Before Tom Kitten, before Felix the Cat, before Thomas ‘Tom’ Cat, Sylvester James Pussycat Sr, Top Cat and Fat Freddy’s Cat, there were the cats of Louis Wain.
The Wain cat came in a variety of breeds and colours: black and white, tabby, marmalade, white and blue (sky blue rather than Persian). But it always had the same disconcerting look in its wide, glassy eyes with the dilated pupils. It looked bombed out of its tiny mind.
The original Wain cat was a black-and-white kitten called Peter belonging to a young late-Victorian magazine illustrator and his sick wife. In 1884 the 24-year-old Louis Wain had married his sisters’ governess, Emily Richardson, only for his new wife to fall ill with breast cancer. To amuse the invalid her loving husband took to drawing sketches of Peter in comical poses, which she encouraged him to show to his editors. In December 1886 a commission duly came from Sir William Ingram, owner of the Illustrated London News, for a double-page drawing of ‘A Kittens’ Christmas Party’. Wain went to town, spending 11 days on a tour de force featuring 150 kittens with different expressions. The Wain cat was launched. Within days of publication its creator had lost his wife but was on his way to fame, though never fortune.
With his transformation of the humble mouser into a feline version of the Edwardian at play, Wain had hit on a winning formula. He created a sort of Bertie Wooster world with whiskers in which cats played a range of sports, enjoyed cultural activities — from lectures to ‘mewsical’ evenings — and followed fashionable fads from hydrotherapy to phrenology. Inevitably, things went comically wrong; the humour is as basic as the saucy seaside postcard without the smut.