The Man Who Rarely Drew Mice

The illustration Mouse Club Rules seems to speak volumes about where the artist’s true affections lay; all the detail in the cat’s fur and his facial expression is revealing. It’s as if the cat has stumbled into the cartoon of some rollicking mice whose depictions merely hint at their counterparts found in nature. Of course it’s not surprising that the rodent takes a backseat to the feline when you think of the mouse club’s creator. Louis William Wain, born in 1860, was allegedly a bit of an eccentric; he had in fact been the president of Britain’s National Cat Club. Even credited with the transformation of the cat’s reputation from mouse-catcher to family companion, Wain at the turn of the twentieth century was celebrated as ‘The Man Who Drew Cats.’

Victorian and Edwardian England were mad for his slightly hysterical-looking felines; the majority of which appeared in books and magazines and on picture postcards, often anthropomorphized. Trained at the West London School of Art in the late 1870s, he drew and painted cats by the hundreds, setting their faces with dinner-plate eyes.

But by 1917 the demand for his work had precipitously declined; he was impoverished because of his naïveté in dealing with his publishers. His mental state had started to fray. He was diagnosed schizophrenic in 1924 and sent to the ‘pauper ward’ of a county institution. But he wasn’t completely forgotten, and soon afterward he was recognized as the cat artist man. A public appeal was launched, a foundation was set up to raise money so that he might have a room in a ‘private asylum.’ With his brushes and his paints he was transferred to the Bethlem Royal Hospital in Southwark, London. This is where the prominent footnote of his life began. In fact if you google Wain today you will see his name surfaces almost as often on psychology websites as on the ones for art. He became a textbook case for schizophrenia; his artwork indicted him.

Dr. Walter Maclay, a psychiatrist on staff at Bethlem Royal’s sister hospital Maudsley, had an interest in the creative works of mentally ill patients. In the 1930s he collected eight cat portraits that Wain had recently made. Maclay thought he saw in them schizophrenia’s story, a sequential view of a mind losing grip on reality. The doctor lined up the works from the most representational to the most abstract (an explosion of fireworks on paper, “wallpaper patterns” Wain called them). The compelling layout has been reproduced again and again, filling pages of psychology books to introduce the discussion about the progression of psychosis. Only, according to Wain’s biographer Rodney Dale, the paintings were not dated; Wain hadn’t necessarily painted them in the order in which the doctor had arranged them. Although the artist started experimenting with his ‘psychedelic’ felines after his institutionalization, he still painted cats ‘conventionally’ until his death in 1939.

Among Louis Wain’s ardent admirers was H.G. Wells who wrote, “[Wain] invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world. English cats that do not look like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves.”

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Sources: Chris Beetles Gallery; Mind Hacks, “The False Progression of Louis Wain”; Rodney Dale, Louis Wain: The Man Who Drew Cats, 1991; Outsider Art.

(Image: The Mouse Club Rules by Louis Wain, pencil, pen and black, watercolour and bodycolour, 
15¾ x 11¼ in., reproduced for non-commercial use only.)


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