Louis Wain, illustrator of cats, lived for many years in Westgate on Sea. He was born in Clerkenwell in London on 5 August 1860, and by his own account, had a strange childhood. Born with a cleft lip, he was a sickly child and prone to wandering the streets and docks of London on his own. He was tormented by recurring dreams and nightmares.
In 1899 he wrote: “The days of my childhood were terrifying in the extreme. I seemed to live hundreds of years and to see thousands of mental pictures of extraordinary complexity, pictures that were so vivid that I can recall many of them in the present day.”
In 1882 his mother Julia hired Emily Richardson as governess to her youngest daughter. Louis and Emily, 10 years his senior, fell in love and, much against his widowed mother’s wishes, were married in January 1884.
Their marriage was short-lived. Emily died of cancer just three years after their wedding. Louis took it badly, withdrawing from the world with only Peter, his wife’s black and white cat, for company. Peter had been Emily’s companion and Louis had sat for many hours beside them, sketching the kitten to humour Emily. It was Emily’s suggestion that he send the sketches to the Illustrated London News that ultimately saw him get a job on the paper, one of the Victorian era’s most successful publications.
Louis proved to be a competent commercial artist drawing a wide variety of illustrations as needed. In 1886, the Illustrated London News’s owner Sir William Ingram, realising the originality of Louis’ feline sketches, suggested a two page spread of a cats’ Christmas party for the festive number. In barely any time at all Louis had produced a picture containing some 150 cats, each with its own expression and doing something different. The Louis Wain cat had arrived.
Julia and her daughters were only too aware of Louis’ growing fame as his work began to appear in magazines and newspapers. But they were still estranged. Sir William saw Louis as a sad and lonely figure and suggested a move to the quiet atmosphere of Westgate as a way of making a reunion. Owning several properties in the town, Sir William was able to offer them a house. Louis and family arrived in Westgate in 1894. By now, Julia and her daughters Caroline, Josephine, Marie, Claire and Felicie, increasingly needed Louis as head of the family and breadwinner.
They lived first at 16 Adrian Square, later moving around the corner to 7 Collingwood Terrace, which was absorbed into
Westgate Bay Avenue in 1946 and became number 23. The family lived there from 1895 to 1906. Their third move saw them take on 10 Collingwood Terrace (now 29 Westgate Bay Avenue) until they would return to London in 1917. Each property was named Bendigo and it is thought all were owned by Sir Willliam.
Louis’ years in Westgate would prove to be his most productive and celebrated. Often working 14 hours a day his popularity was universal. He became President of the National Cat Club, produced a number of Louis Wain cat annuals, drew cartoons for Randolph Hearst’s New York American and conceived the first animated cartoon cat called Pussyfoot. It was also the heyday of the picture postcard to which Wain contributed several series, including Raphael Tuck’s ‘Louis Wain’s Cats’.
His life in Westgate, where he would walk with his own cats on the beach at dusk and, with his sisters, enter
into Westgate’s late Victorian society, was a mixture of personal sadness and joy at the public’s acclaim. As the only male in the household, the girls were proud of their famous brother. Though disorganised and, at times, tyrannical, he escorted them to the assembly rooms and to tennis parties, all basking in his reflected glory.
His sister Marie’s deteriorating mental health had caused great concern for many years and she was eventually admitted to St Augustine’s Hospital at Chartham, near Canterbury, in 1901 after being certified insane. She would die there in 1913.
Louis’ own behaviour, not thought to be anything more than harmless eccentricity, was nonetheless strange. He would be seen dancing along the local promenade followed more leisurely by his cats. He would dance or run back to Adrian Square after journeys to London to see his publishers and he developed the peculiar habit of giving dancing demonstrations to his mother’s guests on the kitchen table. Others would be visited by Louis at their own homes and watch in incredulity as he took off his shoes to dance on their tables, often ignoring pleas to stop! As his fame spread, so he would be interviewed by visiting journalists. One from the Daily Express wrote that Louis was nothing like he expected him to be, describing Louis as ‘a quiet, rather sad-faced man with a singularly charming manner’. The article went on to say: ‘He loves cats and cats love him and he is often to be seen wandering about the beach at Westgate-On-Sea with his four cats quietly walking behind him. He is now busy preparing for the great ‘Cats meat dinner’ at which he will take the chair.’
Louis should have been rich - the more so after travelling to America in 1910 to talk about his art, give lectures on cats and, for a time, working on the New York Journal. He had no business acumen, publishers plagiarised his work, royalties were few and far between and after his mother died in 1910, life generally became more difficult. Louis and his surviving sisters began to pay their bills with paintings to a point where few households of note in the town were without a Louis Wain in the lounge. They endured more disappointment and embarrassment in Westgate until late 1917 when enemy activity and clamouring creditors finally proved too much, prompting a move back to Kilburn in north London.
By 1925 Louis was certified insane with schizophrenia and confined in a pauper’s asylum at Springfield Hospital, Tooting, the county asylum for Middlesex. His plight was discovered and science fiction writer H. G. Wells made a radio appeal to help raise money for his ongoing care.
As a result Louis was transferred to the Bethlem Royal Hospital in Southwark where he spent the next five years. He died at Napsbury Hospital on 4 June 1939, aged 78, after more years of penury and mental ill health. He is buried at Kensal Green Cemetery in north London.
In his more lucid moments he would continue to draw his beloved cats - and no doubt dream of his halcyon days dancing with them along the promenade at Westgate.