How eccentric artist Louis Wain changed public perception of cats

The man who brought cats in from the cold! How eccentric Victorian artist changed public perception of felines from pest control to beloved household pets – as Benedict Cumberbatch is set to play him in new movie

  • Louis Wain was famous for the thousands of sketches and paintings of cats which he produced in his lifetime
  • Often seen with large eyes or human-like smiles, the depictions softened the hearts of many
  • The painter’s tragic story has been retold in upcoming film The Electrical Life of Louis Wain
  • It stars Benedict Cumberbatch at Wain and Claire Foy as his wife Emily, who died when Wain was just 26 

Whether they are curled up on a bed or enjoying the afternoon sun, cats certainly make the most of their cosy relationships with their human owners.

But if it wasn’t for a troubled English artist, 21st century Britons might view felines as the Victorians once did: irritating instruments of Vermin control.

Louis Wain became famous for the thousands of sketches and paintings of cats which he produced in his lifetime.

Often seen with large eyes or human-like smiles, the depictions softened the hearts of many.

Now, the tragic story of the life of the painter, who was imprisoned in an asylum after being plagued by mental illness, has been retold in new film The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, which stars Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role and Claire Foy as his wife Emily.

Narrated by Olivia Colman, the film – which is released in UK cinemas later this month – tells how, when Emily fell ill, the couple were comforted by their beloved pet cat Peter.

As the feline sat on Emily’s sickbed day after day, Wain would depict him on paper. These sketches went on to be published after Emily’s death and formed the springboard for the popularity of Wain’s later work.


Artist Louis Wain became famous for the thousands of sketches and paintings of cats which he produced in his lifetime. Now, the tragic story of the life of the painter, who was imprisoned in an asylum after being plagued by mental illness, has been retold in new film The Electrical Life of Louis Wain. Right: A 1906 Louis Wain postcard

Born in 1860, Wain’s father worked for a textile firm and his mother was French.

After studying at the West London school of Art, Wain became a freelance artist and specialised in the depiction of animals and country scenes.

Wain’s wife Emily, whom he married in 1883, had worked as a governess to his five sisters. The couple adopted Peter, who had been a stray, when they discovered him meowing in the rain.

However, Emily fell ill soon after she and Wain married. Despite the tragedy that was to come, it was the close bond that the couple developed with Peter that transformed Wain’s career.

Before her death in 1887, Emily encouraged Wain to have his sketches of Peter published. Although they did not appear in print until after her death, they ultimately proved enormously popular.

Wain later wrote of his pet, ‘To him, properly, belongs the foundation of my career, the developments of my initial efforts, and the establishing of my work.’

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain stars Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role and Claire Foy as his wife Emily


Narrated by Olivia Colman, the film – which is released in UK cinemas later this month – tells how, when Emily fell ill, the couple were comforted by their beloved pet cat Peter. As the feline sat on Emily’s sickbed day after day, Wain would depict him on paper. These sketches went on to be published after Emily’s death and formed the springboard for the popularity of Wain’s later work

The development which clinched his lasting fame as an illustrator was when he gave his cats human features and depicted them wearing clothes.

Published in the hugely popular Illustrated London News in 1890, the cats were seen sporting monocles, dancing and even smoking cigars.

Wain also became president of the National Cat Club and created the world’s first animated cartoon cat, which was called Pussyfoot.

Writing in his biography of Wain, author Rodney Dale said: ‘It is not, I think, too far-fetched to speculate that Louis Wain’s having met Peter changed the course of domestic history. 

‘Certainly, the attitude of the general public towards cats, and their feeling (or otherwise) for cats was greatly affected by Louis Wain’s work.’

Wain’s anthropomorphised depictions of cats proved hugely popular. Pictured: A World War One comic postcard published by Raphael Tuck & Sons, 1916

The development which clinched his lasting fame as an illustrator was when he gave his cats human features and depicted them wearing clothes

Wain expert Chris Beetles told Collectors Weekly that more than 1,000 postcards featuring the artist’s depictions were produced by 75 different publishers over 40 years. Above: One of the paintings which Wain produced when he was in hospital

He added: ‘Had Peter not found comfort on Emily’s sick-bed, he would not have made such a ready model for Louis Wain. And had he not received so much attention, he might well have not developed such a personality.’

