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While busy cataloguing mostly interesting rather than beautiful books this morning, I was delighted to come across a wee gem – an extended, illustrated essay on the life and work of the late Victorian illustrator, Louis Wain.

Afternoon at Home by Louis Wain

Afternoon at Home by Louis Wain, Design for a picture postcard published by Raphael Tuck & Sons Ltd in London, 1922. India ink, water and body colour.

To many these days Louis Wain may not be a familiar name but anyone lucky enough to remember the first few decades of the 20th century may recall being amused by his cat pictures, or have a vague recollection of the public appeals on Wain’s behalf as he ended his life in mental illness.

Wain’s most prolific period was between 1890, shortly after the death from cancer of his adored first wife Emily, and the outbreak of the first world war. During that period he illustrated many books and designed hundreds of picture postcards showing cats acting as humans or dressed in human clothes.  He drew other anthropomorphic animals as well, but it was his cats that enchanted the public and with which he made his name.

Acrobatic Cats by Louis Wain

Acrobatic Cats by Louis Wain. Drawing for illustration produced by Raphael Tuck & Sons Ltd, c 1905. India ink and water colours.

Wain was born in London in 1860, the son of a textile traveller originally from Leek in Staffordshire.  His artist bent probably derived from his mother, Felicia (nee Boiteux) who was of Angl0-French descent.  She worked as a textile designer and her father had been a freelance artist.  Wain enjoyed great successes with this illustrations but he was not as good at managing his money as he was at drawing cats and his life was marked by poverty as a well as tragedy and ill-health: he died of kidney failure in 1935 but the latter years of his life in particular were marred with mental decline and symptoms – including some loss of speech and paresis – suggestive of cerebral thombosis.

His cat drawings, always peppered with incisive wit, brought joy to thousands of people all over the world – some of whom “sent him specimens varying from one many thousands of years old taken from a Egyptian mummy’s tomb to the latest china monstrosity”.

The essay was originally written in the late 1940s by Brian Reade, Deputy Keeper of the Department of Prints and Drawings at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and intended to accompany an exhibition of a representative sample of reproductions of Wain’s works.  But that project never came to fruition and the essay was only published when the Victoria and Albert Museum held a Louis Wain exhibition in the early part of 1972.  The essay is illustrated with numerous examples of Wain’s cat illustrations, most of which are presented in lovely full colour tones.

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Louis Wain by Brian Reade, an extended essay published by the Victoria and Albert Museum, 1972

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This book (booklet? – it’s only 28 pages and comes in card covers) would make a fine and unusual Christmas present for any cat lover or admirer of Louis Wain’s work  – we only have one in stock but would love it to find an appreciative home.

Louis Wain’s Cats by Brian Reade can be purchased for £10 inc UK delivery from Wimbledon Rare and Collectible Books.

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