To enter the whimsical world of Louis Wain is to come face to face with a world dominated by cats... cats playing the piano, cats playing cricket or even cats drinking cups of tea. His anthropomorphic cat illustrations are completely wacky, charming, and delightfully entertaining.
We are pleased to be offering a collection of works by Louis Wain in our Modern and Contemporary Art auction on Tuesday 11 July (Lots 105-115). Here we take a look at the life and work of this eccentric artist.
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Lot 114: Louis Wain (British 1860-1939), ‘Cricket on the Village Green’, Watercolour, ink and gouache | Est. £1,500-2,000 (+ fees)
As a freelance artist Wain worked on illustrations usually of animals, countryside vistas and recording events such as country fairs for a number of journals including the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News and The Illustrated London News. It wasn’t until he and his wife Emily rehomed a stray cat, which they named Peter, did Wain’s obsession and repetitive depiction of cats start to consume his artistic output. Emily was diagnosed with breast cancer just three years after their marriage and Wain found comfort in entertaining Emily with funny illustrations of their darling Peter reading, smoking a cigar or doing the washing up.
During the late 19th century, cats were seen as pests and certainly not kept as pets by the British public as they are today. Wain’s contract with Illustrated London News in 1886 changed people’s perceptions. His first drawing of anthropomorphic cats was published in the Christmas issue and called A Kitten’s Christmas Party. The newspaper gave him the platform to fill the pages with illustrations of humanised cats which helped to change people’s perception of the curious and delightful cat which soon became a household favourite.
Lot 109: Louis Wain (British 1860-1939), ‘Cat at a Piano’, Watercolour and gouache | Est. £1,500-2,000 (+ fees)
Wain was chairman of the National Cat Club in 1898 and 1911, and supported animal charities including the Society for the Protection of Cats, actively supporting his feline companions, working to transform attitudes to the humble cat.
After the first World War, Wain’s style moved towards abstraction. This change in style may have been in response to his deteriorating mental health or perhaps his obsessive fascination with the discovery of electricity. He started experimenting with patterned designs using psychedelic colours. This series has become known as the Kaleidoscope Cats.
Lot 107: Louis Wain (British 1860-1939), ‘Black Cat’, Gouache heightened with white | Est. £2,500-3,500 (+ fees)
Traumatic episodes throughout Wain’s life were deeply influential on his personal struggles and artistic output. After many years of pressure - having to support his mother and five sisters after the death of his father; the death of his wife; and the First World War - questions have been raised over Wain’s mental health and the diagnosis he would have been prescribed today. From 1924 until his death in 1939 Wain lived his days committed within several mental institutions. The final location of which was situated in Hertfordshire, where he was surrounded by beautiful gardens and most importantly a colony of cats, his lifelong saviour and passion.
Lot 105: Louis Wain (British 1860-1939), ‘There is luck in odd numbers’, Gouache heightened with white | Est. £2,000-3,000 (+ fees)
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Tuesday 11 July 2023 | 1pm BST
Donnington Priory, Newbury, Berkshire RG14 2JE
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