"Canine and Sublime"
A Chat with Louis Wain
by Roy Compton
(from THE IDLER, vol. 8, no. 48, 1896)
I wish to remark, by way of preface, that this is an upside-down interview.
By rights it should have begun with Mr. Louis Wain and finished at his
cats' tails; but when I reached aristocratic Westgate, a few days ago,
and found myself in the cosy drawing-room of Bendigo Lodge, replying to
the kindly welcome of Mr. Wain's mother and bright-eyed sisters, I learned
that Mr. Wain himself was still in London, and the hour of his return
was a matter of conjecture.
"I think, most probably, he will come down by the last train, go on
to Margate, and run in from there."
"Run in," I remarked, surprisedly.
Mrs. Wain smiled. " Yes, he generally does so when he has had a laborious
week; he finds the exercise does him good. So you must make yourself quite
at home till he comes."
It would be difficult, indeed, to single out a more pleasant method
of passing a couple of days than in Mr. Wain's cheery household at Bendigo
Lodge. All the circle are so talented that, as Mrs. Wain naively remarks,
"They have no time to be fashionable." She herself is the embodiment of
kindness, with which is mingled a knowledge (practical) of the world,
which has formed the nucleus of her son's success; it is to her he owes
his artistic genius. Few churches or cathedrals in England but have some
beautiful specimen of her work as a designer, for in that art she excels,
and some of the finest Turkey carpets are woven from designs executed
in the little triangular room through the windows of which you catch a
splendid glimpse of blue sea.
Whilst Mrs. Wain has been chatting, she has drawn a basket-chair up
to the fire, and it is in the ruddy glow of the blazing logs that I am
introduced to "Peter the Great," or "Good old Peter," as his master affectionately
calls him. He is a black and white cat, once distinctly handsome, but
the wear and tear of a public life have left their mark. He is of most
amiable disposition and undoubted sagacity, and during his thirteen years
of life has slowly, but surely, built up a name for the popular artist,
who is willing to admit that it was the study of "Peter," and tho portrayal
of his antics, that first brought him public success and favour. Now the
old cat dozes over the fire in peace--his every want attended to, his
every wish gratified--a king amongst cats. I wonder as I gaze at him,
with his eyes half-closed and his two fore-paws extended for warmth through
the bars of the fender, if he realises that he has done more good than
most human beings who are endowed not only with sense but brains; if in
the firelight he sees the faces of many a suffering little child whose
hours of pain have been shortened by the recital of his tricks and the
pictures of himself arranged in white cravat, dancing at a cat's tea party,
or gaily disporting himself upon a"see-saw." I feel inclined to wake him
up and whisper how, one cold winter's night, I met a party of five little
children, hatless and bootless, hurrying along from an East-end slum,
and encouragingly saying to the youngest, who was crying from cold and
hunger, "Come along, we'll get there soon." I followed them some distance
down the lighted street, till they paused in front of a barber's shop,
and I heard their voices change into a shout of merriment, for in the
window was a crumpled Christmas supplement, and Peter, in a frolicsome
mood, was represented entertaining at a large cat's tea party. Hunger,
cold, and misery were all dispelled. Who would not be a cat of Louis Wain's,
capable of creating ten minutes' sunshine in a childish heart?
By the side of Peter sat "Bigit," a sleek, orange-coloured Siamese cat,
with a strong penchant for poaching, which is gradually being eradicated
under Peter's judicial eye.
A beautiful long-haired tabby, Leo, condescended to walk round for me
with stately grace, and it struck me how curiously dignified all the versatile
artist's models were. They impressed you personally with the fact that
they were not common cats. Yon might admire them, but any attempt at familiarity
on your part would be instantly resented. Minna, another model, is a little
French cat, a veritable La Parisienne, not only in appearance but in morals.
And the circle closes with Rag-tag and Bobtail, two dogs who have already
won favorable criticism from the public.
The lunch-bell is ringing on the following day when Mr. Louis Wain himself
appears. Agile and erect in figure, he is too true an artist to have professional
affectations or conceits, and his manner is singularly unassuming and
simple. It is over the walnuts I ask him to tell me a little about his
"I seriously started my artistic life at nineteen, after some years'
training at the West London schools. Before that time I worked spasmodically
at music, authorship, and chemistry. Finally art prevailed. My mother
tells me that from my childhood I had always a great appreciation for
colouring, and used to amuse myself for hours grouping shaded leaves.
