July 15, 2024, 21:25

The Man Who Reinvented the Cat

The Man Who Reinvented the Cat

In mid-nineteenth-century London, which had a population upward of two million people, the journalist and social researcher Henry Mayhew set out to survey the lives of the working and nonworking poor. One of the now obsolete categories of labor he investigated was that of the cats’-meat men: sellers of boiled horseflesh, who purchased their stinking wares from knackers’ yards, then wheeled it in barrows along appointed routes each day, selling it to the public as cat food at two and a half pence per pound. By Mayhew’s reckoning, there were a thousand such venders in the capital, serving the needs of a feline population of three hundred thousand: roughly one cat per dwelling house. Cats had a liminal status, perceived by the humans they lived alongside as being somewhere between regulators of vermin—they helped control the population of rats and mice that flourished among the goods brought in and out of London’s teeming docks—and vermin themselves. Weasel-­faced and rat-tailed, given to screeching and swiping, the mid-­century cat was a rogue scavenger and a fit target for the cruelty of children, thanks to its own well-known predisposition to cruelty.

At the same time, however, a new cat was beginning to emerge. This was a round-faced, wide-eyed, sleek-­bodied creature that was pampered, primped, and lavished with affection—like Oliver, a plump, stately, black domestic cat who was a member of a suburban household in the late nineteenth century and who, preserved in taxidermied condition with a yellow ribbon tied in a bow around his neck, is now in the collection of the Museum of London. Consider, too, the proliferating creatures drawn by Louis Wain, an artist born in Clerkenwell in 1860, whose anthropomorphized felines, engaged in activities such as playing cricket or singing in choirs, came to populate the pages of the Illustrated London News no less densely than their feral cousins prowled the warehouses along the Thames.

Wain is the figure at the center of “Catland” (Johns Hopkins), an entertaining and often surprising cultural history by the literary critic Kathryn Hughes. “Catland” chronicles a seventy-­year period, stretching from the latter half of the nineteenth century into the early decades of the twentieth, during which, Hughes writes, “cats transformed from anonymous background furniture into individual actors, with names, personalities and even biographies of their own.” In alternating chapters, Hughes narrates the life of Wain—whose drawings at the height of his popularity were as familiar as those of Beatrix Potter, and who spent his later years in a mental asylum, afflicted with symptoms of what may have been schizophrenia—and provides a zesty account of the many ways in which the cat came in from the alley and took up its place at the hearth. Hughes makes the case that the new world of cats which Wain both chronicled and helped to create is a signal instance of modernism in all its confusion and uncertainty. She writes, “When it came to ‘making it new’—that battle cry of early twentieth-­century intellectuals—nothing conveyed the principle better than the transformation of the domestic cat from smudgy outlier to cultural obsession.”

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Hughes is the author of several books on Victorian luminaries, including Isabella Beeton, whose outlandishly successful “Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management” was first published in 1861, and the novelist George Eliot, whose “Middlemarch” appeared a decade later. She is entirely at home in the era, familiar with its phraseology and wise to its tropes and clichés. When considering, for example, an 1899 autobiographical sketch in which Wain described himself as a delicate child, she recognizes this as “a standard opening gambit for nineteenth-­century memoirists, to the point where you could be forgiven for thinking that no eminent Victorian ever came into the world rosy and bouncing, ready to take life on the chin.” Her purview in this volume, though, is not limited to the nineteenth century. The feline references range from the Renaissance, when Montaigne puzzled over his cat’s consciousness—“When I play with my cat who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me”—to recent decades, with Jacques Derrida analyzing his sense of indecency at being stringently surveyed by his cat while naked. (He concludes that being regarded by an animal is unsettling because the experience reverses the familiar order of things, in which humans look at animals in order to assert mastery over them and explain them.) Derrida’s cat is pictured in “Catland,” sitting upon the philosopher’s mercifully clothed lap.

Hughes acknowledges that the primary-s­ource biographical material on Wain is thin, but she sorts through the archives with the rigor of a scholar and the deftness of a critic to offer a cat-centric portrait of the age. She finds cats at Leadenhall Market so tall as to be able to see over the countertops, and uncovers the outrage caused by an elderly lady’s bequest of eight hundred pounds a year to her bereaved pets—the equivalent of roughly sixty-­two thousand dollars in today’s money. Hughes’s digressive structure allows her to explore the phenomenon of competitive cat shows, as they emerged in the latter nineteenth century, with hierarchies of breed and classification mirroring the country’s social stratification. (It was said that, when a prize category for the cats of working men was introduced at the Crystal Palace, a frequent dodge among genteel cat fanciers “was entering your cat using your housemaid’s name.”) Her analytic insight is typically delivered in an inviting spirit of delight, and she is not above engaging in a little anthropomorphizing. Describing how cat breeders, members of a new profession, sought to secure the paternal purity of a litter—female cats can be impregnated by more than one tom during each fertility cycle—she tells us that such efforts might easily be undermined by a female cat’s urge to “slope off into the potting shed to mate with a passing stray, like a rebellious deb eloping with the gardener.”

