Posts Tagged 'Louis Wain'

Two Men and Eight Cats: Louis Wain, Walter Maclay and the Kaleidoscope Cats

In December, we were lucky to have Dr David O’Flynn, consultant psychiatrist at the Lambeth and Maudsley Hospitals and Chair of the Adamson Collection, to give a talk on the so-called “Kaleidoscope Cats”, about which we have blogged previously. An edited version of Dr O’Flynn’s talk is now up on the SLaM You Tube Channel, and can be watched below. It provides a fitting conclusion to our Louis Wain exhibition, which ends this week.

In his talk, Dr O’Flynn discussed the connections between Louis Wain and Dr Walter Maclay (1902 – 64). Maclay found the eight “kaleidoscope cat” paintings in a junk shop in Notting Hill and, in 1939, wrote to a friend about how fascinating they were. The doctor believed that the images fitted the contemporary understanding of psychotic deterioration: as Wain’s mental health declined, so he became less able to represent cats coherently.

However, as Dr O’Flynn recognises, the paintings are still beautiful. While Wain certainly had a breakdown, and his work did change – in many ways becoming more experimental – it is hard to describe the pictures as deteriorated. Indeed, the colourful nature of these detailed works perhaps renders them more artistic in some ways than much of Wain’s earlier, more illustrative work.

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Kaleidoscope Cats: A Clinical Perspective on Louis Wain

After more than a year’s absence from the museum, for exhibitions in Brent Museum and the Nicholson Art Gallery in Leek, the Louis Wain collection is back at Bethlem for a winter show, which opened earlier this month. Humorous and whimsical, or psychedelic, Wain’s cat images were much loved in the Victorian and Edwardian era, and remain so today. Wain was one of the last patients to be treated at Bethlem before the move to Beckenham. Certified insane in June 1924, Wain was transferred to Bethlem after a year in the Springfield Hospital in Tooting, following a newspaper appeal to “animal lovers and admirers” of his work. He stayed at Bethlem for five years, and moved to Napsbury Hospital in May 1930, as Bethlem was emptied prior to the move to Monks Orchard. As Wain settled in well at Napsbury, he remained there.

There has been much speculation over the years about the relationship of Wain’s art to his mental health, for the artist continued to paint and draw almost until his death, aged 78, in July 1939. In particular, the work of Drs Eric Guttman and Walter Maclay (whose interest in art has formed the basis of previous exhibitions) in the later 1930s encouraged efforts to arrange Wain’s pictures to form a supposed clinical progression, from conventional to psychedelic. There has also been much debate about how he might be retrospectively diagnosed: either following his certification at the age of 63, or earlier in life when, according to certain accounts, the artist was shy and eccentric.

Both of these ideas will be discussed in a free talk in the museum on Saturday 1 December, when consultant psychiatrist Dr David O’Flynn (Chair of the Adamson Collection) refutes many of the myths surrounding Louis Wain’s “Kaleidoscope Cat” series. The Adamson Collection, a remarkable collection of around 5,000 artworks, has recently been protected in a move to the Wellcome Library. Named after Edward Adamson, a trained artist who served as a medical orderly in the Second World War, the collection emerged from the art studio established by Adamson in the 1940s at Netherne Hospital.

As well as our regular opening hours, the museum will open on Saturday 1 and 8 December, from 11am – 5pm, for an extra opportunity to see the Louis Wain exhibition. Dr O’Flynn’s talk will take place at 2pm on 1 December, and the Archivist will talk about Wain’s later work and life at Bethlem at the same time on 8 December. The Bethlem Gallery’s Art Fair and the museum shop will also be open for Christmas shopping. For full details, visit our website.

 Louis Wain Christmas Cats

Louis Wain – Cats’ Christmas

Louis Wain in Leek

On the 4 September our Education Officer will be speaking at the Nicholson Gallery in Leek in connection with their current exhibition of the works of Louis Wain.

Wain was a hugely popular illustrator of the second half of the nineteenth century, known for his drawings of cats engaged in various, often humourous, activities. His cats were instantly reognisable by their distinctively shaped eyes and perky ears and appeared in a wide variety of places from annuals, postcards, posters and cards. It was even said that ‘it wasn’t Christmas until there was a Louis Wain Christmas card on the mantlepiece.’ Wain’s mental state deteriorated towards the end of his life and he spent his latter years in care, including a number of years in Bethlem Hospital.

The talk will explore the life of Louis Wain, and put his work in the context of the wider Bethlem art collection, from which the exhibition is drawn.

Further information and booking details can be found on the Art Gallery Website.

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A Sporting Chance 4

Cycling was a popular middle class pastime for both men and women in late nineteenth-century Europe. The year 1895, when Hospital chaplain Edward O’Donoghue discussed the topic in Under the Dome, falls at the beginning of what historians have called the “golden age” of cycling. O’Donoghue emphasised the sporting and recreational elements of the pursuit noting, in the whimsical tone he often adopted, that:

We number already several cyclists in the hospital, and no doubt in time we shall form a club under the title of the Bethlem Beagles, and hold a race meeting (under high patronage) in the gentlemen’s garden. It is quite possible that under such circumstances the turf might suffer considerably, but there is no reason why any human being should be run over or even scared, while so vast an array of windows commands a full view of the racing track.

