equal.”
Now, however, Wain’s cats became “fiendish creatures, with a baleful light in their eyes, the kind of hellcats who are supposed to ride on witches’ shoulders to the Devil’s Sabbath.
“Wain is slowly getting better,” the 1931 article claimed, “and now his right hand often allows his left to use the crayon and make the nice friendly tabbies that everyone likes. But as soon as the picture is finished, the right hand pulls the crayon out of the fingers of the left and draws a bigger cat, with a murderous glare, ready to pounce on the nice kitty.”
“His cat-loving public turned from him”
That anonymous article, perhaps the longest ever written about Louis Wain during his lifetime, made many claims about his state of mind without any attributed support, bolstered only by pseudo-scientific theories offered in explanation, also without attribution.
The article even blamed Wain’s financial woes and mental illness on the supposed conflict between his left and right hands:
“Poor Wain, unable to produce anything else, tried to sell some of these nasty, disagreeable cat characters, but his cat-loving public turned from him, insulted at such disreputable creatures. In his struggle to make his right hand behave and either draw respectable cats or let his left do so, the artist went mad.”
This anonymous 1931 article appears to have been the original source for further calumnies that followed Wain’s death, and the deaths of his sisters, the last of whom succumbed to conditions of age in 1945.
“Cats He Drew Caused His Doom”
“English Artist Said Cats He Drew Caused His Doom,” alleged another anonymous wire service article, distributed in 1949, again citing no sources.
Possibly based on the 1931 article, with minor updates, this much shorter report claimed that eventually “Nearly all of Louis Wain’s new drawings were seized by a doctor and destroyed,” and concluded that “In his lucid moments, he said the cats had accursed him.”
The 1968 biography Louis Wain – The Man Who Drew Cats, by Rodney Dale (1933-2020) is credited with reviving public interest in Wain and rescuing his reputation, but as late as 1976 the screenwriter and novelist Doane R. Hoag (1908-2008), whose entire career appears to have focused on the lurid and sensational, published a syndicated article entitled “A Man Driven Mad By Cats,” contending that “Wain had never been fond of cats,” and “began to hate them” as he became successful as a cat artist.
“Floods of money”
“However, cats were bringing him in floods of money,” Hoag claimed, “and so he went on, painting cat pictures by the hundreds. He saved every penny he could earn, hoping to collect a great enough fortune so that he could retire from painting cats and go back to his old landscape work.”
Not a word of any of that was true. Wain never received “floods of money,” was never good at saving what he did receive, never exhibited anything but affection for cats, never wished to retire, and though he drew many fanciful landscapes into the background of his pictures of animals, especially cats, the cats and other animals were always his focus.
Compounded falsehood with worse
Hoag went on to compound falsehood with worse.
Louis Wain “carefully invested his money in stocks, watched the market quotations, realized that he was almost in a position to retire,” Hoag wrote. “For three months he took a vacation from cats, went to the country just to get away from them, and for the first time in months, stopped dreaming about them at night.
“In late October 1929,” Hoag asserted, “he returned to London––and almost to the day the market crashed in New York. The London market fell soon afterward, and Louis Wain was wiped out. Now 64 years old, he was forced to return to the work he now hated: as the world’s leading painter of cats.”
As of October 1929, Louis Wain had already been in Bedlam for five years. His major financial misfortunes had followed World War I, a decade earlier. And he had never stopped drawing cats.
“Sat in his cell staring off into space”
But Hoag was not done yet.
“Louis Wain completely broke down,” Hoag contended. “He recognized no one, not his friends, not his family. He just sat in his cell staring off into space.
In truth Louis Wain was never in a cell. He was an inmate of a mental hospital, but a relatively privileged inmate, who wanted only to draw, and to be left alone most of the time to do it, except for the company of cats. There were no cats at Springfield, to Louis Wain’s sorrow, but he had cat companions at Bedlam and Napsbury.
“There was one inflexible rule in regard to his care,” Hoag asserted. “No pens, no pencils, not even a piece of chalk was to be given to him. For whenever one was, you were sure to find, on the wall of his cell the next morning, a great picture of a huge cat with leering, haunted eyes that seemed to follow you around the room wherever you went.”
