See the Psychedelic Cat Art of Louis Wain, the Eccentric Artist Played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the Hit New Film

Dec 21, 2021

A forthcoming film starring Benedict Cumberbatch, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, is reviving the reputation of a popular illustrator known for depictions of cats that captivated Victorian England—and the psychiatric hospital in southeast England where he spent his later days has mounted an exhibition of his work to coincide with the film’s release.

The eccentric artist’s feline fascinations are on view in “Animal Therapy: The Cats of Louis Wain” at Bethlem Museum of the Mind, which is housed within Bethlem Royal Hospital, the world’s oldest psychiatric hospital, in southeast England. The institution was a pioneer in recognizing the potential of animal therapy for its patients’ well-being.

Wain’s drawings were immensely popular a century ago, appearing in newspapers and children’s books as well as on greeting cards. When his mental health declined in old age, he was admitted to Springfield Hospital; so loyal was his following that when the public learned about his situation, he was moved to the “more salubrious” surroundings of Bethlem (as the hospital describes them), where he continued to draw and paint. The exhibition draws works from the museum’s holdings, as well as loans from a private collector.

“Animals have always been known for their affinity to man,” said Kate McCormack, the hospital’s senior dramatherapist, in the press release (which, uncharacteristic of announcements of museum shows, pronounces it “a gleeful new exhibition”). “At the Bethlem Royal Hospital, the Pets as Therapy program has helped forge relationships between service-users and dogs, notably a Siberian husky named Tess. From offering unconditional affection to aiding in confronting fears and phobias, pets can be a big part of a person’s recovery and journey to improved mental health. Animals can offer a very pure and unconditional relationship without demands or expectations.”

The film treatment of the artist’s life, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, directed by Will Sharpe, co-starring Claire Foy as Wain’s wife, Emily Richardson, and with voiceover by Olivia Colman, opens on New Year’s Day. The New York Times dubs the film “the cat’s meow,” describing Cumberbatch as “irresistible” and the script as “garrulous [and] lightly funny,” concluding that the film draws “a deeply human self-portrait.”

See Wain’s work and a film still here.

Louis Wain, Cats’ Christmas (ca. 1935). Courtesy Bethlem Museum of the Mind.

Louis Wain, Carol Singing Cats (ca. 1930). Courtesy Bethlem Museum of the Mind.

Louis Wain, I Am Happy Because Everybody Loves Me (ca. 1928). Courtesy Bethlem Museum of the Mind.

Louis Wain, Sweetness Coyed Love Into its Smile (ca. 1935). Courtesy Bethlem Museum of the Mind.

Louis Wain, Kaleidoscope Cats VI (undated). Courtesy Bethlem Museum of the Mind.

Still from The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy. Courtesy Studio Canal.

“Animal Therapy: The Cats of Louis Wain” is on view at Bethlem Museum of the Mind through April 13, 2022.