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Ivor Gurney
Opal Whiteley
Louis Wain
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 world.
Louis Wain’s 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 children’s book. After this, Sir William Ingram, Proprietor of the Illustrated London News, commissioned a narrative drawing of a ‘Kitten’s 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 husband’s sudden fame. She died on 2nd January 1887.
At the peak of Wain’s 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.
Wain’s 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 President.
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 Wain’s 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 Royal Hospital.
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 and paint,
(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 Mary’s 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.
David Ansell.
Currently Louis Wain’s 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