The false progression of Louis Wain

The five pictures are by Victorian artist Louis Wain who painted cats through the whole of his life and continued through periods of intense psychosis.

Almost every article on Wain uses them to demonstrate the progression of schizophrenia but the evidence for them being painted in chronological order is actually quite weak.

The five pictures are from an original series of eight which were collected by Dr Walter Maclay who was interested in the effect of mental illness on art.

However, the pictures were undated and, as Rodney Dale notes in his biography of Wain (Louis Wain: The Man Who Painted Cats; ISBN 1854790986), “with no evidence of the order of their progression, Maclay arranged them in a sequence which clearly demonstrated, he thought, the progressive deterioration of the artist’s mental abilities.”

In fact, his later works are for the most part conventional cat pictures in his normal style, with the occasional ‘psychedelic’ example produced at the same time – where he experimented with what he called ‘wallpaper patterns’.

However, the increasing abstraction over time is likely to be a myth. Wain’s biography again:

Assembling what little factual knowledge we have on Dr Maclay’s paintings, there is clear no justification for regarding them as more than samples of Louis Wain’s art at different times. 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. All of which is to say no more than that the eight paintings were done at different times, which could be said of eight paintings by any artist!

Link to Wikipedia page on Louis Wain.
Link to online gallery of Wain pictures.

15 thoughts on “The false progression of Louis Wain”

  1. Hi I am a collector of Louis Wain art and I have one of the worlds largest collection of his work which I have on display at my website. Below is an article I have written about his life and art. I have visited his grave and I must say its pretty derelict. I hope the local London council will eventually add some TLC to his grave.
    Louis Wain was born in London‚Äôs Clerkenwell district in 1860 and eventually became an artist, selling his sketches of dog shows to the Illustrated Sporting News.His father was a textile salesman and his mother designed carpets and church fabrics. A sickly child, he was educated at the Orchard Street Foundation, Hackney, and at St Joseph‚Äôs Academy, Kennington. He trained at the West London School of Art (1877-80), remaining there as an assistant teacher until 1882. From his father‚Äôs death in 1880, he had to support first his mother and his five younger sisters. He married his youngest sister’s governess, Emily Richardson, which was considered quite scandalous at the time.
    Louis William Wain studied at the West London School of Art, and began his career as an art journalist. However, it was for his pictures of cats that he eventually became famous. 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.From the 1880s until the outbreak of the First World War, the ‘Louis Wain cat’ was hugely popular. Appearing in prints, books, magazines, post-cards and annuals, Wain’s cats are to be found engaging in every form of human activity Рfrom playing cricket, digging up roads, and riding bicycles, to parading the latest fashions at Ascot and making pompous after-dinner speeches at the club.
    To entertain her on her sickbed, Wain started drawing their cat, Peter. Emily encouraged him to send these drawings to newspapers and magazines, and soon the Louis Wain cat was a household name, not only in Britain but also in America, where his comics and drawings of cats appeared in several newspapers.
    His wife died of cancer in 1887.
    Louis Wain was elected as President of the National Cat Club and wrote the book ‘In Animal Land with Louis Wain’ in 1904. However, he was not a good businessman, and in 1907 he was 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).
    After the death of his sister Caroline in 1917, he suffered a mental decline, becoming a schizophrenic, as his work clearly revealed. ‘His cats became frenzied and jagged, sometimes disappearing into kaleidoscopic shapes’ (Spalding). Wain continued drawing cats for newspapers and children’s books until he fell victim to his schizophrenia in 1917 at the age of 57 ( His sisters always believed it started when he fell off an Omnibus and hit his head ). Jagged lines of bright color began emanating from his feline subjects. The outlines of the cats became severe and spiky, and their outlines persisted well throughout the sketches, as if they were throwing off energy.
    Coupled with WWI and the public dwindling interest in cats, Wain soon fell into poverty and in June 1924, he was certified insane and committed to Springfield Hospital (the former Surrey County Asylum) at Tooting.
    When, in 1925, he was found in the pauper’s ward of Middlesex County Mental 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. After a campaign by admirers of his work, including the Prime Minister Ramsey Macdonald,King George & H.G.Wells the appeal reached twice the target sum in a month Рa sign of the public’s continuing affection Рand despite poverty and mental illness he retained for many years the position of President of the National Cat Club. A foundation was set up for him which enabled Wain to spend the last years of his life in comfort in private asylums in Southwark and Napsbury, where he continued to paint and draw his cats. The Hospital was at that time at St George’s Fields, Southwark.
    In 1930 Louis Wain was transferred to Napsbury Hospital , near St Albans . He continued drawing until near the end of his life, and exhibitions of his work were held in London in 1931 and 1937. He died at Napsbury on 4 July 1939. Louis wain is buried at St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery, Harrow Road, London NW10 5NU (Next to Kensal Green Cemetary) in the same buriel plot as his family. Alas, the plot is very neglected.
    Author: Paul Hussey November 2007.
    I am a collector of Louis Wain 1860-1939 Funny Cats and Dogs on Fine ArtPrints. My aim is to spread the name and humour of a great Cat,Dog and Animal Artist. If you would like to see some of his work please visit my hobby website. My collection totals 150+ Pictures which are on display at my website:
    **** *******

