|Feature Articles: Famous Napsbury Residents
| A series of articles on famous Napsbury Hospital Residents
| Louis Wain
I wonder how many people are still living who worked at Napsbury Hospital
when Louis Wain was a patient. Several years ago I met a man whose memory
of his work and colleagues was very sharp. He talked a great deal about
Louis Wain who was on M.A. Ward, later Beech in the East Block
and who could become very angry if he did not like you or if you touched
his paintings and would put his paintings under his mattress for fear
of having them taken from him.
Louis William Wain was born on 5 August 1860 in Clerkenwell, London. Queen
Victoria had been our Sovereign for 23 years, the new railway companies
were establishing routes throughout Britain. Clipper ships still traded
across the oceans. Horse drawn coaches were in use and hydrogen filled
balloons were the inventions of men desiring to fly to the top of the
Louis Wains father had moved to London from Leek in Staffordshire
where he met Julie Felice Boiteux (Anglo-French) who attended the same
Roman Catholic church. They married in 1859. Later Louis was to have 5
sisters, two of whom became competent artists.
Louis attended Orchard Street Foundation School in Hackney and St Josephs
Academy, Kensington, a Roman Catholic Foundation. He had the misfortune
to be born with a hare-lip which may have given him feelings of guilt
and deep embarrassment. He had rather a spasmodic schooling, often playing
truant and wandering about London. The Victorian term a sickly child
was applied to him. At the age of 17 he attempted to become a musician
though no evidence of any success exists today. Louis next studied at
West London School of Art for three years and stayed on as a teacher.
He was also a keen sportsman specialising in fencing, athletics and boxing
- he was a pupil of the pugilist Jem Mace.
His father died in 1880 leaving him the only male among six females in
his family. Louis fell in love with his sisters governess, Emily
Richardson and they married in Hampstead when Louis was 24. Their happiness
was short lived, Emily was found to have cancer and was confined to bed.
They bought a black and white kitten and named him Peter. Louis would
sketch him in all postures to amuse Emily. She wanted him to show his
cat drawings to some editors to which some comments were - whoever
would want to see a picture of a cat.
The break he had been waiting for came in 1886 when he drew several kitten
illustrations for a childrens book. After this, Sir William Ingram,
Proprietor of the Illustrated London News, commissioned a narrative drawing
of a Kittens Christmas Party. It contained 200 cats,
took 11 days to complete and according to Wain brought him overnight
fame. Sadly Emily had little time to share her husbands sudden
fame. She died on 2nd January 1887.
At the peak of Wains work output, he was producing an average of
six hundred designs a year for postcards, annuals and publications such
as the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News and the Illustrated London
News for which he drew English country houses in fine detail.
He was a skilful draughtsman and thoroughly professional in his working
methods. Although ambidextrous, he usually drew left handed but he never
grasped the technique of calligraphy and found this something of a drawback.
Wains lifelong love of all animals led to him being invited to sit
on the governing council of Our Dumb Friends League and committee
member of the Society for the Protection of Cats. He was also active for
many years in running the National Cat Club acting as both Chairman and
His lack of business acumen led to a chronic cash crisis that became a
constant worry to him. He never thought about the copyright fees or royalties
he could have commanded. Wain tried to widen his reputation, sailing to
America to create work opportunities but returned when his mother died
in 1910. On his return he found himself as poor as when he had left. During
the First World War, outlets for his work diminished and the Wain family
began to fall into real poverty and debt. It is thought that around this
time, Louis mental health declined. His personality and behaviour
changed. He became hostile to his surviving sisters, knocking one of them
downstairs. Now he was unmanageable; his sisters could no longer cope.
Louis Wain was certified insane on 16th June 1924 and admitted to Springfield
Hospital, Tooting. Noted as a man of many eccentricities and quite fantastic
delusions, he was diagnosed as a schizophrenic. Appeals were set up. H.
G. Wells wrote:
"He invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world. English
cats that do not look like Louis Wains cats are ashamed of themselves."
The then Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald took a personal interest in the
entire Wain family. Wain was transferred to a private room at Bethlem
Had the hospital not closed briefly while being moved to new buildings,
Wain might have stayed there until his death but instead he was transferred
to Napsbury in 1930.
His final years were comparatively peaceful, his courteous manner returned
and, although extremely confused and deluded, he was still able to draw
(Louis Wain Continued from page 11) producing fanciful landscapes, all
sorts of patterns, flowers and of course his humanised cats.
Louis would freely draw cats for staff as well as for his many visitors.
Many of these Wain originals were passed down through the
families of those grateful recipients and have become much sought after
by collectors in modern times. All he ever asked for in return were oranges
or bananas, sweet biscuits and one of his favourite female attendants
always took him rock cakes.
Louis died on the 4 of July 1939. He was buried at St Marys Roman
Catholic Cemetery Kensal Green near to his father and sisters.
Peter the kitten proved inspirational to a man who found difficulty in
socialising and finding happiness but in return Louis brought a great
deal of pleasure to children and adults alike with his unique development
of visions of cats with human mannerisms.
Currently Louis Wains original paintings fetch between £800
- £6,000 while drawings cost between £400 - £2,000.
The cover picture "Afternoon at Home by Louis Wain is reproduced
by permission of the V&A