But as well as doing much to change the popular view of cats via his pencil and paint brush, Wain also pushed for his contemporaries to treat felines better.

Wain wrote a letter in the Daily Mail in 1911 which called on people to treat animals, including cats, better

Writing a letter to the Daily Mail in 1911, he said: ‘The societies devoted to the cause of animal redemption have done and are doing great work towards the alleviation of suffering in the animal world; but there is more unnecessary suffering through sheer thoughtlessness than would be credited.

‘The number of people who allow their animals to become covered with vermin during hot weather or who neglect the very elementary duty attached to keeping pets, is large.

‘Every summer the newspapers are generous enough to give space to call attention to the cruelty of turning cats astray while the owners are away, and this is having a good effect.

‘But despite everything that is being done, and the help of the police, the parishes are doing nothing to aid the good work of the charities and the press.’

He added: ‘I trust that a few words of warning will not be thrown away upon the public, because an excuse is made for the rabid dog, but should a poor wretched cat run wild, that is put down to its savage nature, and the old prejudice will tend to undo the good that is being done by many cat societies.’

Earlier, in an 1897 edition of the newspaper, wrote a potted history the domestic feline in which he claimed that the ‘finest English cats come from the Midlands’.

Educating his Victorian readers, he said: ‘The English cat, despite the hard life that was usually his lot… has shown very sturdy quality, and does not degenerate as will a dog thrown upon his own resources in the streets.’

He predicted that one day, ‘the present day good qualities of the cat will develop until it has attained the status of the dog.

‘When this point has been reached, there can be little doubt that the cat will be found to be superior to the dog in qualities of gentleness and affection, and also in general intelligence.’

Whilst dog lovers would disagree with the last sentiment, Wain’s hope that cats would become adored household pets on a similar par with dogs has arguably come to pass.

Wain expert Chris Beetles told Collectors Weekly that more than 1,000 postcards featuring the artist’s depictions were produced by 75 different publishers over 40 years.

During the 1900s, Wain was producing more than 600 new designs each year and in his lifetime he illustrated more than 200 books.

However, despite the enormous popularity of his work, Wain struggled financially because he often sold his work without holding onto publishing rights.

It meant that he did not benefit from the prolific reproduction of his work and was in debt for much of his life.

His mental health took a turn for the worse when, due to a paper shortage in the First World War, he struggled to keep up his work rate.

With his depression getting worse and his behaviour becoming stranger Wain was admitted to London’s Springfield Hospital in 1924.

The Modern ‘Arry and ‘Arriet Gouache by Louis Wain.  During the 1900s, Wain was producing more than 600 new designs each year and in his lifetime he illustrated more than 200 books

The cat lover did much to persuade Britons that cats were good pets, rather than just tools for killing unwanted vermin. Above: One of Wain’s drawings 

An unperceived danger, drawing by Louis Wain from The Illustrated London News, volume 97, No 2691, November 15, 1890

The Acrobats by Louis Wain. The painter depicted cats in a way which Britons loved. However, despite the enormous popularity of his work, Wain struggled financially because he often sold his work without holding onto publishing rights

The Chairman, by Louis Wain. Wain expert Chris Beetles told Collectors Weekly that more than 1,000 postcards featuring the artist’s depictions were produced by 75 different publishers over 40 years

During the 1900s, Wain was producing more than 600 new designs each year and in his lifetime he illustrated more than 200 books. Above: A comic postcard produced by Wain during the First World War

This depiction, named ‘A Boat Ride’, shows to cats enjoying themselves on the water. It was the cats’ human-like actions and appearance which made them so popular

With the understanding of mental illness being primitive at the time, there is little way of knowing what Wain’s specific ailment was.

Remarkably, when the popular painter’s plight was discovered, a fund was set up to finance a move to a private room at Bethlem Royal Hospital.

The much-loved author HG Wells was one of those who appealed for people to donate money to help Wain. Wells later said warmly that the artist had ‘made the cat his own.

‘He invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world. English cats that do not look and life like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves.’

In 1930, Wain was moved again to Napsbury Hospital in Hertfordshire and he died there in 1939 aged 78.

The upcoming film about Wain’s life also stars Toby Jones, Andrea Riseborough, Aimee Lou Wood, Richard Ayoade, Taika Waititi, Nick Cave and Olivia Colman.

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