While there is no evidence that the “Bethlem Beagles” ever genuinely existed, O’Donoghue’s words remind us of the interest in exercise, occupation and amusements in the Hospital. However, the chaplain might have baulked at the idea of Olympic cycling. In his own pursuit of the sport, he emphasised education, as well as exercise (he was a keen supporter of cultural and recreational pursuits, organising regular visits for parties of patients to museums, churches and other historical buildings). He concluded that:

I hear with envy and admiration of runs to Brighton and back, to Salisbury, or to Portsmouth in a day, for these are feats of strength and endurance worthy to be praised. … But at the same time I doubt if it is possible to enjoy the beauty of the country with a head bent over the handles and with the mind solely filled with the calculations of miles and hours. And I have a word to say about this riding from start to finish without a thought or a care for what is interesting or suggestive on the road. It is neglecting your education, I always fancy.

With cycling one of Britain’s most successful Olympic sports, it is probable that few have shared O’Donoghue’s concerns with “riding from start to finish” this summer!


Wain cats
Louis Wain cats cycling, 1896: Wellcome Library, London

[1]O’Donoghue, E. “Chaplain’s Column”, Under the Dome, vol. 4, no. 41 (June 1895), pp. 83-4

Louis Wain and the Summer Cat Show

While the Bethlem Louis Wain collection is out on loan, there is another opportunity to see some of his well-known cat illustrations at the Chris Beetles Gallery, from Saturday 20 August until 10 September.   This entertaining show has over 250 pictures, including great new works from Chris Beetles’ living artists – Lesley Fotherby, Susan Herbert, Lesley Anne Ivory – and a selection of contributions from Norman Thelwell, as well as the naughty cats of the great Ronald Searle. The exhibition can be viewed online, at the Chris Beetles website, as well as details of a new book on Louis Wain’s Cats.

Louis Wain (1860-1939) is one of the most well-known of Bethlem’s former patients (along with fellow artist Richard Dadd). The “Louis Wain Cat” was hugely popular from the 1880s until the outbreak of the First World War, although Wain continued to draw until near the end of his life, including while a patient in Bethlem and other hospitals. Wain was certified insane in June 1924, and committed to Springfield Hospital at Tooting. His admirers discovered him there in 1925 and started a campaign to move him, to which Prime Minister, Ramsay Macdonald, contributed. This resulted in Wain’s transfer to Bethlem Hospital, where he stayed until 1930 (when the Hospital moved site). Transferred to Napsbury Hospital, near St Albans, Wain remained there for the remainder of his life.

Louis Wain Image

And the Band Plays on, Chris Beetles Gallery (click image for details)

Communicating Through Cats: New Exhibition on Louis Wain

A new exhibition at Brent Museum on the art of Louis Wain has recently opened, displaying a number of items on loan from the Bethlem Archives & Museum. Wain’s cat paintings and drawings are widely known, and he remains one of the artists most frequently requested from the Bethlem Art Collection. Born in 1860, Wain was a household name from the 1880s until the outbreak of the first world war, his distinctive, usually brightly coloured, anthropomorphised cat paintings. Always known for being ‘eccentric’, Wain began to develop signs of serious mental disorder late in life, and was hospitalised in 1924. He was transferred to Bethlem in 1925 following a campaign by his supporters, and remained at Bethlem until the move to Beckenham in 1930. Wain continued to draw and paint until near the end of his life, and died in 1939 in Napsbury Hospital, near St Albans.

As the Brent Museum exhibition recognises, reactions to Wain’s art have shifted throughout the years, having been described as ‘charming’ and ‘humorous’ but also ‘psychotic’ and ‘disturbed’. Communicating Through Cats explores how the artist saw the world during a life troubled by tragedy and mental illness, and considers how different responses to his work reflected fashions of the time. In addition to works from the Bethlem Art Collection, the exhibition also includes loans from the Chris Beetles Gallery and the Wellcome Library. You can read about the installation of the exhibition on the Brent Museum Blog.

Exhibition open from 5 May – 29 October 2011, daily (closed Sundays) 10am – 4pm.

Brent Museum is free, and based in Willesden Green Library Centre, 95 High Road, Willesden, NW10 2SF. Nearest tube Willesden Green.

A free programme of adult events and family activities will be running alongside the exhibition, including a talk by Bethlem staff on the history of the Hospital and its Art Collection on Thursday 14 July. In addition, volunteers will be running lunch-time tours of the exhibition on the last Wednesday of every month, starting at 12pm.

Louis Wain A Cricket Catastrophe

Consulting the Collection: Bethlem Artists Past and Present

For over 150 years the Bethlem Hospital has collected art by its patients. The current exhibition at the Bethlem Gallery, which opened yesterday, 23 June, provides a showcase for the inspirational talents of service user artists. Eight artists delved into the Museum’s impressive archive in search of inspiring artwork and curiosities, responding to these exhibits in their own work. Past and present works are exhibited together in this exhibition, allowing artists to take us on a guided tour of their forerunners, offering us the visual delights of their creative consultation.

This unique perspective links mental health history to our present day lives – at any time, one in six people are affected by a mental health problem. The exhibition includes works by famous Bethlem patients of the past such as Richard Dadd (1817 – 1886), who spent twenty years in nineteenth century Bethlem, and Louis Wain (1860 – 1939), whose anthropomorphised cat paintings have been popular for over 100 years. Although these artists are well remembered, their work forms but a small proportion of the sizeable Bethlem art collection celebrated by the exhibition.

Exhibition includes artwork by David Beales, Stephanie Bates, Richard Dadd, John Exell, Jane Fradgley, Henry Hering, Imma Maddox, Sue Morgan, Marion Patrick, Cynthia Pell, Max Reeves, Maureen Scott, Julian Trevelyan, Louis Wain, and Scottie Wilson.

Open June 23 – July 16, Wednesday – Friday 11am – 6pm and Saturday 10 July 12 – 5pm

City of Towers_John Exell

John Exell – City of Towers (2010)