(Credits: Far Out / YouTube Still / Nick Cave)
Nick Cave has a sizeable range of influences, including Nina Simone, Dracula, Miles Davis, and various Saints. His proclivity to darkness echoed in the work of his often tortured inspirations, which then weave their way through his sound. It makes his love of Louis Wain, who largely built a career on the cuteness of his painted cats, somewhat surprising.
In Melbourne in the late 1970s, Cave routinely terrorised audiences with the banshee shriek of The Birthday Party, taking their menacing post-punk sound around Australia. During this period, his friend, experimental artist Tony Clark, introduced him to Wain’s work.
Wain was an Edwardian artist often solely referred to as “the man who drew cats”. His cats took many forms, but his subject never changed. He lived and died as the man who drew cats. When he was 23, Wain married Emily Richardson, who fell terminally ill soon after. As her condition deteriorated, Wain took to drawing caricatures of their cat, Peter, to make her laugh.
He never intended for anyone but her to see his work, but after his editors at Illustrated London News saw them, they offered to print some. In a tragic full circle moment, days before Richardson died, A Kitten’s Christmas Party was published. It featured over 100 cats, and it took nearly two weeks for him to draw them. It made him an overnight sensation.
For whatever reason, people loved the way Wain captured cats doing things humans did. Sometimes, that meant the cats were having a party. Sometimes, they were a cat couple, drinking tea and walking along, paw in paw. After seeing hundreds of these cats in a book, Cave was hooked on the way he “anthropomorphised” the cats.
“His art has a visionary intensity that is uniquely his own, and the book, quite simply, blew my mind,” Cave wrote in a Red Hand Files post. “I fast became a Wain disciple”. Some years later, in London, Cave met David Tibet, a poet and artist who happened to have an extensive collection of Wain paintings.
“Over the years, David sold me some of his Louis Wain paintings, and I also collected them from other sources,” wrote Cave. “I had a sizeable collection for a while, but it has dwindled of late, as I have given them away to friends and family and museums.”
Cave’s love of Wain’s cat paintings saw him star in the 2021 film The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, a “beautiful, heartfelt hallucination of a film” about the “singular and extraordinary man” whose work Cave had come to love. He played writer H.G. Wells and was thrilled to learn he didn’t have to cut his hair like his to be in the film. “I happily accepted the role,” he wrote, “Not just because of my long and abiding love of Louis Wain, but because the script was good.”
Written by Simon Stephenson, the film told the darker story behind Wain’s picturesque cats. Wain was suspected to have been suffering from schizophrenia, and as his illness worsened, the cats he drew became more surrealist and strange. He never copyrighted his work, and despite featuring on hundreds of postcards across the country, he never profited from them.
In 1924, he was declared insane and sent to Springfield Hospital. Patients would later remark on how mild-mannered he was, how content he was drawing but how obviously strained he was by mental illness. Wain’s work was so beloved, and it was felt so obscene he lived in relative poverty – then Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald was moved to set up a pension fund for his family “in recognition of their brother’s services to popular art”.