Heís not a Monet or a Renoir - and if youíre trolling through a bookstore this month and a new biography of him by Rodney Dale happens to catch your eye, you may even ask yourself, "Whoís that?" But to felines and feline fanciers, Louis Wain holds a special place. A hundred years ago, this unassuming illustrator helped change the publicís perception of cats. His work now fetches phenomenal prices of $20,000 and upwards on the collectorsí market.
Born in 1860 in a London suburb, the young Wain suffered from a harelip and was persecuted by schoolmates. Perhaps thatís what drew him to animals. He married his younger sisterís governess, which made the couple blissfully happy but earned their ostracism by his family. When his young wife became bedridden with cancer, he took to drawing pictures of their tuxedo cat to entertain her. She convinced him to submit one of his drawings, A Kittenís Christmas Party, to the Illustrated London News. Readers promptly flooded the paper with requests for his drawings. Still, some people ridiculed his work. "When I first took to painting cats," he said later, "they were despised animals. A man who took an interest in the cat movement was looked upon as effeminate."
Wainís love of felines grew to a passion following his wifeís death. People said his pictures brought the feline soul to life and cats soon began to replace dogs as the countryís number one pet, changing their lot in life forever. Outside the studio, he was a notable in the National Cat Club and he supported numerous new cat charities and shelters. But the loss of his wife had affected him, too, and his passion grew into obsession. Eventually, in 1924, he was certified insane and locked in an asylum. His mental decline can be glimpsed in his work. The early pictures that catapulted him to fame were naturalistic, capturing cats in everyday moments. Then came the fantasy prints, anthropomorphizing cats in a human guise. And his last artistic phase, gripped with madness, portrayed cats in a cartoonish kaleidoscope of colours.
Lost now in obscurity, the rescuer of cats was finally rescued himself by a group of his old admirers, including Princess Alexandra and H.G. Wells. They pooled their resources and arranged for him to go to a private hospital where he lived for the remainder of his life, drawing happily till the end. Louis Wainís love of animals is described best by a single incident that occurred in 1917. He was just boarding a rolling London bus when it swerved to avoid a cat. The artist was thrown onto the road, concussed. When he awoke in the hospital after the incident, his first utterance was, "The cat, the cat! Is the cat all right?"
Louis Wainís illustrations are regularly featured at Londonís Chris Beetles Gallery, which hosts an annual Louis Wain exhibition called the "Summer Cat Show." The year 2001 exhibition begins on August 18th and runs through September.