One Christmas, a patient in a psychiatric hospital was asked to help with the decorations, and he painted Jesus on a mirror, but no ordinary Jesus, this was Jesus as a cat, and the patient was Louis Wain.
Louis Wain was once exceptionally famous, but his fame has faded over time, and he is now almost as well known for suffering a mental health condition than for drawing lots of cats, but a new film about his life with Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role will give him and his work a new burst of attention.
So it is that the very hospital in South London where Wain was treated has put on an exhibition of his famous cat caricatures. There are cats on mirrors, cats playing cricket, cats playing golf, and lots of cats in almost precursors of 1960s psychedelic designs.
It’s the more abstract cats that were later, after his death, to be interpreted as evidence that Wain may have suffered from schizophrenia, although the post-mortem art analysis is today thought to be badly flawed. We will never be sure why he deteriorated to the point of ending up in a hospital, but his fame as an artist saw him “rescued”, as he had been sent to a paupers institution, but funds were raised and he was moved to Bethlem Hospital instead.
That’s when Bethlem Hospital was in Southwark, today it’s in South London, and that’s where the exhibition of his work has just opened.
A grand building, now the Museum of the Mind, is home to his collection, and a room has been filled with a choice selection, ranging from his very earliest landscapes through the animals for newspapers, and to his commercial cat caricatures.
Although he made his name with cat cartoons, he was in fact a very skilled artist in general, and earned his living as a professional newspaper artist focusing on animal sports reports – such as horse and dog racing – but it was his work on drawing cats that made him a celebrity.
Today the idea of animals being drawn as if carrying out human activities is routine, but at the time, it was a radical idea, and Wain was prolific in his output, producing as many as 200 drawings a year for around 30 years.
However, dominating the room are the mirror paintings, done while he was in the hospital. They dominate more for their size and abstract appearance compared to the smaller more commercial drawings and drop blasts of colour into the gallery. His commercial art looks almost conventional to modern eyes, as it’s a style that’s been much imitated by other artists, so his more surreal works are much more interesting to see, and they’re also much less often shown.
From the dreamscape cat looking not unlike an Indian god to the overwhelming textile effect backgrounds he often applied in later years, there’s a feast of colours to see.
As an exhibition, it’s a chance to reacquaint ourselves with the man who created the original creature caricatures, and a rare chance to see some of his later unpublished works.
There’s a bit of a theory that his hugely popular cat caricatures made the idea of the domestic cat more popular in homes, as while cats had been domesticated for the past couple of thousand years, they were never really household pets until about 150 years ago — when Wain was at the height of his popularity.
With a new film, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, coming out shortly he’s about to become a lot more popular once more.
The exhibition, Animal Therapy: The Cats of Louis Wain is at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind until 14th April 2022. Entry is free, and the museum is open Wed-Fri each week and the first/last Saturday of each month.
The easiest way to get there is by train to Eden Park station, and it’s about a 15-minute walk, or catch the 356 bus from outside the railway station.