Louis Wain's Cats Help To Explore Art And Mental Illness In Luton

By Paul Dance

This exhibition at, showing at Wardown Park Luton until March 19, uses thirty of Louis Wain’s original pictures alongside examples of work by people involved in a unique initiative by Luton Mental Health Partnership.

Louis Wain was famous in the early part of last century as an illustrator, particularly of cats, but suffered from schizophrenia for many years. He spent his last few years in a mental hospital near St. Albans, Hertfordshire still creating his cats.

The earlier drawings are full of humour and some resemble a feline version of those Bateman cartoons of social faux pas. ‘Cats Playing Cricket’ is particularly detailed and brilliantly observed.

Some of the later pieces, particularly the large paintings, appear more disturbed, especially in the facial expressions of the cats. My daughter, aged eleven, said one of them reminded her of The Grinch. They are however still remarkable in their execution and have a larger than life, cartoon quality.

The exhibition also gives an idea of the breadth of Wain’s work in The Illustrated London News around the last twenty years of the nineteenth century. These included cats but also dogs, horses and architectural drawings with the finest, most exquisite details.

There is a table in the middle of the gallery with related games and puzzles for children. This is an increasingly popular way of introducing art to children in exhibitions and when I visited was being well used.

One of the games uses a reproduction of ‘The Christmas Party’ which Wain produced in 1886 It contains eleven drawings of cats, over one hundred and fifty animals in all, which he produced in as many days.

They are enjoying different aspects of a feline Christmas party from dreaming of mice to downhill sledging. The children are challenged to fit the titles to the different pieces which of course encourages them to study the drawings more closely.

The serious aim of the exhibition is to de-stigmatise mental illness so it includes digital works and paintings by local people with mental health issues who have been helped on the Art and Visual Literature course.

This is run through Bedfordshire and Luton Mental Health TrustThe course is the only one of its kind in the country and uses a variety of arts as a form of therapy for which people with mental health issues.

“ When we started the course two years ago we never expected the work to reach the standard that it has done and we are absolutely thrilled at the capability of the students” said course tutor Calvin Parsons.

“The course, as well as giving me a purpose in life and a structured day, gives me hope for the future, which I never had before.” said Rosemary, one of the students.

To complement the exhibition the museum is hosting a study day on Wednesday 15 March during which there will be two gallery talks The exhibition runs until March 19 and is sponsored by DeCourcey Art.

  • Back to top
  • | Print this article
  • | Email this article
  • | Bookmark and Share
Museum Crush digest sign up ad