“He has made the cat his own,” HG Wells once said of Louis Wain. “English cats that do not look and live like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves.”
A hundred years ago Wain was a household name, his instantly recognisable drawings of anthropomorphic cats appearing in books, magazines and postcards.
The eccentric artist, who was eventually admitted to hospital for schizophrenia, continued to produce many drawings of gleeful and often outlandish creatures, and his body of work demonstrated the therapeutic and restorative effect that closeness with animals can have on a person’s mental health.
Now, Bethlem Royal hospital, the world’s oldest psychiatric hospital – most commonly known by its nickname “Bedlam” – is putting on a major exhibition exploring the life and work the artist who spent many of his days there.
Animal Therapy: the Cats of Louis Wain will go on display at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind in south-east London from December.
The exhibition will include works such as A Cricket Catastrophe, with anthropomorphised cats in a scene of great commotion, and Patent Cork Screws – an experimental, abstract sketch of cats as corkscrews.
Also featured will be Cats’ Christmas, Carol Singing Cats and Cats with Plum Pudding – which Wain painted directly on to mirrors as part of Christmas festivities at Bethlem, and which remained within the hospital when he left it in 1930.
Rebecca Raybone, registrar at Bethlem Museum of the Mind, said: “Louis Wain loved cats, and cat lovers loved Louis Wain.” The artist’s later life, she added, “can be viewed as a colourful, compelling argument for the possibilities of animal therapy and the enduring ability of animals to lift human spirits.
“I hope that the exhibition shows the influence of cats on Wain’s work, and how they are bound up with his personal life and artistic success.”
Colin Gale, the director of the Bethlem Museum of the Mind, said the exhibition brought together a carefully chosen selection of Wain’s work that had never been shown together and probably would not come together again.
“Visitors will be rewarded with a fascinating, vibrant and spirit-lifting show. Wain’s pictures made him a household name during his lifetime, and we hope to play our part in returning him to prominence,” Gale said.
The exhibition coincides with the release of an upcoming film about Wain starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy and Toby Jones, with a cameo from Nick Cave as HG Wells.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain follows Wain (Cumberbatch) from the late 1800s to the 1930s, as he seeks to unlock the “electrical” mysteries of the world. In so doing, Wain hopes to better understand his own life and the love he shared with his wife Emily Richardson (Foy).