The extraordinary true story of eccentric British artist Louis Wain (Benedict Cumberbatch), whose playful, sometimes even psychedelic pictures helped to transform the public’s perception of cats forever. Moving from the late 1800s through to the 1930s, we follow the incredible adventures of this inspiring, unsung hero, as he seeks to unlock the “electrical” mysteries of the world and, in so doing, to better understand his own life and the profound love he shared with his wife Emily Richardson (Claire Foy).
|Starring||Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy, Andrea Riseborough, Toby Jones, Sharon Rooney, Aimee Lou Wood, Hayley Squires, Phoebe Nicholls, Adeel Akhtar, Asim Chaudhry, Richard Ayoade, Julian Barratt, Sophia di Martino, Taika Waititi, Nick Cave, Olivia Colman|
|Directed By||Will Sharpe|
The Life of Louis Wain
Louis Wain is known as a man who drew cats. A talented, ambidextrous artist, he was born in
1860 and by the turn of the century was a household name. His images of cats captivated the
hearts of a nation, the humble feline transformed by his hand from vermin — kept on
occasion as mouse-catchers — into a beloved household pet.
If ever a person did service to Britain’s fondness for felines, it was Wain. Images of the
‘Louis Wain Cat’, an anthropomorphised moggy invariably making mischief, filled the pages
of popular magazines, his artwork capturing the social history of his age with a whimsical
clarity, his cats tottering around the pages passing the port, recounting bawdy tales, or cycling
through country lanes. He made political comment, too. Today, even those unfamiliar with
his name will likely recognise his artwork.
The quirky intelligence that infused this work was a reflection of the man himself. He had
many interests, his quick-fire mind exploring the possibilities of electrical currents and
dreaming up potential patents “a jack of all trades”, laughs THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF
LOUIS WAIN’s leading man, Benedict Cumberbatch, “but a master of quite a few.”
He was certainly a masterful sketch artist and his work won many admirers. The author H.G.
Wells said in a 1927 radio broadcast, “He invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat
world. English cats that do not look like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves.”
And yet for all the popularity of his work, the fame that this afforded him, and the seemingly
carefree whimsy of his prolific output, Wain’s story is awash with tragedy as well as triumph.
After his father died, Wain became the breadwinner and head of a household that comprised
five sisters, Caroline, Josephine, Marie, Claire and Felicie, as well as his mother. With Louis
left as the solitary male, it fell upon Caroline to organise the household. On her urging, Wain
consented to the enrolment of a governess for his younger sisters.
When Wain was 23 years old, Emily Marie Richardson joined the Wain household as
governess and he soon fell in love. The feeling was mutual. Unfortunately, no one beyond the
couple themselves rejoiced at their union and her humble station as a tutor was deemed
entirely unsuitable for a gentleman of Louis’s standing.
And yet Wain and Emily chose love and the hope of happiness over convention. They moved
to Hampstead and for a while enjoyed a tranquil life, their only household companion a kitten
called Peter who crept into their garden and took up residency in their lives.
Their idyll was not to last. It was not long after their marriage in 1884 that Emily was
diagnosed with breast cancer. During Emily’s illness, Peter became an ever-more consistent
companion and comfort to her.
It was while spending his days with his ailing wife that Wain’s appreciation of Peter, and his
passion for cats, bit more deeply. This time spent in the company of their pet had a profound
effect upon Wain’s artistic calling.
When researching the artist’s writings, THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN co-
writer and director Will Sharpe came across numerous references to Peter. “Louis talked
about Peter as a great source of comfort during those difficult months when Emily was ill,”
“Being with Emily and hanging out with Peter, and drawing Peter, that seemed to make
things a little better for them both. You might wonder if that is partly why he so obsessively
drew cats. It was such a lifeline to have a cat around at that really critical time of his life.”
In one entry Wain wrote: “Peter was her constant companion. His was the genius which
gilded many a sorrowful hour and lightened many a burden.”
Though he brought the couple joy Peter could not lighten the couple’s greatest burden and in
January 1887, after just three years of marriage, Emily died. As the year wore on, Wain
directed his considerable energies into his illustration and by 1890 he began to draw cats in
human situations. He was well on his way to creating the ‘Louis Wain Cat.’
After populating the pages of popular magazines like the Illustrated London News over the
Christmas period, Wain’s cat illustrations turned him into a household name.
As his fame grew he reconciled with his family, though he could not apply the flair he
summoned in his artistic endeavours to the management of his business affairs. His
household was always struggling for money.
“Louis was famously very bad at handling money,” says Sharpe. “There are a lot of stories
about how he wouldn’t copyright his pictures and if he was low on money then sometimes he
would trade originals for things like shoes or haircuts.
“People also copied his work and there was a phase when he was dealing with a lot of
counterfeits which were taking money away from him. He was definitely a vulnerable
individual when it came to money.”
The family’s hardship quickened with the death of his eldest sister, Caroline, who succumbed
to the influenza epidemic gripping the nation in April 1917. This was a hammer blow. Wain
was deprived not only of a sister and the person most adept at bringing order to the frequent
chaos in his life, but also the stern hand that had guided the Wain household through its
financial and emotional turbulence.
It was around this time that Wain’s mental wellbeing — which operated in a perpetually
fragile state — began to deteriorate. Given his long-standing eccentricities, it is thought that
at first his family might not have paid too much heed.
But an ever-increasing series of strange outbursts, including violent eruptions, saw Wain
removed to a pauper ward at Springfield in Tooting, the Middlesex County Mental Asylum.
He was certified insane.
And yet, in another hour of need, cats once more came to ease to his burden. On a visit to
Springfield one day, a noted bookseller and publicist noticed a man drawing cats and
commented that he drew like Louis Wain.
“I am Louis Wain,” came the artist’s reply.
It was not long before this new acquaintance — flabbergasted that such a fate could have
befallen such an eminent figure — exerted his influence to help form the Louis Wain Fund
with the aim of raising enough proceeds to extricate Wain from his dire situation at
With support from notable men such as H. G. Wells and King George V himself, the fund
prospered and Wain was relocated to Bethlem. He would remain inside the walls of an
institution for the rest of his days, but his imagination and creativity could run free within the
confines of a far more amiable environment. He produced new works for exhibition before
eventually dying in 1939, a month before his 79th birthday.
His influence as an illustrator cannot be overstated. He proved adept at animal portraiture, at
humorous cartoons, sketches and paintings and he was a competent in other artistic fields.
Patterns became a preoccupation in his later life, giving Wain a surge of popularity in the
psychedelic age, and the fact remains that many people today would recognise a ‘Louis Wain
Cat’ if it were presented to them. His work has seeped into our cultural consciousness.
“You do realise how his influence has dripped through our culture through all these years,
even until now,” says Cumberbatch. “And the charm of that is long lasting.”
The actor recalls his own early connections to the artist. “I remember my sister who’s 18
years older than me; she had artwork on her walls, and it suddenly came back to me that I’d
had conversations with her about Louis Wain.
“His anthropomorphic drawings, paintings and illustrations of cats were both humorous and
politicised, they were whimsical and profound, and he had success across generations. Both
the young and old adored his work.
“Alongside all that he had this extraordinary personal life, and while we are not being too
prescriptive about his mental health issues near the end of his life, that also plays a part in
how we realise the character. He lived a really interesting life.”