Why Benedict Cumberbatch fell for ‘oddball’ artist and his world of cats

He was known as “the man who drew cats” thanks to his humorous, hugely popular paintings of anthropomorphised felines, but Louis Wain struggled with schizophrenia and ended his life in an asylum. Now, on the eve of the release of a film about the artist, Benedict Cumberbatch has called for more compassion in society, urging kindness to “oddballs and outsiders”.

Cumberbatch, who plays Wain, has written the foreword to a forthcoming book about the artist in which he asks us to show “more love” for strangers and anyone who just happens to be different.

Wain created thousands of pictures of large-eyed felines, which appeared in periodicals and his own annuals, as well as on prints and postcards. But he had financial difficulties and became increasingly isolated. Declining into schizophrenia, he was certified insane in 1924.

Such was his popularity with the public that, when he was found to have been incarcerated in the paupers’ ward of an asylum, an appeal involving writers and artists was launched. Even the then prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, got involved, writing that “probably no artist has given a greater number of young people pleasure than he has”.

HG Wells observed at the time: “He invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world. English cats that do not look and live like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves.”

The appeal worked, quickly exceeding its fundraising target and leading to Wain’s transfer to a new hospital in the Hertfordshire countryside, where he carried on painting and drawing more cats and kittens. He died in an asylum near St Albans in 1939.

Cumberbatch researched Wain while preparing to play him in the forthcoming The Electrical Life of Louis Wain.

Chris Beetles, a London art dealer and specialist in Wain’s art for nearly 40 years, was approached by the filmmakers to guide the actor on mimicking Wain’s painting style.

Beetles said: “Wain was ambidextrous. He could actually paint with both hands at the same time. I told [Benedict] a little [about Wain] stylistically and about different phases of his life and career.

“Perfectionist actor that he is, he wanted to get inside the mind of Wain and the way in which he behaved and painted. He asked intelligent questions and he was very well versed.”

Cumberbatch has now written a 900-word foreword for a new edition of Beetles’ book Louis Wain’s Cats, to be published by Canongate later this year.

He writes: “I hope that our film and Chris’s superb work in these pages will move you, and in turn inspire all of us to view the stranger, the oddball, the outsider, the round peg in a square hole, with more love and tenderness and compassion. Something we could all do with more of for ourselves and each other.”

As a Wain specialist, Beetles is regularly consulted by auctioneers because “there’s a tsunami of forgeries on the market”.

He said he has seen a large increase in forgeries: “Every week, I’m sent about half a dozen images, and practically always they tend to be wrong. There’s a certain period of his work that looks as though it’s easy to forge. Strong outlines, flat blocks of colour, but he could draw brilliantly.”

Some forgers may be tapping into the expected increased interest in Wain because of the forthcoming film, others hoping to capitalise on the rise in his prices, with highly finished works now fetching up to £15,000.

In Wain’s world, cats imitate humans, stand upright and sometimes dress in clothes, enjoy tea parties or play musical instruments.

Beetles said: “Most people who buy Louis Wain love cats and they love anthropomorphic images. They are a lot of fun.” Some of his works are in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Wain’s obsession with cats began with the tragedy of losing his wife, Emily, to breast cancer three years into their marriage. While bedridden she had found comfort in their pet cat, named Peter. Wain started sketching him and Emily encouraged her husband to find a publisher. She is played in the film by Claire Foy, whose acclaimed roles include the young Queen Elizabeth in the Netflix series The Crown.

Wain once paid tribute to Peter, saying: “To him, properly, belongs the foundation of my career.”

Cumberbatch writes: “Being Louis Wain is to fall in love with Louis, and to be left bereft at the end.” He adds: “What he carried through his life – along with his talents and capacity for love and compassion – was the confusion and terror of a little boy who knew he didn’t fit in. And this I found profoundly sad and moving.

“He brought such beauty and celebration and joy to the lives of so many people.”