Louis Wain the man who drew … DOGS!
WITHOUT A DOUBT LOUIS WAIN was one of England’s most visible artists to straddle the Victorian-Edwardian era.
His anthropomorphic cats gaily strolled about the countryside, played golf and took their lessons with scholarly aplomb, but fans are often not aware that Wain had intended to make his living from drawing dogs.
Indeed some of Wain’s most sought pieces are the dog engravings from publications such as the Illustrated London News (ILN) of the late 1800s which are often rich with Wain illustrations.
Struggling for recognition in his early years, Wain worked up to 20-hour days in a bid to get himself in the leading rank of Press artists. Much of this time was spent creating a series of drawings of dog and agricultural shows for the editor of the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. He travelled all over the countryside as he covered these events and the work helped Wain develop his keen eye for animals.
At the age of 23 he fell out of favour with his family when he married Emily Richardson, 10 years his senior and his sisters’ governess, but the marriage was to only last three years before Emily’s death from cancer.
Whilst she was ill, Emily drew comfort from Peter, the Wain’s black and white cat. To amuse her, Louis taught the cat tricks such as wearing spectacles and pretending to read. He created extensive sketches of the cat, filling notebooks thus establishing the foundation of his work.
Peter can easily be recognised in much of Wain’s early published cat illustrations.
Wain’s first anthropomorphised cat was published in the Christmas issue of the Illustrated London News, entitled A Kittens’ Christmas Party. This large piece which took him two weeks to complete contained 150 cats illustrated playing games, making speeches and sending invitations. They were unclothed and remained on their four paws but in the ensuing years, Wain’s cats began to walk upright, wear exaggerated human facial expressions and contemporary clothing.
They performed all manner of duties and enjoyed leisure activities such as fishing, smoking, gambling, the opera and playing musical instruments. His dogs were now relegated to the service of his cats and are often seen used as draft animals, or in servitude.
A prolific artist, Wain would produce hundreds of illustrations in a year. The Louis Wain Annual was a continual bestseller and his designs adorned the popular postcards, books, newspapers and periodicals of the day.
Wain’s aversion to business resulted in many unpaid reproductions of his work being produced and he found himself constantly under the financial strain of providing for his mother and five unmarried sisters.
At the age of 30, Marie, the youngest Wain sibling, was admitted to an asylum after suffering terrible delusions. Wain’s own mental instability was becoming more evident as the person who had always been considered quite charming but odd, gradually became incomprehensible.
He too began to suffer from delusions.
Becoming hostile and suspicious towards his sisters, he claimed that the flickering of the cinema screen had robbed the electricity from their brains. Wain became increasingly violent and when his sisters could no longer cope with his behaviour he was finally committed to a pauper ward of the Springfield Mental Hospital.
A year later he was discovered there by a visiting bookseller who set up a fund on his behalf. More personal intervention from the likes of H.G. Wells and the Prime Minister of the day saw Wain transferred to the Bethlem Royal Hospital, then later to Napsbury Hospital near St Albans.
His delusions increased though his former gentle demeanour was also present at times and he continued to draw. A series of four of his drawings is commonly used as an example in psychology textbooks to illustrate how the change in his style mirrors his mental deterioration. However the works are not presented in the order they were created and therefore have little if anything to do with his worsening state of mind.
Louis Wain, the man who aspired to make a living illustrating dogs, but was instead made famous by his anthropomorphic cats, spent his final days almost entirely confined to his bed and died a month short of his 79th birthday.
Many Louis Wain postcards and illustrated books, similar to those mentioned in this article come up for sale here.
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