My school life was dilatory; sometimes I would play truant for three months
at a time, and my father would be unaware of the fact, till he received
a long letter from the schoolmaster on the duty of parents, at which he
would be greatly surprised, until half-way through the letter he learnt:--
'Your son has not been near school for three months !'
"And your object in staying away?"
"A curious one. I was intensely fond of reading American Indian stories.
The sagacity of the race, and their wonderful sight and keenness in following
trails, all appealed strongly to my imagination. I used to wander in the
parks studying nature, and visited all the docks and museums. I consider
that my boyish fancy did much towards my future artistic life, for it
taught me to use my powers of observation, and to concentrate my mind
on the details of nature which I should otherwise never have noticed."
"But at first cats were not your forte?"
"No; but I have always been intensely fond of dumb animals. At first,
like most men, I found it uphill work, and I had difficulty in obtaining
a footing. I started by making sketches for The Sporting and Dramatic
News at agricultural shows all over the country, and got a keen insight
into rural life. It was Peter who first suggested to my mind my fanciful
cat creations. I sat watching his antics one evening, and I did a small
study of kittens, which was accepted by the Lady's Pictorial. Then I trained
Peter like a child, and he became my principal model, and the pioneer
of my success. He has helped to wipe out, once and for all, the contempt
in which the cat has been held in this country, and raised its status
from the questionable care and affection of the old maid to a real and
permanent place in the home. I have myself found, as the result of many
years of inquiry and study, that all people who keep cats, and are in
the habit of nursing them, do not suffer from those petty little ailments
which all flesh is heir to, viz., nervous complaints of a minor sort.
Hysteria and rheumatism, too, are unknown, and all lovers of 'pussy' are
of the sweetest temperament. When a student at home, I have often myself
felt the benefit, after a long spell of mental effort, of my cats sitting
across my shoulders, or of half-an-hour's chat with my pet, Peter.' Our
English cats are slowly but surely developing into stronger types, which
have very little affinity with the uncertain and unstable creature of
the tiles and chimney-pots. With careful breeding the lank body and the
long nose disappear, the face becomes condensed, as it were, into a series
of circles, the expression develops artlessness, and the general temperament
of the animal is one of loving conceit. A marvelous change has also come
about in the quality of both long and short-haired varieties, since the
National Cat Club has taken such a strong hold on the public fancy."
"And your first big success, I remember, was the double-page of 'Cats'
in the Illustrated London News?"
"Yes. I suggested the idea to Sir William Ingram, to whose kindly interest
I owe the foundation of my success. He, in the first instance, had encouraged
me greatly by taking some of my sketches which showed promise but were
not sufficiently good to reproduce. I worked upon the 'Cats' picture eleven
days, and it contained one hundred and fifty cats with varying expressions."
"And then the tide turned?"
"Yes. It caught the public fancy, and I have since had orders from all
parts of the world."
"And your average work?"
"Is fourteen hours a day, but the moment I feel I am not doing justice
to my subject, I lay aside my brush, and write a humorous story, or study
"And how do you manage to accumulate so many humorous ideas?"
"I am always taking notes when engaged upon one sketch. I am also planning
my next subject. Cats are not my only speciality; birds afford really
a greater scope for expression and variety of ideas. Here is an owl,"
Mr. Wain remarks, handing me a sketch. "He was one of my models, and a
most jealous individual. There was a stuffed owl in the room he lived
in for which he entertained a desperate hatred, and one day he attacked
and scratched it pieces. The result was that he died suddenly from arsenical
poisoning. I will fetch you some of my notebooks and you can judge for
yourself of the variety of black-and-white work that I undertake."
Mr. Wain reappears with an armful of notebooks, and a block and a pencil
on which he promises to make me a special sketch of a cat for the benefit
of "THE IDLER." It is marvelous to note with what rapidity and ease he
"And do you think there is any future for the black-and-white man?"
I ask, as I watch him work.
"Yes, a brilliant one. At the present moment he is his own enemy, for
his tendency is to work in a groove instead of entering into the spirit
of the age, and being sensitive to all its crazes, advancements, prejudices,
and teachings. Personally, I work for every paper in turn for I find from
experience that if you work for one editor you get one class of ideas,
and if you constantly change, you avoid degeneracy. A man should never
allow his fancy to run away with his judgment. His sketches should be
the result of accurate insight into and appreciation of the variety of
characters he has to please; he should be a very mirror held up to the
nature amongst which he moves.
"The prices given for black-and-white today compare very favourably
with that of the last ten years, for then a drawing had to be accurately
finished in every detail before being accepted."
Whilst Mr. Wain is talking, the cats' ghosts have appeared, and I leave
in their good company.