The Art of Louis Wain
26 November 2016 – 4 February 2017
Free to all
Exploring the life and work of the prolific Victorian illustrator and former Bethlem patient.
Born in 1860 in Clerkenwell, Louis Wain led a troubled life. Doctors encouraged his parents to delay his education until after he turned 10 because he had a cleft lip, and even after he did start school, he would often play truant. Instead he spent much of his childhood roaming the streets of London.
Following a short period working as an art teacher Wain left his job to support his mother and five sisters, who were struggling after the death of his father. He began working as a freelance illustrator, specialising in drawing animals and country scenes for journals.
At the age of 23 Wain married his sister's governess, Emily Richardson, 10 years his senior. Sadly she developed breast cancer soon after and died three years into their marriage. During her illness, Richardson sought comfort in their pet cat Peter, a stray they had rescued from the street. Wain began to draw sketches of him, which his wife suggested he had published.
After her death he continued to make sketches of the cat, later writing of Peter, 'To him, properly, belongs the foundation of my career, the developments of my initial efforts, and the establishing of my work'. As Wain's style evolved, the cats became anthropomorphic, playing musical instruments, serving tea, playing cards, fishing, smoking or enjoying a night at the opera. He would produce more than 100 illustrations of this kind in the years that followed. In 1898 and 1911 he was also chairman of the National Cat Club.
As he grew older Wain's behaviour became increasingly erratic, and in 1924 his sisters had him committed to a pauper ward of Springfield Mental Hospital in Tooting. When it was publicly revealed he was a patient there, figures as HG Wells and even the Prime Minister – who were admirers of his work – made appeals to have him moved to more comfortable surroundings.
Wain was transferred to the Bethlem Royal Hospital and then to Napsbury Hospital, where he would remain for the rest of his life. He continued drawing cats throughout this period, which he combined with bright colours, flowers and abstract patterns.
While it has often been claimed Wain suffered from schizophrenia, some contemporary researchers believe his behaviour seems more likely to indicate Asperger's syndrome. This exhibition explores the full oeuvre of his practice, drawing particular attention to the stereotypes that surround his creative work because of his mental health.