Of the many unusual artworks we care for at Fine Art Restoration Company, some of the most interesting are those with a connection to an obscure yet fascinating artist. Our team enjoy looking into the history of the artworks they help to preserve and would like to share with you one of their favourites to be found on paper – the prints and original drawings of Louis Wain.
Above: a selection of cats with patterned backgrounds by Louis Wain
These marvelous cat artworks have a distinctive style, often the animals are anthropomorphised with exaggerated features such as big eyes and smiles. Gaining popularity at the beginning of the 20th century, they stand out as being before their time – predating the famous cartoon characters of the cinema screen. The cats often reflect the Victorian society Wain grew up in, making them often poke fun at the mannerisms of polite society, with some pieces taking a political stance.
Above: a Louis Wain cat portrait in his ‘gothic style’ using gothic designs and tracery to create the image in gouache
What makes Louis Wains work even more intriguing is his eventual years spent in mental institutions due to his diagnosis of schizophrenia. During his time in hospital, which lasted up until his death, he continued to create amazing pieces of art. These are reflective not only of his artistic endeavors but also of his state of mind and the comfort found in feline faces.
Above: near the end of his life Louis Wain’s cats become more abstract, such as this portrait in what he called an ‘early greek style’
As well as prints, original watercolours, pencil drawings, paintings, and pastels, Louis Wain also experimented with ceramics. His futurist cat sculptures take inspiration from the cubist movement and the work of Picasso, whilst adding his own twist. Whilst these ornaments did not capture the British public’s imagination as his prints had done – the American market was very interested. Unfortunately, the ship bringing them across the Atlantic was hit by a German U-boat and Wain’s fortunes were lost – the cats did not make it to their destination, making these unique ceramics very rare.
Above: a selection of Louis Wain’s colourful cat ceramics which were previous for sale at Tennant’s Auctioneers
The value of Louis Wain artworks
Whilst original artworks can reach prices up to £30,000 (Bonhams, 2005), important prints and original advertisements or posters related to his work can also fetch a good amount (around £1,500 to £8,000) and often surpass their asking price. We expect that interest in Louis Wain’s artwork and ceramics will increase in the coming months due to a feature film being released shortly. The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (2021) is certain to spread the word about this relatively obscure artist and give his work a new context at gallery sales and auctions.
Above: the poster The Electrical Life of Louis Wain which is released on Amazon Prime in the UK on 1st January 2022
Louis Wain artwork can in some cases be difficult to gain provenance for, as it is not always seen as traditional art with a need for records to be kept. This has seen some of the market flooded with fakes over the years, but a good auction house or valuation expert should be able to help you in understanding whether a piece is original or not. The same is the case with his ceramic works, which several years ago came on to the market with such unexpected volume that experts now regard them with more scrutiny.
Above: an oil painting by Louis Wain
Damages and dangers faced by Louis Wain artworks
Many types of materials have been used in Louis Wain artworks on paper, making some more vulnerable than others. With the coloured pieces, their vivid quality is key to the effect of the cat portrait, with Wain’s later artworks completed in hospital often featuring bright psychedelic backgrounds. Therefore, it is extremely important to keep these away from direct sunlight or brightly lit areas to avoid the uneven fading of pigments, or the complete fade of the artwork itself. The same is true for ink drawings, which may begin to become distorted by UV rays. For extra protection, specialist UV protective glass should be considered – this is available from our conservation team.
Above: a gouache painting by Louis Wain of three singing cats in his recognisable art style
As well as protecting from sunlight, it is worth checking with our framing specialists or paper conservator that any frame or surrounding mount is free of harmful chemicals. High PH levels can lead to acidic decay and yellowing deterioration to the paper quality. Our trained team offers conservation approved framing options, ensuring that all aspects of display are considered for a museum level of protection. Historic and even some modern frames may have left distressing discolouration to the surround or reverse of a work on paper, but this contamination can be cleared away professionally by our ICON accredited paper conservator.
Above: a detail from a Louis Wain print first published in Hearth & Home, 1896
Environmental issues may have also taken hold over many years, including risks from humidity and temperature fluctuations. Paper may have weakened due to hot and dry conditions, or similarly from locations with high levels of moisture in the atmosphere, leading to rippling and mould growth. Foxing, the appearance of rusty brown or black spots, is caused by a chemical reaction in the paper and can become more widespread if not treated and professionally removed.
Above: a Louis Wain cartoon postcard dated to 4 April 1905
Ceramic items face the usual dangers of falling from height, chips, or abrasions. Our skilled ceramics conservator is able to restore a piece with as much of the original as possible, so it is key that if a sculpture is broken, the fragments are carefully collected. Surface damage can also be reduced and conservation techniques can be used to bring back the stability of the artwork. It is also important to keep ceramics away from sunlight, just in case the pigments used are not protected and vulnerable to UV fading like works on paper.
Above: a detail from a Louis Wain Christmas scene including his captions which are often found in these cartoons
Restoring Louis Wain drawings
Our ICON accredited paper conservator has treated many interesting artworks over the years, and these ink sketches can certainly be included. The two artworks, displaying a range of dramatic feline emotions, had been adhered to a backing board which had become yellow over time, due to acids in the paper and glue. This makes the paper brittle and at risk of further loss, as seen in the perishing edges of the material.
Above: the before and after of a Louis Wain ink drawing restoration which was rescued from an acidic backingboard which would have deteriorated and discoloured the paper over time
The paper was gently washed in a customised solution, this ensures that the contamination can be lifted whilst leaving the ink undisturbed. Cleansing the contamination embedded in the paper is important, as this reduces the ongoing risk of decay and discolouration. The surviving paper was removed from the backing boards entirely and placed onto specialist lining paper. Our conservator uses Japanese tissue paper, as this is strong yet thin and safe from any chemicals.
These unique drawings were now ready for a new frame. Our team recommended one with safe methods, to ensure that both pieces were in good condition for future generations to enjoy.
Above: the second Louis Wain restoration completed by our conservator, taking the surviving artwork away from the acidic mount and lining it onto safe tissue paper
How can we help?
If you have an artwork on paper, such as a Louis Wain print, sketch or ink drawing – or an oil painting or ceramic – our team is experienced in the restoration of a wide range of materials and damage. Please get in touch to discuss how we can protect your treasured artwork going forwards, whether this is a full conservation treatment or professional framing.
To make contact please email us via [email protected] or call 0207 112 7576