There are millions of cat lovers in the world. But Louis Wain was one, who changed people’s perception about cats through his cat illustrations at the beginning of the 20th Century. HG Wells, the science fiction writer, had this to say about him, “He had 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.”
Wain, who was born in 1860, became a household name for his drawings and illustrations. He graduated from the West London School of Art and later became a teacher there. He also did artwork for publications as a freelancer. But it was his cat illustrations that catapulted him to fame. However, this happened quite by chance.
As the story goes, Wain’s wife was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. Just to keep her in good humor, he started doing caricatures of his pet cat, Peter. Although these were not for publication, they elicited the interest of the Illustrated London News editors, who offered to print them. They commissioned him to create a cat drawing.
Wain created a drawing titled ‘A Kitten’s Christmas Party’ for this publication. It featured 150 cats and took him 11 days to complete. This was no ordinary drawing of cats but showed cats in human-like situations, such as riding bicycles, digging roads and even playing cricket! Once it was printed, it created a sensation.
Wain added to his feline fame by creating cat Christmas annuals and postcards. He went on to produce a political satirical cartoon that showed Winston Churchill as a cat. It did not offend the prime minister and was liked by the masses. Wain was soon given the sobriquet ‘the man who drew cats’. According to Rodney Dale, who wrote Wain’s biography, his cat illustrations had a very positive effect on people and changed their attitude and feelings towards them.
With such success, it would seem that Wain became wealthy. Alas, no. He was not only not able to profit from his success but also fell victim to mental health issues. He ended up in Springfield Hospital and his mental health deteriorated as he grew older. He eventually became insane and was admitted to pauper’s ward of the hospital in Tooting, South London. Certainly, a sad end to a brilliant cat illustrator, who transformed the image of these furry creatures in people’s minds.