Victorian artist who elevate the cat to cult status exhibited in Willesden

A new exhibition of Louis Wain’s work is being staged at Willesden Green library

Our view of cats as adorable household pets owes much to the work of the Victorian artist Louis Wain.

Born in Clerkenwell, London, where he lived with his mother and five sisters, Wain’s images of felines playing the guitar, dancing at balls, and serving tea, won him legions of fans in Victorian Britain and elevated the humble cat to cult status.

The Brent Museum is launching a major new exhibition of the artist’s work which brings together pictures and sketches which have been held in a number of private and public collections, and seeks to shed light on the question: What do the cats of Louis Wain tell us about the artist?

The answer is far from simple.

Wain’s pictures of animals, and cats in particular, were the basis for his artistic career. He studied at the West London School of Art before becoming a teacher, and later turned to making sketches of animals and country houses which were published in magazines and newspapers.

However, it was not until after he married Emily Richardson, his sisters’ governess, that his preoccupation with cats in particular emerged in earnest.

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Just months after the couple wed Emily was struck ill with cancer. During her illness, Emily was comforted by her pet cat Peter, and Wain taught him tricks like wearing spectacles and pretending to read, to amuse her.

His cat Peter can be seen in many of his later pictures. Among them is A Kittens’ Christmas Party (1886), which depicts 150 anthropomorphised cats, playing games and sending invitations out.

However, his images of cats are not all as joyous, and some psychologists think his pictures betray traces of his own struggle with mental illness.

After suffering the death of his wife and financial difficulties Wain began to suffer from delusions and was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia.

For a number of years he behaved in erratic and paranoid manner, before he was finally committed in 1924 to a pauper ward of Springfield Mental Hospital in Tooting.

The cats he drew during this time are show against brightly coloured psychedelic patterned backdrops. Some claim this increased abstraction as symptomatic of Wain’s mental illness.

The exhibition includes work selected and supplied by Chris Beetles, St. James, London and loans from the Bethlem Art and History Collections Trust and The Wellcome Library.

The exhibition will be on display from May 5 until October 29 at Brent Museum, Willesden Green Library, High Road, Willesden. Entrance is free.