‘Paw-some’ cat drawings by Louis Wain



January 18, 2022

I work in the V&A’s Department of Art, Architecture, Photography and Design, and it is full of cat lovers. Talk can quickly turn from photographs to felines, from paintings to pussycats. Stumbling across a single image of a cat in the collection is always a delight, but if you want a large quantity of kitties, then delve in to our boxes of illustrations by artist Louis Wain (1860 – 1939). Cats were Louis Wain’s main fascination and inspiration throughout most of his life as can be seen in the new film about him that opened in cinemas this month.

Louis Wain initially drew many different kinds of animals, but was inspired to concentrate on cats by making a close study of his own black and white cat, Peter the Great. According to Wain, Peter was the “principal model and the pioneer of my success”. The figure of Peter appears in several works we have in the collection from a series depicting a cat’s nine lives. In life number three a cat modelled on Peter is poisoned by bad milk. In the the final one of the series the cat has run out of lives and is in cat heaven, where there is an abundance of food and other comforts. These works are humorous, even though Wain, like many living in the 19th century, had a life marred by the early deaths of family members, including his wife after only a few years of marriage.

E.879-1972. Louis Wain. ‘3. Just got through a poisoning. 1. Too much preservative in the milk. 2. Results.’. The third design in a series of nine illustrating the nine lives of a cat, published on page 9 of ‘Lloyd’s Weekly News’ 16 July 1905. Pencil and Pen and ink.
E.880-1972. Louis Wain. ‘4. Nobody knows what happened. But something did happen. 1. Where shall I be in the morning? 2. Where indeed!’. The fourth design in a series of nine illustrating the nine lives of a cat, published on page 9 of ‘Lloyd’s Weekly News’ 23 July 1905. Pencil and Pen and ink.
E.881-1972. Louis Wain. ‘5. Everybody saw what happened. Shattered nerves. [no nerves left. – deleted]. Disaster.’. The fifth design in a series of nine illustrating the nine lives of a cat, published on page 9 of ‘Lloyd’s Weekly News’ 30 July 1905. Pencil and Pen and ink.
E.882-1972. Louis Wain ‘6. The sixth life ran its course unexpected into the seventh, & the cat was saved at the last moment.’. The sixth design in a series of nine illustrating the nine lives of a cat, published on page 9 of ‘Lloyd’s Weekly News’ 6 August 1905. Pencil and Pen and ink.
E.883-1972. Louis Wain ‘9. The end of the ninth life. the Cats paradise.’. The ninth design in a series of nine illustrating the nine lives of a cat, published on page 9 of ‘Lloyd’s Weekly News’ 27 August 1905. Pencil and Pen and ink.

The V&A has several works given by Sir William Ingram in 1914. Ingram ran the ‘The Illustrated London News’ and gave Wain regular illustration work for the paper from the mid 1880s. Louis Wain recalls Ingram, “… to whose kindly interest I owe the foundation of my success…”. These drawings show Wain’s skill at capturing the physicality of cats, their movements and features. Among them is A Kitten’s Christmas Party, which appeared in a December 1886 issue of the Illustrated London News and was sensationally popular, boosting Wain’s reputation and making his designs more desirable.

E.4184-1914. Louis Wain, ‘A Kitten’s Christmas Party’. Original drawings (11 on 1 sheet) for illustration in the ‘Illustrated London News’, p. 24, volume 89, Christmas Number, 1886. On reverse: sketch of kittens. Pencil and wash.

By the late 1880s, Wain had begun to anthropomorphise the cats, creating humorous scenes of felines in human clothes or participating in activities like building sand castles at the beach. This became his recognisable style, and made cats seem friendly and sympathetic.

E.19-1962. ‘My Friend the Prince’. Drawing for an illustration, showing a group of ‘cat people’ being introduced on a country road. Drawing by Louis Wain, produced for Raphael Tuck & Sons, Ltd., ca.1900-10.
E.29-1962. ‘Seaside Joys’. Design for a picture postcard, showing kittens playing on a beach. Drawing by Louis Waint, produced for Raphael Tuck & Sons, Ltd., ca.1900-1910.

At this time cats were becoming more accepted as pampered pets, rather than just as useful rodent killers. Louis Wain was chairman of the National Cat Club who celebrated different breeds of cats through competitions and shows.

E.4185-1914. Louis Wain, ‘Kitten Life at the Cat Show’. Original drawing for illustration in the ‘Illustrtaed London News’, p.521, Volume 101, 1892. Pen and ink.
E.4249-1914. Louis Wain, ‘Three kittens preparing for exhibition’. original drawing for illustration. Watercolour.

As an artist, Louis Wain was both prolific and popular. By 1900 he would turn out many hundred works a year for a variety of projects, including illustrations for story books, note paper, posts cards and colouring books.

E.33-1962. ‘By Road & Rail in Catland with Louis Wain’. A design for a book cover, showing a car-load of cats, and in the background cats travelling by train. Drawing by Louis Wain, produced for Raphael Tuck & Sons, Ltd., ca.1905.
E.21-1962. ‘Love at first sight’. Design a picture postcard showing three Japanese ‘cat people’. Drawing by Louis Wain, produced for Raphael Tuck & Sons, Ltd., ca.1900-1910.
E.30-1962. Design for a heading for children’s writing-paper, showing three black cats in the snow. Drawing by Louis Wain, produced for Raphael Tuck & Sons, Ltd., ca.1920.
E.32-1962. ‘The Holiday Train’. Design for a book cover, showing cats and kittens catching a train to the seaside. Drawing by Louis Wain, produced for Raphael Tuck & Sons, Ltd., ca.1900-1910.

Despite this apparent success Louis Wain never made his fortune and was often short of money. He would sometimes give away the proceeds from his works to charities set up to help stray cats.

Wain’s life became more unfortunate as his mental health began to suffer, and he was committed to an asylum in 1924. He remained hospitalised until his death in 1939, but continued to draw cats throughout this period. Links have been made between Wain’s more outlandishly coloured and patterned works and this later mentally unsettled period of his life, but with many of his drawings undated this assumption has been questioned, and remains inconclusive.

E.23-1962. ‘Funiculi Funicula’. Drawing by Louis Wain for an illustration, or a design for a picture postcard, showing a tabby cat playing a banjo. Produced for Raphael Tuck & Sons, Ltd., ca.1920.

Louis Wain spent his life fascinated with felines. As cat lovers from my department, and around the world, know: Louis Wain was right to recognise that cats are always a work of art.

P.S: Here is my cat helping me write this blog post.

Kirby – the real author of this blog?
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Love this blog & lovely to hear more about Louis Wain, thank you to you & to Kirby!

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