On the contrary, if Louis Wain had ever been deprived of artistic tools, the pioneering psychiatrist Walter Maclay (1902–1964) might never have discovered the eight “kaleidoscope cat” paintings in a Notting Hill junk shop that he purchased in 1939 and arranged into a sequence which he believed to represent stages in the deterioration of Wain’s mental health.
This sequence, the Wikipedia biography of Louis Wain summarizes, has “commonly been used in psychology textbooks. However, given that Wain did not date his works, it is not known if these works were created in the order presented, which typically show more florid, abstract pictures as appearing later.”
Wikipedia further mentions that, “In December 2012, psychiatrist David O’Flynn, at a gallery talk at an exhibition of “Kaleidoscopic Cats” at the Bethlehem Royal Hospital Archives & Museum, proposed viewing the series as the creation of two men—’Louis Wain, who created them, and Walter Maclay who organized them into a series,’” presented as a proof of some of Maclay’s own ideas, “partly based,” Wikipedia adds, “on his 1930s experiments with art and mescaline-induced psychosis. Maclay concluded that the creative ability of people with schizophrenia deteriorated.”
Evolving styles & techniques
Responded biographer Rodney Dale to the Maclay hypothesis, “Wain experimented with patterns and cats, and even quite late in life was still producing conventional cat pictures, perhaps 10 years after his [supposedly] ‘later’ productions which are patterns rather than cats.”
Indeed, Wain displayed evolving artistic styles throughout his life, much as did his contemporary, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), often trying new materials and techniques, while retaining use of those he had already mastered.
Early in Wain’s career he drew in a realistic manner. His early cat drawings were highly realistic. After Emily Richardson died, Wain began to draw cats in an increasingly anthropomorphic manner, as satirical caricatures of human behavior and sometimes of particular well-known individuals.
Some commentators have contended that this was an expression of loneliness and grief. Reality appears to be simply that these anthropomorphic cats were more commercially successful, not only for Wain but also for other English and American artists of the time, so Wain drew more of them. But Wain at the same time never abandoned drawing cats as just cats.
“I do not call them landscapes”
The periodical Pearson’s Weekly in 1919 reported that, “At a gathering of artists, a certain futurist painter approached Louis Wain and said, ‘Why do you always draw cats, cats, nothing but cats?’
“It is true that I draw cats,’ returned Mr. Wain, fixing the futurist with his eye, ‘ but at least I do not call them landscapes.”
This anecdote was presented as Wain’s rejection of abstract “modern art,” and of adherence to traditional representational artistic values. Yet it was at almost this same time that Wain began drawing in a much more abstract manner, with “wallpaper” backgrounds of highly abstracted flowers.
Michael Fitzgerald, then the Henry Marsh Professor of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, wrote in 2014 in the Irish Journal of Psychiatric Medicine that, “Louis Wain did not have schizophrenia but Asperger’s syndrome. It is very easy,” Fitzgerald argued, “to confuse somebody with odd beliefs with schizophrenia and to think that these odd beliefs are formal thought disorder. He did not show deterioration in his skill as a painter and this remained with him toward the end of his life.
“There is absolutely no evidence,” Fitzgerald emphasized, “that his pictures show a visual representation of the progress of schizophrenia. Patricia Addridge, curator of the art and history collection and the Bethlehem Royal Hospital has demonstrated clearly that this so-called progression is false. There is little doubt that he was a very eccentric if brilliant artist. He was also interested in mathematics, insects, bird skins, perceptual motion, science, and mechanical objects.
Withdrawn, isolated, but had friends
“He was mostly a withdrawn isolated man from early life,” Fitzgerald pointed out, though Wain did make and keep many loyal friends, including H.G. Wells, Dan Rider, and his artistic patron and publisher Sir William Ingram.
“He was bullied in school,” Fitzgerald wrote, “as many people with Asperger’s syndrome are. He had preservation of sameness [i.e. difficulty adjusting to unexpected change in his surroundings.] He spoke with an unusual tone of voice. He was interested in music and was very obsessional.
