Artists find inspiration in many things. Vincent van Gogh loved the intense colours of the Provencal countryside, Paul Gaughin the exotic beauty of the South Sea Islands and Monet his beloved gardens which inspired his famous water lily paintings.

Louis Wain’s passion was cats.

The London-born artist produced tens of thousands of drawings and illustrations of cats in a variety of human poses and occupation. His caricatures gently poked fun at the absurdity of everyday life but his humour hid a lifelong struggle with mental illness.

At his height of his fame, Wain was one of the world’s most popular artists but tragically died alone in a mental hospital in 1939.

His unique talent would have gone undiscovered but for his wife’s encouragement.

The couple had received a kitten as a wedding gifts and, when his wife fell ill with cancer, Wain spent hours at her bedside sketching the cat as it played among the covers

Louis already worked as a newspaper artist and his dying wife suggested he show his boss the cat drawings.

His efforts were snubbed until several years later when the editor of the Illustrated London News discovered them gathering dust in a drawer.

He suggested that Wain draw a double-page illustration for s festive edition of the magazine showing a cats’ Christmas party. Wain responded with a picture containing more than 100 cats.

It might have seemed a Herculean task but Wain could draw with either hand with equal deftness and often amused his fellow workers by drawing with both at the same time.

The illustration was a huge success and he spent the next 15 years drawing up to 1,500 cats a year for newspapers and periodicals. Wain’s cats played across nursery walls of the world and appeared on postcards, posters and playing cards.

They played golf, drove cars and went fishing and reflected the various fads and fashions of their owners. When Europe went to war in 1914 the cats donned khaki and nursing uniforms.

The author H.G Wells said: ‘He made the cat his own. He invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world.  Any British cats that don’t look and live like Louis Wain cats should be ashamed of themselves.”

Louis won a place in the hearts of a nation of animal lovers and suddenly found himself regarded as a world authority on felines. He was elected President of the National Cat Club, attended jamborees and fetes and was often quoted on the subject.

His success spread to America where he was on the verge of pioneering the film cartoon about a character called Pussyfoot.

Pussyfoot was later acknowledged as an inspiration for Felix the Cat and several Walt Disney characters.

Unfortunately, Wain was hit by a bus and seriously hurt just before he could sign a film contract and spent several weeks in hospital.

It marked a turning point in the artist’s fortunes.

He had never recovered from death of his beloved wife Emily and a series of bad investments and bad luck – a ship transporting a container full of his china cats was torpedoed and sunk during the war – left him with little money.  His mental health began to unravel

Wain had always been a generous man lending freely and rarely quibbling over the cost of commissions. 

He didn’t want to trouble his friends with his problems and stopped visiting his old haunts to avoid them.

He became a recluse preferring the company of his 17 cats. His mental condition worsened and he was committed to Middlesex County Asylum suffering from schizophrenia.

Hardly anyone realised what had happened to the reclusive genius until a journalist recognised him during an unrelated visit.

A number of public figures including Prime Minister Ramsey McDonald and H.G Wells launched a public appeal and Wain was transferred to a hospital where he had a private room and could continue painting.  

His illness was mirrored in a series of cat paintings that become progressively more abstract as his grasp on reality loosened.

The colours became increasingly vivid, the images blurring and disintegrating into a vortex of kaleidoscopic patterns during the worst bouts of his illness. The paintings are today regarded one of the most important and graphic representations of mental illness recorded.

Louis Wain died in Bethlam Hospital in 1939.

If you happen visit his final resting place in St Mary’s Cemetery, Kensal Green, tread carefully. 

Local legend says that, for years, a cat was seen playing by the graveside of its master.

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