  2. I just wanted to thank you for posting this information about Louis Wain.
    I have admired his work for many years and marvelled at his creativity. The more I read about his life the more I have admiration for this man who seemed a very caring individual and was exploited and misunderstood by many.
    I too paint/draw cats, he has a special place in my heart.

  3. I loved the post by funnycats, it gave a greater insight to the life of the artist which is why I ended up here in the first place. The post compliments the original post and in fact is a better post all together

  4. I also think FunnyCats adds interest to this page; some facts are not quite correct but its OK: Many people still collect Louis Wain one time he was so collectible a great many fakes or work in the style of Wain was and still is around. As a commercial Illustrator he was in great demand through out his working life up to his ‘accident’. He is best known now for his Cats but he produced as much work again featuring other creature/subjects. Often completing 600+ commissions a year. Yes I am a dealer/collector but not doing this to plug my business.

  5. We have located the original pencil drawing of the Cat Snowball Fight. Do you know if this is the only one in existence?

  6. I recently became interested in Louis Wain after reading about Nick Cave owning two original pieces. I think that many of cats seem to be very pompus in their personification. Almost as though its his remark on the people around him. Hes got a sense of humour about his cats. I like that. He obviously is a talented painter and did wonderful things with color.

    1. I have a very old print of “the Cats Half Holiday” and would like to know more about it and it’s value and when Wain drew it. Can you help me out? The print is clear and pasted on a mat with the title The Cat’s Half Holiday embossed in the center bottom of mat.

  7. Two questions come to me from this post:

    1. Was the guy mentally ill? Answer is “yes”. Institutionalized, i.e. “certified”.

    2. Do the famous pictures represent a progession of his (more private) style? “Yes”, but only if they actually come in the sequence presented, and that can’t be verified.

    I like the idea of the progession –I can see it, true or untrue. Did Maclay know Wain, personally?

  8. I don’t think he was schizophrenic. I think his mind just opened from drawing those cats his whole life In balinese art, the gods and entities usually have big eyes. I’ve seen some pictures drawn by a sculptor that have some patterns like Wain’s. In bali, the people that practice their art whether it be dance , music, or sculpting usually develop spiritually from that work. I feel that when he hit his head it probably accelerated his spiritual development. Usually when chan masters became enlightened it was after a somewhat traumatic event or surprise. Honestly, considering that western science has no knowledge of spiritual realms or spiritual development in general, its of no question why they would think he’s schizophrenic.

    Another point is that cats were worshiped in egypt, so many its like he was worshiping cats in a way, leading to a fruition of his practice much like Balinese artists.


  9. The famous series you have reproduced were all executed in the last 6/7 years of the artists life at Napsbury hospital, I have spoken to relatives of nurses who looked after the artist, who can confirm this. Certainly they were arranged in sequence to suggest a decline into madness by Dr Maclay, however, although the fragmentation and fractal patterning isnt necessarily proof, I believe the visual changes in his art, and the expressions of his cat subjects do actually confirm that he was suffering from schizophrenia, as did his sister, and do in fact illustrate this decline, and that these changes he was experiencing in his perception, particularly in these last years, are reflected in his Art, and are therefore a direct result of his illness.

    Henry Boxer
    Henry Boxer Gallery, London

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