Pam’s Pictorama Post: I have been working up to a big Louis Wain post for a few weeks since my trip to London. I alluded briefly to my Wain purchases in my posts London Fog, Chapter 1 and London Fog: Chapter 2, a trip that was toy poor but provided other buying opportunities, it also most notably broke a long held prejudice I secretly harbored against acquiring Louis Wain associated artifacts.
For those of you who aren’t in the know, Mr. Wain (1860-1939) is attributed with single-handedly introducing comic, anthropomorphic cat drawings into world-wide post-Victorian popularity. Started as drawings and sketches of their cat to entertain his ailing wife, who it seems was dying of breast cancer, these drawings quickly captured public imagination and catapulted him into a career that was almost exclusively devoted to cats. Over time the cats became more pop-eyed and decidedly more human, the humor more pointed, occasionally a bit dark. I have, in prior posts (most specifically Kitten Class), referred to some Victorian cats advertising that likely pre-dates and may have even informed him, but it would seem that it took Mr. Wain to launch the cat as comic subject into popular conscience. One article I read said that there was a time in Great Britain when virtually every home had a Louis Wain print – not unlike the prints of dogs playing poker of a later, American era.
Wain was hugely prolific – the same article claims that at the height of his career he was probably churning out more than 1,500 cat drawings annually. Given this, there certainly isn’t a dearth of Louis Wain art available today. Still, despite the vast number of prints, postcards, books, drawings and even sculptures, his work in every and any form fetches a huge premium, which explains one of the reasons I have been reticent to join the fray on the collecting front. However, I too have of course, always been entertained by them and have been tempted over time.
Also famously, Louis Wain eventually descends into insanity, but continues drawing, and his cats get quirkier and more abstract until they become a color psychedelic almost unidentifiable design. He is eventually institutionalized, but keeps producing drawings although I am unclear on the dissemination and publication of these.
I begin my Louis Wain odyssey with the purchase of this early print illustration I am sharing today. I purchased it on that dreadful snowy Friday morning I was spending near Leicester Square in a romantic mews I have always enjoyed. I was already realizing that the extreme weather was going to have a seriously negative impact on my limited free time in London however. I had a few hours before an afternoon meeting and I started with a print store I have spent many hours in over the years. My memory was that at one time, in contrast to the nice and pricey matted objects in trays upstairs, that there used to be boxes with scraps of old prints and even the occasional book, in the basement. If it was that store, or a similar one nearby that has gone out of business I am unsure. Regardless, the proprietor had made his way to work that morning, and when I discovered this item in the basement (sans boxes of lower end items) I decided to break the self-imposed Wain ban and reward the seller for his efforts to open his shop by purchasing this item.
This clipping, a page from a large publication, is identified as Christmas Number of the Sporting and Dramatic News, December 3, 1892. I am told that his break through illustration was sold as a Christmas drawing in 1884 and that it was two more years after that before he illustrated his first children’s book. This would put this illustration eight years after that first illustration sold, but before he achieves his later best known, more broadly comic style.
With the title, What’s This? and identified as L. Wain he perfectly captures the curiosity of these kitties eyeing this insect. He has signed the image itself and there is another mark I cannot make out which I assume is the engraver’s. I like the limited use of color which gives this a bit of warm and brings out the image. However, most of all, I like the little claws emerging on each of the kits! Cats #3 and #4 (in line, left to right) are emerging toward full blown Louis Wain style. All eyes are on that bug which is slated to be a snack for one of these fellers if he doesn’t skitter fast! For comparison, below is a later painting of a similar theme I snatched off the internet. Cats and bugs have legs as a subject.
The tale of my purchases, more about my antipathy toward buying Louis Wain memorabilia and other strange tributaries of this story to be continued in subsequent installments. Pictorama readers take note!