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‘The Electric Life of Louis Wain’ inspired by a real painter of cats

By on November 4, 2021 0

He was the cat’s meow.

One hundred years ago, Louis Wain transformed the humble feline from a vermin catcher into a beloved beast with his whimsical drawings of anthropomorphized cats. Her cute kittens and cigar-eating kittens – sometimes done in black ink, sometimes with electric neon lights – were throwing snowballs at each other, playing poker and drinking brandy and doing all kinds of nonsense. They appeared in books, magazines, newspapers and postcards all over Victorian England.

Now a new film, “The Electric Life of Louis Wain,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch, in select theaters now and streaming on Amazon Prime Video Friday, tells its story.

“He made the cat his own,” science fiction writer HG Wells once said. “He invented a feline style, a feline society, a whole feline world. British cats who don’t look and live like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves.

Louis Wain made a name for himself with whimsical drawings of cats.

Despite his wild popularity, Wain died in 1939 at the age of 79, almost penniless and in a mental hospital. By the middle of the 20th century, it was almost forgotten.

“He was sort of a tragic hero in some ways,” David Luck, archivist at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind, located at Bethlem Royal Hospital in England, where Wain stayed for some time, told The Post. The museum opened a new exhibition of his work on December 4, “Animal Therapy: The Cats of Louis Wain”.

“He was someone who was doing his best to live the life he wanted to live and to create the work he wanted to create, and it cost him dearly,” Luck said.


Born in 1860, Wain, shy and sensitive, was the eldest of an English textile father and a French mother. When his father died in 1880, 20-year-old Wain suddenly had to provide for his mother and five younger sisters.

Louis Wain black and white photography
The real Louis Wain has been described as a “tragic hero”.
Corbis via Getty Images

A skilled draftsman – he drew quickly with a pencil in each hand – he began to sell his sketches of nature and animals to London newspapers.

At the age of 23, he fell in love with his sisters’ housekeeper, Emily Marie Richardson, who loved felines, and the two got married (courting a lot of scandal, due to the bride’s lower social status) in 1884. Soon after, Richardson was diagnosed with breast cancer, and Wain drew pictures of his kitten, Peter, to cheer him up.

“Peter was his constant companion,” Wain wrote in his diary. “He was the genius who gilded many painful hours and lightened many burdens.”

Richardson urged Wain to sell his charming cat drawings, and in 1886 the Illustrated London News commissioned a kitten-themed series for its Christmas edition. It caused a stir: soon, Wain was rushing to designs of cats for books, newspapers, magazines, postcards and more.

Wain’s art has struck at the right time.

“The Victorians especially loved dogs because they seemed to embody their values ​​of loyalty, loyalty and trust,” said Jane Hamlett, professor at Royal Holloway, University of London. While cats – often associated with witches and celibates – “were seen as devious and sometimes viewed with suspicion.”

Painting of cats by Louis Wain
The Victorians loved dogs, but Wain’s paintings helped advance the cause of cats as pets.

“Whether Wain helped popularize the cat as a pet is also a bit of a chicken or egg problem,” historian Stephanie Howard-Smith told The Post. “The cat star was booming in Victorian Britain – the first cat show was held in London in 1871… In 1872, dog food maker James Spratt filed for a patent to make cat biscuits . [Cats began to] appear in popular pet memoirs … and in family photographs.

Yet despite such success, Wain struggled. His wife died in 1887. He channeled his grief into his art – which became more colorful, more detailed, more surreal and abstract – but he never protected his work and did not earn a dime out of the many. reproductions of his illustrations. He became more and more paranoid and erratic, and in 1924 his family certified him insane.


A year later, a bookseller discovers him scribbling in the poor service at Springfield Psychiatric Hospital. Scandalized, acquaintance created the Louis Wain Fund to help raise funds to move the artist from Springfield to the more comfortable Bethlem (the word “bedlam” is derived from his nickname). Notable figures like HG Wells and even King George V have gained support from fans.

Still, Wain’s final days were not tragic: Luck said he had frequent visitors and that the hospitals he stayed in provided him with art supplies and even cats. He continued to make and sell commercial illustrations, which his sisters picked up when they visited, in addition to painting his more experimental psychedelic cats.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy in
Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Wain in “The Electric Life of Louis Wain,” which will be released on Friday.
© Amazon / Courtesy of Everett Collec

Over the past 10 years, his work has been rediscovered by London dealers and his collectors include musician Nick Cave and artist Tracey Emin.

“His work is hallucinatory, heavenly, childlike, intense, kind, warm, ecstatic,” artist David Tibet told The Post when asked about Wain’s call. “He saw cats in a way that no other artist had done before, or has since, and lived completely in what he described as” Catland, sometimes called Pussydom “- the perfect paradise purring, where cats will play forever, in beautiful colors. “


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