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Norwich Bulletin - 10/10/2010

A Cat's Best Friend

Louis William Wain, the London artist who devoted most of his life to feline welfare, is now a little recognized name in all but the cat fanciers world. He was born in 1860 as the only son out of six children in a textile trader's family. Wain began life with a handicap in that he was born with a cleft lip and was not allowed to go to school until he was ten years old. After being free for the long, he spent most of his school years playing hooking and wandering the streets of London.

He had a gift as an artist and was able to study at the West London School of Art and he eventually became a teacher there. At the age of 20, Wain was left to support the entire family when his father died. Besides his mother, his five sisters never married and all depended on him. Even though he was the family breadwinner, he quit his teaching position and became a freelance artist. In the beginning he worked for several journals and did illustrations of hunting dogs and portraits of wealthy aristocrat's canines.

But then he discovered cats. At the age of 23 Wain married his sister's governess, Emily Richardson, who was ten years his senior. Soon after their marriage Emily began to suffer from cancer. In the following three years, Wain discovered the subject that would define his career and lead to his pet project for all of his remaining years. Emily had a black and white cat named Peter, who she adored and derived great comfort from during her illness.

Wain taught Peter tricks such as pretending to read, or wearing glasses – anything to amuse his wife and bring her some laughter. Peter seemed to understand that this was needed by his dear mistress and went along with it all good naturedly. So Wain began making sketches of the family cat in different poses. Peter can be recognized in many of his early published works.

In fact, Peter is the reason we have so many wonderful works of art in the cat world. To quote Wain, “ To him (Peter) properly belongs the foundation of my career, the developments of my initial efforts, and the establishing on my work.” Emily died just three years after they were married, and Peter then became a comfort for Wain.

1886 Wain's first major illustration, A kittens' Christmas Party, was published in the Christmas issue of the London news. One hundred and fifty cats, (many happened to be black and white and looked like Peter), were playing games, sending out invitations, singing carols – all sorts of different scenes. But there was more to come as this work of art depicted cats as cats. His later works gave human components to the felines.

There were cats walking upright, smiling, laughing and wearing sophisticated contemporary clothing. They served tea, played instruments, went to the opera and fishing. He became popular on greeting cards, illustrating children's books and postcards. During this successful time in his career he became involved in his passion, cat rescue! He was a member of the Society for the Protection of Cats, the Anti-Vivisection Society as well as being president and chairman of the National Cat Club.

His goal was to wipe out the bias and contempt in which people viewed cats during that time in England. It was the turn of the 19th century and the artist had earned an international reputation.

But he always had money problems, despite his success because he was a quiet, unassuming and trusting – which led to him being duped several times out of money that was rightfully his. By 1924 he had retreated into a world of mental illness and his sister's could not longer care for him.

He was committed to a pauper ward of Springfield Mental Hospital, which was a shame given his previous stature and good works. He was found by a fan sheerly by accident and a plea was put out into the cat world and to important politicians, including the Prime Minister. Soon after that he was transferred to a pleasant hospital with a garden and colony of cats, and he spent fifteen years there in peace. He continued to draw his beloved cats.

Louis Wain died in his 80's, a man according to H.G.Wells "…made the cat his own. He invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world." A man who helped popularize the keeping of cats, even through his final days.

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