Trash, or treasure? Certainly, the weird pottery vase illustrated here is not everyone’s cup of tea, but fortunately, the family who came across it in the home of a relative who had just died were taking no chances. No one liked it but instead of consigning it to the nearest charity shop, they had the good sense to call in an auctioneer for an expert opinion.
To the untrained eye, the vase is of no consequence. With its garish colours, weird design and apparent uselessness, it’s easy to dismiss the vase as trash. But the presence of a Louis Wain signature makes all the difference. As any collector could tell you, Wain was the man who drew cats and his paintings and prints are much in demand.
However, only dedicated collectors of Wainiana are aware that the gifted artist was also responsible for designing a small number of ceramic objects which are now particularly highly prized. When he came under the hammer, the so-called Lucky Roadhog Cat set the saleroom buzzing.
The vase had been the talk of the trade immediately before the sale and there were four commission bids and a further four bidders on the telephones, each hoping to take ownership. It was purchased by a private London buyer for a staggering £3,600 after a tough battle with a dealer bidding by phone.
A fluke, an aberration? Not a bit of it. I’m not clever enough to know how many examples of Louis Wain-designed ceramics were ever produced — I’m not even sure which pottery manufactured them, indeed if anyone does — but there cannot be many still in circulation. Even fewer will be in perfect condition as this one was, still retaining its original retail label adhered to the back of the figure.
Interestingly, however, the recent Age of Jazz exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool included another example: a model of a seated cat, its right paw raised to its face which is turned towards the viewer.
The exhibition, which closed last October, was a celebration of British ceramics produced during the Art Deco period and was dominated by Clarice Cliff. Promoted as “showcasing the beautiful, the brash and the Bizarre”, Clarice’s contribution was noted by the use of the word bizarre with a capital B, since that is how her unique pottery was trademarked.
Louis Wain’s crazy ceramic creations were no less bizarre and it is interesting to speculate (for I am speculating) whether or not they were manufactured at the Wilkinson or Newport potteries in Burslem, Staffordshire, where Clarice and her Bizarre Girls made their fame and fortune.
An exhibition note from the Walker sheds further light on Wain’s pot cats. It read: “This cat’s geometric and angular form shows the possible influence of Cubism – a style of painting which began around 1908 and was led by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Georges Braque (1882-1963). This could be a serious use of the Cubist style or a ‘tongue-in-cheek’ jokey reference.”
A somewhat crude, black-painted earthenware figure called “The Laughing Cat” made in about 1910 has a printed backstamp for Royal Pottery Staffordshire, Wilkinson Ltd, England. Although this model is clearly in the Louis Wain style — it has a manic grin, wide green-painted eyes and sports a bright blue bowtie — its shape is far from Cubist. If anyone can shed any light on this, I would be very interested to hear from them.
Incidentally, The Laughing Cat has proved to be a good investment. The model changed hands for around £700 three years ago. In a pre-Christmas London auction, an example was knocked down for £1,260.
Louis Wain was a serious, tragic artist but his comic humour flows from his work and brings a smile to anyone seeing it — cat lover or not. I suspect his “Cubist cats” were poking fun at Mr Picasso and the art establishment. But they also hint strongly at the mental illness that ultimately saw Wain committed to an asylum.
Among my own small group of Louis Wain treasures is a side plate (also illustrated), probably from a child’s tea service, decorated in a hand-painted enamels with two cats flying an aeroplane. It was produced by the Paragon China Company and according to the somewhat faint backstamp, it comes from the Tinker Tailor Series. Wain illustrated a children’s book with the same title, which sells for upwards of £250.
I bought the plate in an antique shop in my home town more than 30 years ago for a few pounds and I’ve not seen anything like it since. It is interesting to speculate on what it’s worth now — perhaps I should call in an auctioneer!
So who was Louis Wain?
He was born in Clerkenwell, East London in 1860, the only boy among six children, the youngest of whom certified as insane, and admitted to an asylum at the age of 30. Little is known about his father, but his mother was a textile designer in Leek, Staffordshire. The boy probably took after his mother and his artistic ability was soon noticed.
He was sent to the West London School of Art and taught there briefly but his father died when Wain was aged 20 and he was left to support the family. Hoping to earn more as a freelance graphic artist, his first published drawing appeared in the December 10 1881 edition of the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News and a year later, he joined the staff full-time.
Wain’s “discovery” of cats was born out of tragedy. In 1884, aged 23, he married his sisters’ governess, Emily Richardson, who was 10 years his senior, but the happiness was short-lived: she contracted cancer and was soon confined to her bed.
One of Emily’s companions during her illness was a black and white kitten called Peter and Wain spent many hours sketching the pet to amuse his ailing wife.
It was some time before Wain was persuaded to show his pictures of Peter, but Sir William Ingram, proprietor of the Illustrated London News, was so impressed, he published two of them. This led to the breakthrough Wain needed.
In 1886, he drew kitten illustrations for “Madam Tabby’s Establishment”, followed by “A Kitten’s Christmas Party”, which appeared in the Illustrated London News the same year.
It brought Wain overnight fame and commissions flooded in from around the world. Sadly, though, his wife never shared in the success. She died after much suffering in 1887.
It was some years before the true Louis Wain cat emerged, but when his cartoon felines began to indulge in human pursuits – walking on hind legs and sporting monocles, fancy neckties and carrying walking sticks – the change was complete.
At about the same time, the camera was beginning to make an impression, both among artists and the public, who wanted cheap images to brighten their homes.
When photographers hit on the idea of using animals in their work, public opinion was split between acclaim and outcry over cruelty. Wain’s pictures had all the appeal and none of the criticism.
Wide public acclaim had its pressures, however. The death of his wife had a profound effect on Wain and alone, he was a poor financial manager. He also became a target for cranks and senders of begging letters.
Wain developed a fixation for bizarre business investment ideas including one to breed a spotted cat.
His financial position worsened and then, in 1917, his sister Caroline died from the virulent influenza epidemic of that year. Again, this deeply affected his sanity.
He was subsequently certified insane and, in June 1924, he was taken to the pauper ward of the local lunatic asylum. He had come to believe he was himself a cat. The diagnosis was schizophrenia.
However, he was later rescued by a publisher who organised a public fund to transfer Wain to a private hospital. It was there that he completed some of his most exciting and daring works in watercolour and crayon, many of which Wain gave away to his nurses and fellow patients, a far cry from the days when he was using sketches to meet unpaid bills. He died in 1939.
Experts in Wain’s pictures assert that it is possible to trace the progression of his fall into madness by the facial expressions of the cats he drew. The more wild-eyed and angry they looked, the more tortured was the artist’s mind.
Certainly, it is possible to see the transition from sweet, sentimental and wide-eyed kittens in his early work to almost nightmarish subjects towards the end.
Today, anything bearing Wain’s easily distinguishable signature commands large sums. A simple postcard can fetch upwards of £15 and a good children’s book illustrated by him is worth £150 or more.
Prints make around £75-150 apiece, depending on quality, while pen and ink drawings – one of the artist’s favourite mediums – are in the £500-£1,000 range. A good watercolour starts at £2,000, again depending on quality and subject matter.
Picture shows the so-call Lucky Roadhog Cat, discovered in a house and sold for £3,600. Click here for a slideshow of more Louis Wain crazy cats