Saturday, July 2, 2011

Exhibition: Louis Wain's cats at the Brent Museum

The Brent Museum in Willesdon Green (London) is currently running a wonderful exhibition of Louis Wain's cat illustrations. It's called 'Communicating through cats: The art and mind of Louis Wain', and is open until the 29th of October. I popped in on Monday to have a gander. It's being held in a fair-size room next to the main museum (which itself is situated inside Willesdon Green library). There are a reasonable number of Wain's illustrations and paintings spanning his career. They nicely illustrate his experimental approach to style in his work and there are well-balanced information boards about the work and Louis Wain throughout.

A cat in "gothic" style. Gouache by Louis Wain, 1925/1939.
Louis Wain was a celebrated illustrater and was famous for his depictions of cats in the latter part of the 19th and early 20th century. He started sketching cats at the sickbed of his wife to amuse her, inspired by their pet cat Peter. At first his sketches remained true to life but as his work progressed he began to anthropomorphise his subjects. It was these sketches of cats acting out human scenes that made Louis Wain's name. The first published drawing of anthropomorphised cats was A Kitten's Christmas Party in 1886. However, in this the cats are still on all fours and do not have the very human-like expressions that developed in his later work.

What Louis Wain is now most famous for is perhaps his mental illness and eventual incarceration in mental asylums. He continued to draw and paint his beloved cats in these asylums and in the '60s and '70s some of his more experimental images were used as proof of his mental decline.

A cat standing on its hind legs.

One of the things I liked most about the exhibition was the balanced way it dealt with these theories about Wain's cats and his mind. It pointed out that the series of illustrations used to prove this theory were not in fact dated and therefore it is inconclusive to use them as proof of mental disintergration over time.

A large collection of Louis Wain's art is normally held at the Bethlem Royal Hospital Archive and Museum. Whilst the exhibition is still on at the Brent Museum I highly recommend you go and see it. Especially if you love cats.


  1. His experimental images blow my mind.
    It's nice to hear that they're keeping a balanced stance on the whole thing, taking into account the lack of dating on them.

    1. Yes it was a well balanced exhibition. His later work is astounding but his earlier illustrations are also very funny and clever.

    2. And I was completely unaware of their existence until recently, so I'm so thankful to you for this post - it gave me more info on that first part of his work :) .