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Louis Wain: his life, his art and his mental illness

  • Aidan McGennis (a1)

This year we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the death of that famous cat artist, Louis Wain. It is therefore appropriate to reflect briefly on his life, his art, and in particular the rather controversial nature of his mental illness.

Louis Wain was born in London in 1860, the eldest child of William, a textile traveller, and Felicia, a designer of carpets. Louis had five younger sisters. As a child he was regarded as physically weak, not starting school until the age of 10 where his academic performance was indifferent, and from which he played truant frequently. In 1877 he went to the West London School of Art, qualifying in 1880. His first job was that of an art teacher, but he needed to supplement his income from this job by doing freelance illustrations for magazines. Eventually he gave up art teaching and became a full-time illustrator, working initially with the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News.

In 1884 he married Emily Richardson, a governess in the Wain household and 10 years his senior. Their happy marriage ended two years later when Emily died of breast cancer. During her illness a stray black and white kitten joined the Wain household. The kitten was named Peter and he was a great comfort to Emily in her terminal illness. While Louis sat frequently by his wife's sick bed he began drawing Peter from every possible angle. This was the first time he showed any interest in drawing cats, as prior to that he had been a general illustrator.

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1.Wain, LA. Kitten's Christmas party. Illustrated London News. Number 1886: 24–5.
2.Murray, Parkes C. Bereavement. Br J Psychiatry 1985; 146: 11–7.
3.Dale, R. Louis Wain: the man who drew cats. 2nd Ed. London: O'Mara Books Ltd in association with Chris Beetles Ltd, 1991: 23.
4.Dale, K, ibid. 1991:80–1.
5.Boone, D. Picasso. London: Studio Editions, 1993: 46.
6.Dale, R, op cit. 1991: 120.
7.Wain, L. The doomed empire. Morning Post 1902: 15 October.
8.Birley, JLT, Brown, GW. Crises and life changes preceding the onset or relapse of acute schizophrenia: clinical aspects. Br J Psychiatry 1970; 116: 327–33.
9.Kolb, L. Modern Clinical Psychiatry. London: WB Saunders Company, 1977: 438.
10.Dworetzky, JP. Psychology. 4th Ed. New York: West Publishing Company, 1991: 496–7.
11.Wain, L. Schizophrenia thorough the eyes of a cat. Poster Published by “Living with schizophrenia” PO Box 913, Mundelein, IL 60060-9956, USA.
12.Allderidge, P. Cats!: An exhibition of the works of Louis Wain 1860-1939. London: Chris Beetles Limited, 1986: 810.
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Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine
  • ISSN: 0790-9667
  • EISSN: 2051-6967
  • URL: /core/journals/irish-journal-of-psychological-medicine
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