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The eccentric English artist who made cat memes long before the internet existed

Laura Harding meets the pair to discuss their touching new biopic, The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain


New release: Claire Foy as Emily Richardson-Wain and Benedict Cumberbatch as Louis Wain. Credit: Press Association Images

New release: Claire Foy as Emily Richardson-Wain and Benedict Cumberbatch as Louis Wain. Credit: Press Association Images

Press Association Images

New release: Claire Foy as Emily Richardson-Wain and Benedict Cumberbatch as Louis Wain. Credit: Press Association Images

Long before cats were the stars of viral videos and endless internet memes, there was the work of the eccentric artist Louis Wain.

You might not know his name but you have probably seen his paintings, featuring anthropomorphized, large-eyed cats and kittens, often walking on their hind legs and engaging in activities such as dancing, reading and drinking tea from china cups.

Now his extraordinary life has been turned into a film, starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role, with Claire Foy playing his wife, Emily.

“Louis used cats as a cipher to reflect on our own nature,” Cumberbatch explains thoughtfully. “That’s the really important thing to stress with his work and with his life, and I think that’s why he made such a connection.

“He used them as a medium to explore a human condition and the kind of eccentricities and playfulness and silliness that Emily encouraged him to reflect in them, in his work.”

The Doctor Strange star, 45, describes learning about Wain as a “journey of discovery”, adding: “I was really intrigued about this extraordinary artist whose images I had a sort of a faint flicker of recognition of in the back of my head, maybe on a wall somewhere in school, or institution or postcard or a museum.

“But not anything to do with his life, and the importance of what he achieved, and the sort of struggles and tragedy of some of his life, as well as the wit and humour and brilliance of it.”

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While many artefacts of the Victorian artist remain, little is known about Emily, the woman who was so important to Wain, with whom he adopted their beloved cat, Peter, when such a thing was not done, and whose death four years into their marriage seems to have changed him deeply as a person.

Foy, 37, who portrays Emily, says: “I think Will (Sharpe, the writer-director) did a really good job of filling in what that period of time must have been like when she was alive and when they were married and when they had moved to Hampstead, and that must have been, for him, an incredibly happy period of time.

“And also taking into account what sort of person he was, and therefore what sort of person she must have been.”

The Crown star continues: “There were very few accounts of her of what she was like, but she was a governess so she was educated. She was a very clever woman, and pretty brave, as well, to take on that career, because it must have been pretty lonely and quite scary to be a woman in a world on your own.

“But I love what Will did with her, which was to make her be able to see the world very clearly. She sees it and she says, ‘The world is full of beauty’. She just loves being alive, and that’s why it’s so sad that she wasn’t around for as long as she should have been.”

Sharpe, who is also an actor best known for roles in Flowers and Giri/Haji, saw the absence of information about Emily as an opportunity to piece together the jigsaw pieces about her from Wain’s own journals and correspondence with other people, as well as from the very circumstances of her tragically short life.

“She was governess to his younger sisters and the Victorian customs were such that their romance was extremely frowned upon,” the filmmaker explains.

“And so I felt like there’s something romantic about the fact that they had to make the sacrifices to be together. Louis was literally outcast from his family for several years as a result of his marriage.

“And equally, I think there was something kind of beautiful about the fact that, if you do know him, you now know him as the guy who drew cats, but how did that come about?

“And then the fact that he had this very intense, emotional time with Emily, where they were going through quite extraordinary difficulties, and they adopted a kitten at a time when it was a very unusual thing to do, and that was a source of great comfort to him.”

Explaining more about how he pieced together what the couple’s life was like, he says: “There’s a quote somewhere from Louis where he talks about how he owes his career to Peter the cat, the cat that he adopted with Emily. And so I think we wanted to sort of extrapolate out from that and try to imagine what it was like to be those people at that time.

“I think you have a real sense of how these are two people who never quite felt like they’d landed or never quite felt fully connected with a world, with society around them. But in the meeting of each other, were able to open their hearts and minds and to appreciate the world around them.”

Indeed, Wain is portrayed as an offbeat person, perhaps even neurodiverse in a world that was still a long way off from knowing what that was. But the film shows how his relationship with his wife allowed him to find a way to navigate through it.

“She gave him an emotional landscape,” Cumberbatch says. “She gave him the purpose and understanding of what he couldn’t understand without certain tools that are seen as normal.

“He was celebrated as someone who had purpose and an existence that was justifiable and should be enjoyed, as an artist and as a human being, through her encouragement.

“And it was definitely through her that the art flourished. It was definitely because of Peter coming into their lives as their surrogate child, in that time and that trauma, that he focused on cats.

“He showed so much more than just, ‘Oh, these animals should be taken seriously as domesticated pets’, which he did champion – of course, that’s historically what he did. But he was able to look at them as a prism for understanding the world he found difficult to be in, thanks to Emily.”

The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain is released in UK cinemas from tomorrow 

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