Valentine's Day greetings, a Victorian invention.
People in Victorian and Edwardian times were just as obsessed with cats as we are today. During this time, the general view of cats began to shift from necessary mouser to beloved family pet.
This Valentine’s Day is the perfect opportunity to showcase one of the most fascinating artists of that era, the era of the blossoming Valentine’s Day industry. So many greeting cards from this era are cat-themed, and there was no more prolific of a Victorian cat artist than a man named Louis Wain.
I have been fascinated with the life and art of Louis Wain since first learning about him many years ago on an episode of Antiques Roadshow. His story is both interesting and sad. A tale of a relatively disadvantaged man who came to be very famous and popular with his lovely drawings, only to go insane later in his life and spend his last years in an asylum. The progression of his insanity is clearly seen in his drawings, and is one of the most fascinating aspects of his story. Below, I offer a short synopsis of his life, as well as examples of his work that illustrate the progression of his mental illness through time.
I hope you find Mr. Wain just as fascinating as I do!
Louis Wain, circa 1905.
“He made the cat his own. He invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world. English cats that do not look and live like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves” — H. G. Wells
Louis Wain, the man of many cats.
Louis Wain was born in London to an English father and French mother in 1860. Because the standards of living were so different at that time, Wain’s childhood would seem outrageous to us today. His parents were advised to hold him back from starting school or tutoring until age 10 because he was born with a cleft lip (why?!). After he was finally sent to school, he was often truant and would just wander around London all day.
He finally found his calling when he was sent to the West London School of Art and excelled at illustration. He eventually became a teacher there, but left the position after some time to become a freelance artist.
Wain’s interest in animals was always present, and his art reflected that from his early days. He was commissioned by large estates for agricultural drawings and animal portraiture, a popular way for estate owners to show off their prized livestock for fairs and shows.
Many of Wain’s commissions came in the form of greeting cards. His drawings became more cat-focused and he hit his stride around the mid 1860s. He often anthropomorphized cats, featuring human-type themes, upright walking, and extremely expressive faces. During this era, Wain also published many books featuring his illustrations.
Wain never realized the full potential of his career, often selling his artwork outright instead of retaining royalty rights. He was plagued throughout his life with making bad financial decisions, unfortunately losing much of his money through bad investment advice. It was around this later period of his career that he began to develop signs of mental illness.
Louis Wain’s schizophrenia became fully realized when his sisters decided to commit him in 1924 for fear of his erratic and violent behavior. He had lived with them until that time, supporting the family with his artwork. During this first hospitalization, they committed him to the pauper’s ward at Springfield Mental Hospital in London. After a year, he was discovered to be there, and several famous figures, including H.G. Wells, and the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin stepped in to see that he was transferred to a more suitable hospital. It was at the Napsbury Hospital in Hertfordshire, to the north of London, that Wain’s illustrations began to reflect his increasing delusion. His drawings shifted from realistic interpretations to absolutely psychedelic. His final fifteen years were spent at Napsbury, surrounded by a small colony of cats, which no doubt served as his inspiration.
To learn more about Louis Wain, you can visit his Wikipedia page. There is also an upcoming movie about Louis Wain set to start filming this year. The movie will star Benedict Cumberbatch and The Crown's Claire Foy!
Below you will find a collection of illustrations from this fascinating man. Enjoy!
Founder and Creative Director
Bloom & Fleur Perfumes
Below, a small gallery of Louis Wain illustrations:
My personal favorite. ^
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