“He was very naïve,” Fitzgerald continued, as appeared especially in Wain’s business dealings. “He did go through a paranoid psychotic period, just like Isaac Newton, but the fundamental diagnose was Asperger’s syndrome.”
Wikipedia notes finally, citing several scientific sources, that “It must be noted that Wain’s presumed schizophrenia should not be attributed to toxoplasmosis, a disease precipitated by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which is excreted by cats in their feces.
“The old theory that toxoplasmosis can trigger schizophrenia, which can be traced back as early as the mid-20th century, has been widely contested,” Wikipedia adds, “for there is no solid evidence that supports the idea that toxoplasmosis may affect people’s behavior; and although research on the field continues, currently the connection between schizophrenia and toxoplasmosis seems to be a myth rather than a fact.”
Patron of animal charities
Often overlooked in discussion of Louis Wain is that despite being “mostly a withdrawn isolated man,” he demonstrated qualities of leadership on behalf of animal charities, serving on the governing council of Our Dumb Friends League (founded in 1897, renamed the Blue Cross in 1912), the Society for the Protection of Cats, the National Anti-Vivisection Society [of Great Britain, unrelated to the U.S. entity of the same name], and the National Cat Club, for which he was founding president and chair.
Along the way, Louis Wain reportedly posted a “substantial money prize” for best cat at the 1896 London cat show, judged the Beresford Cat Club of America show in 1898 on behalf of the Lady Marcus Beresford (1846-1920), and judged the National Cat Show at Crystal Palace, London, in 1913.
The Lady Beresford
Born Louisa Catherine Ridley, the Lady Marcus Beresford became notoriously nicknamed “Unlimited Lou” for her many affairs and indiscretions early in life, reaching even into the British royalty, but appears to have eventually settled down with Marcus Beresford, her third husband, who may have introduced her to cats.
Whatever the case, the Lady Beresford became an influential cat breeder and fancier, credited with introducing Siamese cats to Britain, and formed her own Cat Club in competition with the National Cat Club, then headed by Wain.
According to her online biography (http://messybeast.com/retro-fanciers-beresford.htm, “Lady Marcus Beresford became disillusioned with the attitude of many breeders and exhibitors who were more interested in prizes and novelties than in promoting the welfare of cats. Many of the exhibitors [aligned with her] had no need of money prizes or valuable ‘specials.’”
The rift between the cat clubs appears to have widened for about five years before the two merged, with Wain as an inept would-be peace-maker.
London Institution for Lost & Starving Cats
Wain might also have had some involvement with the London Institution for Lost & Starving Cats, which according to a 1900 wire service account, occupied “a bright room gay with pictures by Louis Wain and flowers in pots.”
Rescued cats, an unnamed young female spokesperson told the reporter, “can help themselves to as much meat and milk as they like. Then we put them into a chloroform box and they die painlessly. We received about 4,000 cats last year,” the spokesperson said.
“We keep pretty ones for a few days sometimes and try to find them homes,” she added.
Peter the “vegetarian” cat
The Wain legend has it that his first and favorite cat was Peter, rescued as a kitten from a rainstorm by Louis and his wife Emma early in her terminal illness, as depicted in The Electrical Life of Louis Wain.
Reality is that Wain had always been fond of cats, knew Peter’s presumed grandfather Lear, who was buried with an engraved tombstone in the Wains’ garden, and Peter’s mother Cordelia was also a household favorite, noted for her gentle disposition, as Louis Wain himself recounted in an 1892 biography of Peter.
Louis Wain himself is not known to have ever been a vegetarian, but wrote that, “In the manner of eating and drinking, Peter was inclined to vegetarianism, being fond of beet root and cabbage; but he soon took to carnivorous habits, always liking his food to be divided into three portions, consisting of greens, potatoes, and meat.”
Peter, Louis Wain’s first feline model for drawings, lived to age 15.
“Can’t help being skeptical”
Other anecdotes published during Louis Wain’s lifetime largely confirm the portrait offered in The Electrical Life of Louis Wain.
