Adventure

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

As a fan of cats and art (and Benedict Cumberbatch), I was so excited to hear about this movie. And it didn’t disappoint. Available on Amazon Prime, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain moves from the late 1800s through the 1930s, following the incredible adventures of the artist. Known as “a man who drew cats,” Louis Wain was a talented artist whose playful paintings and drawings captivated the hearts of a nation and helped transform the public’s perception of cats forever — from simple, outdoor mouse catchers into beloved household pets.

His images of anthropomorphized cats show them engaging in every form of human activity — riding bicycles, playing musical instruments, serving tea, playing cards, fishing and enjoying a night at the opera, just to name a few.

But for all the seemingly carefree whimsy of his artwork, Louis Wain’s story is also filled with tragedy. After the death of his father, Louis became the breadwinner and head of a household that consisted of five sisters and his mother. He began his career as an art journalist, drawing many different subjects.

At 23, he fell in love with and married his sisters’ governess, Emily Marie Richardson (played by Claire Foy), causing a scandal due to her humble station. After only three years of marriage, Emily died from breast cancer. During her illness, she was comforted by their pet cat, Peter, a stray black-and-white kitten they had rescued.

The time spent in Peter’s company had a profound effect on Wain’s artistic calling. He began to draw extensive sketches of Peter and directed his energies into his illustrations. In 1886 his first drawing of anthropomorphized cats was published in the Christmas issue of the Illustrated London News, titled “A Kitten’s Christmas Party,” depicting 150 cats, many resembling Peter, engaged in various activities.

©Chronicle; Pictorial Press | Alamy Stock Photo

Over the next 30 years, Wain was a prolific artist, often producing several hundred drawings a year. He was also involved with several animal charities and was active in the National Cat Club, even acting as president and chairman.

His mental well-being, which was always in a fragile state, began to deteriorate, and in 1924 he was certified insane and committed to a pauper’s ward at Springfield Hospital. After being rediscovered by a visitor, he was transferred to Bethlem Hospital after a campaign by admirers of his work — including H.G. Wells and even King George V.

While he remained inside the walls of an institution for the rest of his days, he drew and produced new works until shortly before his death in 1939.

For cat lovers, it’s easy to see why he was once a national treasure. And if ever a person did service to Britain’s fondness for felines, it was Louis Wain.

To celebrate the movie’s release, Bethlem Museum of the Mind in Kent, England, is placing dozens of Louis Wain’s works on display through April 14, 2022. To support the exhibition, the museum’s online shop is selling a range of Louis Wain books and merchandise. Visit museumofthemind.org.uk for more information.

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