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How troubled artist Louis Wain accidentally invented the pet cat

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He doesn’t know – or cares – but this moggie lying on the windowsill enjoying the sun might not have been there without the help of a Victorian illustrator.

There are 12 million domestic cats in Britain today, but before Louis Wain’s designs gave them playful human characteristics, the nation would not give them room in a home.

How troubled artist Louis Wain, played by Benedict Cumberbatch in new movie the Electrical Life of Louis Wain, accidentally invented the pet cat
How troubled artist Louis Wain, played by Benedict Cumberbatch in new movie the Electrical Life of Louis Wain, accidentally invented the pet catCredit: Alamy
Wain's paintings changed our perception of cats forever, transforming them after he described his own beloved pet as
Wain’s paintings changed our perception of cats forever, transforming them after he described his own beloved pet as “a domestic god”Credit: Getty

In the new film The Electric Life of Louis Wain, Benedict Cumberbatch plays the main character, the talented but until recently almost forgotten artist who brought animals to life and planted in the minds of audiences the idea of โ€‹โ€‹owning a domestic cat.

The A-list actor said of his work with onscreen felines, โ€œYou can fall in love with them and treat them like a little baby. I love cats, actually. ‘they are amazing.

Wain’s paintings changed our perception of cats forever, transforming them after he described his own beloved pet as “a domestic god.”

Also starring Claire Foy as his wife, Emily Richardson, and Nick Cave as author HG Wells, the film tells the true and often tragic story of Wain’s life.

From the late Victorian era through Edwardian times and through to the 1930s, the film – narrated by Olivia Colman – covers her enormous success, her grief, her fame, and her descent into mental illness and poverty.

Benedict said of his character paintings: โ€œA lot of viewers, like me, will feel like they’ve seen his images before, but they can’t tell you where or who drew them. “

Long before Garfield, Felix or The Cat In The Hat, it was Wain’s portraits of brightly colored cats with large eyes that captured the imagination.

His designs, depicting adorable felines having fun doing human activities such as playing cricket or having tea, were a resounding success around the turn of the century.

The Edwardian public engulfed them and suddenly began to view cats as cute animals they could keep and love.

Cats in the Victorian and early Edwardian times were valued only for getting rid of rats and mice. They lived outdoors, wild, and their role certainly never warranted indulgent shots, fireside naps, or saucers of milk.

In fact, pampering them would have been considered quite strange. But avant-garde, Wain believed that keeping a kitten as a friend was good for the health of its owner.

The artist said he wanted to “erase, once and for all, the contempt in which the cat has been held in this country”.

Talented painter

And that’s what he did. Slowly the Edwardians, charmed by his playful sketches of playful kittens and endearing toms and tigers, began to reconsider them as perfect tame animals.

It was the start of a journey that would eventually propel them to become one of the UK’s most popular and beloved companions.

Born in 1860, Wain – an only son with five siblings – has always been a talented painter and a fan of cats.

After her father’s death in 1860, it was her marriage to the family’s housekeeper, Emily Richardson, that really put her love for animals at center stage.

Wain’s mother and sisters had disapproved of their nuptials and refused to attend the wedding.

But Benoรฎt said of the union: โ€œHe found someone who understood him, who validated and encouraged him and whose love sustained him.

“He was losing his mind in a world that did not understand”

“We all want to be loved and understood this way.”
Wain was already a talented and highly regarded artist, whose prints were used in newspapers before he could reproduce photographs.

In 1883, 23-year-old Wain and his new wife Emily welcomed Peter, a stray black and white kitten they found meowing outside their house.

Then tragically, just a few months after the young couple’s wedding, Emily found out she had breast cancer. It was little Peter who kept them going.

The couple loved their pet and trained them to wear glasses, play dead and hold a postcard in their paws. Wain began to draw their cat, for which he first used his phrase “the god of the house”.

From those doodles, writer HG Wells said, โ€œHe made the cat his own. He invented a style of cat, a society of cats, a whole world of cats. English cats who don’t look and live like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves.

In Wain's cartoon feline universe, felines were depicted living in society and doing exactly what humans did.
In Wain’s cartoon feline universe, felines were depicted living in society and doing exactly what humans did.Credit: Alamy
Louis Wain's work
Louis Wain’s workCredit: Alamy

In Wain’s cartoon Cats Universe, felines were depicted living in society and doing exactly what humans did.

They had personalities, wore the fashion of the time, went dancing, biked and swam in the sea.

These were mostly created while Wain was sitting in public places and stealthily drawing people around him,

Very often the drawings were there to make fun of the way people behave. He also did a few satirical political cartoons – Winston Churchill in a cat, for example – but it was all very sweet.

Defended by Emily, Wain’s great success came in 1886 when “A Kittens’ Christmas Party”, a large part of 150 of her humanoid cats and which took 11 days to create, appeared in a well-known London publication.

It was an instant hit with readers and Wain’s fame and reputation quickly grew, with audiences clamoring for more of his witty images.

Wain’s cats would dance, wear clothes, ride bikes

Tragically, days later, Emily passed away, leaving Wain widowed at just 26, but he continued to use their beloved cat Peter as his muse.

From 1880 until the outbreak of World War I, “Louis Wain cats” appeared everywhere – in prints, in books and magazines, as well as on tins and postcards.

He became president of the National Cat Club and used his platform to advocate for their welfare as families began to adopt them as pets. He also edited the magazine Our Cats.

Producing up to 600 prints and his bestseller Louis Wain’s Annuals – “a publication full of his drawings, poems and stories of cats” – his career was now one of the cat’s whiskers.

Yet behind the brush, the artist was struggling with his own life and he had started to lose his grip on his empire and his faculties.

Nick Cave as author HG Wells in the film
Nick Cave as author HG Wells in the filmCredit: Alamy

As the main breadwinner since the death of his father, who left to provide for his mother and siblings, Wain has found fame but not fortune through his work.

Lacking in business acumen, he did not copyright his images, meaning anyone could reproduce them and did so without paying him royalties.

Instead of riches, Wain found himself mired in debt. The death of her beloved cat Peter at the age of 15 in 1898 sparked further decline.

Long considered one of life’s eccentrics, Wain suffered from obsessive illusions and theories, including beliefs that cat fur generated electricity and that animals usually faced north due to magnetic forces. .

Benedict said: โ€œHe’s felt this thing all his life about electricity. Real electricity is love. It is the flow, it is the course that runs throughout his life.

After World War I Wain began to show signs of serious mental disorder, and in June 1924 and penniless, he was declared insane and interned in the poor ward of a psychiatric hospital in Surrey.

Images of ‘Psychedelic’ cats

Benoรฎt added: “Louis was losing his mind in a world that did not understand him, with no other support than an asylum for the poor to be locked up.”

He was discovered by a journalist a year later, and admirers of his work were shocked to learn about the fate of the famous feline artist.

With the money raised through an early version of a crowdfunding campaign, he was then moved to the posh Bethlem Hospital in Kent.

Donors included prominent actors and authors of the time, as well as Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald. Wain remained in secure hospitals, smearing his later critically acclaimed works with “psychedelic” cat images, until his death in July 1939.

Yet, as actress Claire points out, “Wain’s struggle with mental health takes over his life but doesn’t define him as a person.”

  • The Electric Life of Louis Wain (PG) hits theaters on January 1.
Benedict Cumberbatch in the new movie
Benedict Cumberbatch in the new movieCredit: Alamy
Official Tralier of The Electrical Life of Louis Wain with Benedict Cumberbatch

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