Collecting Articles and Features

Louis Wain and His Cats – Life & Pottery


Louis Wain CatIn June 2008, The Canterbury Auction Galleries realised a record price for a Louis Wain ceramic cat figurine. Estimated at a modest £1,500-£2,00 the 20th Century Amphora pottery figure created in a ‘Cubist’ manner designed by Louis Wain went on to sell for a staggering £8,200 hammer price.

One of the most prolific and highly successful artists of the 20th Century, Louis Wain is famous for his humorous pictures of cats. Today his paintings and illustrations are highly sought after with people prepared to pay into the thousands to own his original works. His images of cats can also be found on hundreds of postcards, within the pages of illustrated books and of course as extremely rare crazy cat pottery figures.

Born in London on 5th August 1860 to a French father and English mother, Wain was the only boy of six children. His youngest sister was sadly committed to a mental asylum at the tender age of just 30 years old – a fate that Louis Wain would also be endured to much later into his life. Born with a cleft ear, on doctor’s orders Wain was not allowed to attend school or by taught until he was at least ten years old. Eventually when Wain did start his schooling he would often truant and instead spend his time wandering the streets of London.

Louis Wain CatHe realised his passion for art at quite an early age and so enrolled at the West London School of art in 1877. When Wain completed the course he went onto teach at the same school for two years but at the age of 20 his father died and so Wain was left with the huge responsibility of looking after his mother and sisters.

Working as freelance artist, he began by drawing pictures of various country scenery and animals. He was then offered employment with the Illustrated London News where for four years he would draw large country houses, livestock and anything that was associated with agriculture. Wain soon found that he had a great skill for drawing animals, something that obviously came to the forefront when he began to illustrate the adorable cat pictures that we know him for today.

One of his sisters had a governess by the name of Emily Richardson and at the age of 23 Wain married her. Sadly the marriage did not last more than three years as Emily contracted cancer and passed away. However, during the time of her illness Wain would teach her pet cat Peter to do silly tricks such as wear human glasses and pretend to be reading a book. This kept Emily amused during her illness and kept Wain busy as he would sketch the cat’s antics.

This was the beginning of Wain’s huge talent for drawing anthropomorphic cats (human characteristics to non-human creatures) and in 1886 his first drawing was published in the Christmas issue of the Illustrated London News. This particular drawing showed 150 cats in total sending invitations, playing games and holding a ball and as a result projected him into the public eye, receiving huge recognition and success.

Louis WainSadly, his wife, Emily died in 1887 so did not see Wain at his most popular however he continued with his illustrations which began to take on another level. Initially Wain’s early illustrations were not like those attributed to his work today as the cats were not depicted in clothes and were still drawn on all fours.

Gradually though as Wain began to draw more cats they started to stand upright, have exaggerated facial expressions and worn human clothing. They also of course were always participating in human activities, such as playing cards, fishing or attending the opera.

In the following years Wain would produce as many as several hundred drawings a year. His illustrations appeared everywhere from magazines and journals to children’s books and postcards. However, he constantly suffered financial difficulty throughout his life as he continued to support his family. Another failure was that he had little or no business sense and would sell his pictures without retaining the rights.

It is believed that at this point he began to work with the idea of creating pottery three-dimensional cats, although most information is theory and very little is known how these ‘cubist’ cats came about. The Canterbury Auction Galleries informed me that they believe Wain took the idea for his pottery cats from the new Cubist movement which had been embraced by painters of the time such as Pablo Picasso. Initially he designed a set of nine small cats and an unknown amount of larger ones and initially used a factory by the name of Max Emmanuel to have them made. They were then shown at an exhibition in 1914, however the pottery cats were not received well in the UK but stores in America was interested and placed an order.  Sadly, the ship carrying the cats to the States was hit by a torpedo from a German U-boat and Wain’s entire investment was lost, thus he did not receive any money as the goods had not been delivered. Later a Czechoslovakia pottery company ‘Amphora’ placed the cats back into production but it is also unknown whether Wain himself sold the designs to ‘Amphora’ or whether it was the original pottery Max Emmanuel. However Louis Wain’s name does appear on the later geometric angular cat designs, so he must have been involved somewhere along the line.

Louis Wain Cubist Cat

Today these ceramic examples of Wain’s work are extremely hard to come by that when they do the prices soar. Although it is a record achievement for the one sold at Canterbury Auction Galleries recently, I am pretty sure that the cats will continue to increase in value as they are becoming few and far between.

You can also tell from the pottery Wain cats that although replicating the ‘Cubist’ movement they are also a little bizarre and off the wall. Now this could be due to the fact that Wain himself started to loose his mind with some saying he became schizophrenic. Gradually over the years he became incomprehensible and his personality started to change. Whereas before he had been mild mannered he was now becoming hostile and violent, especially towards his sisters. He started to wander the streets at night and spend many hours writing incoherently. By 1924 Louis Wain followed the fate of his youngest sister and was finally committed to a pauper ward at Springfield Mental Hospital. A year later the press discovered his whereabouts so he was moved to another hospital, however high powered people like H.G. Wells petitioned for this great artist to be moved to somewhere more luxurious and comfortable. The petition was successful and Wain was finally admitted to the Napsbury Hospital in Hertfordshire where he lived out the remaining years of his life sketching the cats that lived in the hospital grounds, before finally passing away in 1939.