Waxing and Wain-ing, Part 1

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 a 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.

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Louis Wain painting not in Pams-Pictorama.com collection, card playing cats just for fun!

 

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.

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Louis Wain painting, not in Pams-Pictorama.com collection, spiders remained a theme!

 

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!

 

 

London Fog, Chapter 1

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Window at Marchpane

Pam’s Pictorama Post: I am perched in a cramped hotel room as I start this. Tucked under the eaves in a huge, ancient building that is a labyrinth of stairs and hallways – I have gotten lost twice, perhaps the only times I have ever gotten lost in a hotel in a life that has incorporated a fair amount of far flung travel. This establishment also has the virtue, so to speak, of having been the coldest hotel room I was ever walked into when I arrived. (I managed to get heat into the room eventually – evidently Wynton could not and was rumored to have slept in his hat.) London has been experiencing extraordinarily bad weather, unused to snow and generally at a time when they might be expecting winter to start to break toward snowdrops, crocuses and spring, it snowed daily since I arrived earlier this week. Although total accumulation never exceeded several inches London was pretty much in shut down mode.

Let me back up a bit – I came to London to raise interest in (and of course money for) the Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra – my primary purpose was a party hosted by an the British arm of an interested fraternal organization. If having an event in another country wasn’t difficult enough (it is) then the snow was the final kicker for this one. I readily admit that I was already a bit frayed when I arrived and, despite London being one of my favorite cities in the world, the city I know best outside of New York, and one where I even had the advantage of speaking the language, the event details were onerous, multiplying hourly with the weather. (We spent days looking for a piano for the venue – no one would deliver one in the snow – then briefly, we had three, finally one.) I was very grateful to have an extremely capable colleague here with me helping to manage it all. Still, when you are off your game you just are and I have been – I commenced by mangling a series of, expensive, tube cards (first de-magnatizing one by placing it near my phone, then jamming another in a machine when I should have just waved it, lost the damn thing about a million times once I realized it couldn’t be near any magnets, credit cards or near my phone) and even lost my trousers after hurriedly changing before our event.

The first two nights of the trip ran very late – the time difference was in out favor however and therefore 1:00 and 2:00 AM respectively were doable for this early-to-bed and early-to-rise Pictorama Pam. However, despite exhaustion, the morning after our event I rallied and rose early for the Bermondsey flea market.

Bermondsey is in South London and the trip required some planning to execute, especially in my somewhat ham handed and under-caffeinated mental state. When I got there I had a long, snowy, cold walk to the flea market site. Despite Google and the cheerful blue moving dot on the map, I was unable to locate the market. Freezing and dripping with snow, I finally broke down and wandered into a cafe and purchased coffee and a bagel. Turns out that the flea market should have been within sight of the cafe – it had not opened that day because of the weather. I curled up with my hot coffee and regrouped.

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Bermondsey Cafe

 

I texted my contact at the Bulgari Hotel to see if I could locate my trousers (a delightful birthday purchase I had no intention of losing) and no one could. I took off to the hotel to see if I could find them myself. This took me to Central London where I could execute that and treat myself to a trip to Leicester Square to see if any of my favorite haunts survived the past decade of my neglect.

Trousers retrieved and in hand, a half hour later I found myself in a mews close to Leicester Square where I was pleased to find that a favorite antiquarian children’s bookseller, Marchpane, is still in residence – although sadly closed due to the inclement weather. The print dealer across the news told me that they had been shut all week – people having trouble getting in from outside of Central London – the snow really piling up out of town.

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Wet plate image from Victorian photos at the National Portrait Gallery, I believe by Oscar Rejlander

 

I restored my frazzled peace of mind by visiting some old favorites at the National Gallery as well as a splendid Victorian photography exhibit at the Portrait Gallery and a small exhibit on the British Sufragette. Afterward, on a whim, I routed myself through increasing snow, back past the bookstore. Blissfully, it had opened! Things were looking up at last. A charming young woman with mesmerizing tiny crystals highlighting her face like 21st century beauty marks, bright blue eyebrows and hair, and a very fetching black hat. For contrast, she sported canary yellow trousers and a blue velvet jacket – a woman after my own heart. Over the next 40 minutes or so I learned that she is Natalie Kay Thatcher – illustrator, book seller and writer (NatalieKayThatcher.com).

 

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Natalie poses for me at Marchpane!

 

I explained my mission – rather specifically cat-themed children’s books – and my sodden disappointment at the failure of Bermondsey to materialize that morning. She was evidently not the least bit surprised that someone would be traveling to London trying to acquire antique toy cats and related items. We commiserated about my bad luck, discussed collecting and toys and soon were thick as thieves. She even invited me to peer into a box of toys in the basement of the store – oh bliss! She brought out a delightful large stuffed bunny which was tempting (he is definitely someone – he was wearing trousers and a vest) to see if I knew anything about him. Glorious bunny, but my mission was very much cat today. Nonetheless, I felt my feathers finally start to un-ruffle as we discussed under-appreciated juvenile series – she is researching some interesting sounding, obscure wartime children’s literature. Pam’s Pictorama came up and so did Waldo – and lo and behold – she had read Alias the Cat! Now my cat collection made much more sense and had context.

We shared some girl talk and she called a friend and former employer in Covent Garden who owns a store specializing in toy theaters. Until recently the store also sold some antique toys. He was unloading a shipment though and it wasn’t clear if he would be available later. Meanwhile Natalie also unearthed not one, but two very splendid Louis Wain books. They were, not surprisingly, quite dear. One in particular caught my attention. I decided I should not be impulsive and went off to eat my lunch around the corner and think about it. I had an appointment in another part of town at 3:00 and had to watch the time. I decided that Covent Garden could wait until later in the day and reluctantly I took my leave, back out into the snow, the siren song of the Louis Wain book taking up residence in my head.

Nearby I passed by a hole-in-the-wall tea shop where I had eaten many meals, and was amazed to still find it there. Ultimately I passed it up in favor of a café located where another favorite place had been, but definitely different, and less dodgy looking than the tea shop. I curled up with hot soup and lots of hot tea to warm myself up and take stock. Talking to Natalie about Kim and the kitties and my delightful life in Manhattan made me a bit homesick but, at least briefly, left me restored by finding a kindred spirit out in the far flung world.