Often held up as THE classic example of a schizophrenic artist, in recent decades there has come to be greater respect for the talents of Victorian-era illustrator of anthropomorphic cats, Louis Wain.
Wain’s famous felines were born of his efforts to amuse his wife as she was dying of breast cancer. Wain would draw their cat, Peter, with eyeglasses, pretending to read. This style was developed over the years and eventually Wain’s cats began to walk upright and wear contemporary clothes. They engaged in activities like smoking, fishing, playing musical instruments and having tea parties. It’s important to remember that at this time, cats were not widely kept as household pets, mostly they were kept around to eradicate vermin.
Wildly popular in Victorian England, for several years Wain’s drawings and postcards were all the rage, but eventually his popularity began to… well, wane. After being taken advantage of in several investment “opportunities,” Wain’s mental health deteriorated and he was interred at a mental hospital in the poverty ward. News of his circumstances were publicized by H.G. Wells, who organized the funds to move Wain into a nicer hospital with a colony of cats, along with Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald who personally intervened on Wain’s behalf.
In the final years of his life, Wain’s cats became more abstract and less whimsical. His once playful cats began to resemble fearsome, almost kaleidoscopic, Hindu deities. Many psychological textbooks feature drawings from various stages in the artist’s career to show the progression of Wain’s schizophrenia.
Beginning in the late 60s, Wain’s work came into fashion again and has become sought after by collectors. In 2009 Nick Cave, a Wain enthusiast since the late 70s, organized the first showing of Wain’s work outside of England when he exhibited his work as part of the All Tomorrow’s Parties concert series in Australia. Artist Tracy Emin and musician David Tibet are also prominent collectors of Wain’s work.
The Chris Beetle Gallery is a good source for buying an original Wain.