He was the cat’s meow.
One hundred years ago, Louis Wain transformed the humble feline from vermin-catching critter to beloved beast with his whimsical drawings of anthropomorphized cats. His cute kittens and cigar-chomping tabbies — sometimes done in black ink, sometimes in electric neons — threw snowballs at one another, played poker and drank brandy, and made all sorts of mischief. They appeared in books, magazines, newspapers and postcards all over Victorian England.
Now, a new movie, “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch, in select theaters now and streaming on Amazon Prime Video Friday, tells his story.
“He made the cat his own,” the science-fiction writer H.G. Wells once said. “He invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world. British cats that do not look and live like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves.”
Despite his wild popularity, Wain died in 1939 at the age of 79 nearly penniless and in a psychiatric hospital. By the mid-20th century, he was nearly all but forgotten.
“He was a kind of tragic hero in some ways,” David Luck, an archivist at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind, located in England’s Bethlem Royal Hospital, where Wain stayed for a time, told The Post. The museum has a new exhibition of his work opening Dec. 4, “Animal Therapy: The Cats of Louis Wain.”
“He was somebody who tried his best to live the life that he wanted to live and to create the work he wanted to create, and it took a real toll on him,” Luck said.
Born in 1860, Wain, shy and sensitive, was the eldest child of an English textile-trader father and French mother. When his father died in 1880, the 20-year-old Wain suddenly had to provide for his mother and five younger sisters.
A skilled draftsman — he sketched rapidly with a pencil in each hand — he began selling his nature and animal sketches to London newspapers.
When he was 23, he fell in love with his sisters’ governess, the feline-loving Emily Marie Richardson, and the two wed (courting much scandal, due to the bride’s inferior social standing) in 1884. Shortly after, Richardson was diagnosed with breast cancer, and Wain drew pictures of her kitten, Peter, to cheer her up.
“Peter was her constant companion,” Wain wrote in his diary. “His was the genius which gilded many a sorrowful hour and lightened many a burden.”
Richardson urged Wain to sell his charming cat drawings, and in 1886, the Illustrated London News commissioned a kitten-themed spread for its Christmas edition. It caused a sensation: Soon, Wain was dashing off cat drawings for books, newspapers, magazines, postcards and more.
Wain’s art hit at the right time.
“The Victorians were particularly keen on dogs, as they seemed to embody their values of loyalty, fidelity and trust,” said Jane Hamlett, professor at Royal Holloway, University of London. Whereas cats — often associated with witches and spinsters — “were seen as sly and sometimes viewed with suspicion.”
“The question of whether Wain helped to popularize the cat as a pet is also a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg problem,” historian Stephanie Howard-Smith told The Post. “The cat’s star was on the rise in Victorian Britain — the first cat show was held in London in 1871 … In 1872, the dog food manufacturer James Spratt filed a patent to manufacture cat biscuits. [Cats began to] appear in popular pet memoirs … and in family photographs.”
Yet despite such success, Wain struggled. His wife died in 1887. He channeled his grief into his art — which grew more colorful, more detailed, more surreal and abstract — but he never copyrighted his work and didn’t earn a penny off the numerous reproductions of his illustrations. He became increasingly paranoid and erratic, and in 1924, his family certified him insane.
A year later, a bookseller discovered him scribbling away in the pauper ward of the psychiatric hospital Springfield. Scandalized, the acquaintance started the Louis Wain Fund to help raise money to move the artist from dire Springfield to the more comfortable Bethlem (the word “bedlam” is derived from its nickname). Notable figures like H.G. Wells and even King George V drummed up support from fans.
Yet Wain’s last days weren’t tragic: Luck said that he had frequent visitors, and that the hospitals he stayed at provided him with art materials and even cats. He continued to make and sell commercial illustrations, which his sisters would pick up on their visits, in addition to painting his more experimental psychedelic cats.
In the past 10 years, his work has been rediscovered by London dealers, and his collectors include the musician Nick Cave and the artist Tracey Emin.
“His work is hallucinatory, paradisiacal, childlike, intense, kind, warm, ecstatic,” the artist David Tibet told The Post when asked about Wain’s appeal. “He saw cats in a way that no other artist had done before, or has since, and lived utterly in what he described as ‘Catland, sometimes called Pussydom’ — the perfect Paradise of Purrs, where cats go to play forever, in gorgeous colors.”