Appealing to feline fanatics everywhere, two outstanding works by the great cat painter Louis Wain (1860-1939) come to auction this month. Both works have been in the same family’s collection since at least 1915 and have been unseen for over a century. They have expectations of £10,000-15,000 each as part of Lyon & Turnbull’s Modern Made auction in London on October 27.
Mirth at the sometimes-bizarre behaviour of the domesticated cat is not just the stuff of 21st-century social media. At the turn of the 20th century, the illustrations of Louis Wain were virtually inescapable. His world of anthropomorphised cats did much to normalise the ownership of cats as pets and was so popular that he wrote and illustrated more than 100 children’s books. His troubled life story – success, tragedy and failing mental health – was dramatized on the big screen in The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (2021), starring Benedict Cumberbatch.
Although Wain’s profile has recently been catapulted into popular culture, he has long been admired in the cat-collecting sphere. The works offered here are from the peak of this unique artist’s career and are amongst some of the finest examples to have appeared on the market for some years. Both were created around 1904 in pen, ink, watercolour, gouache and pencil on paper and board.
Philip Smith, Head of Sale, commented: “When it comes to cats, there really was no-one better than Wain, and he made the cat his own. These fine and charming works, full of humour and character, and unseen in public for 100 years, are some of the finest examples to come to the market.”
‘Hockey’ depicts a ferociously competitive cat hockey match with the viewer plunged into the thick of the action. It is one of Wain’s most recognisable and popular images, having been one of the most widely published postcards of 1904-05. To Be Let Unfurnished is another multi-subject picture: a plotline unfolds as some 18 felines, young and old, assemble outside a disused property.
Both pictures throng with the attention to detail and characterisation that made Wain a ‘national treasure’. When, later in life, the public discovered what had become of him (certified insane, he was committed to a pauper’s asylum in south London in 1924 and spent the final 15 years of his life in hospital) a fund was set up to raise money for him and his family. Ramsey MacDonald, the prime minister at the time, arranged pensions for Wain’s sisters while the artist, still painting and drawing cats, was able to move to more comfortable surroundings.