Noted the Chester Times in 1895, “Louis Wain the English artist whose pictures of cats and animal life are so delightfully fresh and irresistibly droll, is an assiduous taker of notes. He has a great trunk full of little slips of paper on which he has jotted down ideas as they crossed his mind. It is perhaps superfluous to say that he is a lover of cats of every kind and every size and color.”
Offered the Chicago News in 1899, “Louis Wain, the famous cat painter, professes to believe that a cat owned by a woman is the mirror of its mistress’ temperament. He says that if a cat who has been constantly with its mistress is suddenly removed from her society, the creature will show the characteristics madame has displayed. If she has been snappish, pussy will scratch. If she has been sulky, pussy will sulk too.
“If this were really true,” the Chicago News suggested, “it would pay a prospective husband to steal the cat of his lady love before taking the fatal matrimonial step. As the cat is about the most independent creature alive, one can’t help being skeptical of Mr. Wain’s theory.”
“The most benign dominion of cats”
The Louis Wain reputation for often meandering and unintelligible eccentricity was whetted in 1902 by a widely distributed wire service report that, “Louis Wain, the authority on cats, declares that the physical and nervous tissues of the cat, having felt the confinement of home life, the long period of cruelty practiced upon it having come to an end and practically all wild sense and the old instincts having been beaten out of it, the cat of the present day is left to construct a new life for itself and to adapt itself to its modern surroundings. It begins the new career mentally weak, but loving care and attention will strengthen its brain and in the future we may look forward to creatures grandly and beautifully made of great size and intelligence.
“The cat,” says Mr. Wain, “will then have given to it a power which many have not conceived possible––the power to produce its remarkable qualities among the wild animals of its own kind and through them gradually into the savage animals. Thus will begin the conquest and reclaiming of the whole brute creation from the natural savagery of nature to the most benign dominion of cats.”
How to discipline a cat
Said a 1912 wire service article “It isn’t a very nice task to punish pussy if you’re fond of her, but there are times when she must be chastised. This is how to do it, according to Louis Wain, the great authority on the fascinating feline.
“In the first place,” Wain supposedly said, “don’t actually strike the cat. A blow merely numbs it. And when the spine, which is its most sensitive part, is struck––particularly if the cat is old––it is likely to spring at the striker.
“When pussy does anything wrong, frighten the wrongdoer by striking a stick in the ground. A cat is most sensitive to sounds, and will connect this new noise with what it has done. It feels more intensely than most animals: hence its supposed savagery in cases. Cats are highly electrical, and it is very good to have one perch on one’s shoulder or knees.”
“The best illustrator of cats is Louis Wain”
As late as 1936, just before his disabling stroke and three years before his death, Wain quite lucidly wrote that, “I have tried for years to trace the origin of the longhaired or Persian cats, but I cannot find that they were known to antiquity; and even the records of later times only mention the short-haired.”
Concerning Louis Wain’s artistic stature, an anonymous syndicated article contended in 1901 that, “There are some beautiful paintings of cats at Munich, mainly by Dutch artists. But until Louis Wain made the subject his own, the cat was a negligible quantity in the English painter’s art.”
And offered the Sunday Globe of November 15, 1903, “The best illustrator of cats is Louis Wain, of England, whose cats seem so full of life, of wisdom, of dissipation, of boredom, of everything in the way of emotions that we humans enjoy or suffer.
“Mr. Wain lives in London a part of the year,” that item said, “but his home is down at Westgate-in-Kent, where he has several cats for intimate companions, whose every expression is studied with an intentness that shows later in the drawings that have given Wain international fame.”
I first saw Wain’s work in a high school art textbook. It was the famous “progression to madness” sequence, which showed the cat images becoming increasingly more colorful and abstract. The text was sniffy about Wain’s supposed decline in his artistic work. I didn’t get it. I adored the psychedelic cats; I thought they were very creative and fascinating! I still very much enjoy Wain’s work, and I thank you for this article–I’ve learned more about the man and his art than ever before.
Jamaka Petzak says
Fascinating, upsetting, and educational article. It’s very interesting to me that he was diagnosed with Asperger’s, as I’m also aspy and share some of Louis Wain’s interests and habits.
Thanking you both!