Catland, Hughes makes clear, is not so much a geographical location as a common consciousness in which the feline came into focus. Still, the book also offers a new perspective on Victorian and Edwardian London, the evolving urban world into which Louis Wain was born, in 1860. “The city was now so swollen that, if you looked at a map of the country, it was possible to imagine that the nation itself had become haunch-heavy, groaning to sit down,” Hughes writes vividly. Adding to the aural landscape of horse-hoof clatter and cartwheel rumble was the sonic disturbance of hundreds of thousands of cats, which, in an era before sterilization technology or the development of trap-neuter-­release programs, caterwauled from rooftops before, during, and after copulation, as toms competed for females in heat. Wain’s London was a precarious place for humans as well. Economic security was hard to come by, and a lower-­middle-class family such as Wain’s might easily tumble into hardship and move to a rougher neighborhood—one of the markers of which, according to Charles Booth, the great surveyor and mapper of late-Victorian London’s poverty, was the prevalence of stray cats in the streets.

Wain was the firstborn child of William and Julie Wain, a textiles salesman and a professional embroiderer, respectively, and, though his autobiographical account of childhood frailty may have been standard, it was also verifiable. Wain was born with a cleft lip, which, quite apart from any feeding difficulties he would have experienced as an infant, made him a target for the kinds of schoolyard bullies who might otherwise have taken out their aggression on stray cats. (Hughes does not make note of what the book’s reproductions of Wain’s imagery remind us: that the cat, too, has a divided upper lip.) Wain’s self-consciousness about his appearance was just one aspect of what was, from the outset, a troubled mind. He wrote that, as a child, “I was haunted, in the streets and at home, by day and night, by a vast globe, which seemed to have endless surface, and I seemed to see myself climbing over and over it until, from sheer fright I came to myself and the vision went.” Medical commentators have speculated that Wain was on the autism spectrum, though Hughes warns against reducing his sometimes eccentric sensibility—the driving force behind a long career of creative experimentation—to a symptom.

The Wains went on to have five daughters, and after the death of William Wain, in 1880, there was an expectation that Louis would support them. Having attained a trade-school education in art, he became an illustrator for hire, jobbing for weekly and monthly periodicals, where he developed the hack artist’s capacity for variety and speed. (At one point, he was able to draw one of his signature cats in forty-five seconds.) Wain dismayed his family when, at the age of twenty-­three, he proposed to Emily Richardson, a woman seventeen years his senior, who was serving as the governess to his younger sisters. Wain’s early biographer, Rodney Dale, who published an account of the artist’s life in the late nineteen-sixties, suggested that this disapproval was rooted in the couple’s difference in social class—as if the son of a textile salesman marrying a governess were on the same spectrum of scandal as a deb running off with the gardener—but Hughes rejects Dale’s framing, and suspects that what mostly spurred the objection of the forever-spinster sisters was the prospect that Louis’s earnings would be spread even more thinly.

The marriage of Louis and Emily has been portrayed as a romantic meeting of unconventional minds, tragically cut short when Emily died, of breast cancer, three years after their wedding. That’s how it plays in the 2021 film “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain,” which starred Benedict Cumberbatch as an awkward and inspired Louis and Claire Foy as a luminous Emily. Wain’s new wife, and a cat they took in and named Peter, certainly helped to set his cat-centric course. But Hughes, as ever, is skeptical of too neat a narrative, closely reading Wain’s drawings for clues to his views about matrimony; the many Valentine’s Day cards he drew, she suggests, are so downbeat that “you wonder whether they are intended as weapons for unhappy lovers to use in an ongoing war of attrition.” The book reproduces one of Wain’s most popular images, “A Happy Pair,” which shows a cat couple on their wedding day; Hughes carefully notes that the groom’s dilated pupils are an indicator of feline stress, and the tension of his body is that of a creature caught in a fight-or-flight crisis, making it hard to read the illustration’s title as anything other than darkly ironic.

Hughes is adept in exploring the many, and sometimes contradictory, ways in which cats represented sexual deviation from a cultural norm. “Pussy bachelor” was a term for a certain kind of queer man, who, like a cat, was simultaneously fastidious and given to uncharted nighttime roving—a man such as Edward Lear, the poet, whose domestic happiness depended upon the presence of both his longtime manservant, Giorgio Kokali, and his cat Foss. Hughes reads Lear’s best-known work, “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat,” as a parable about queer love and improvised nuptials between creatures whose gender, she points out, is never specified. If men with cats were coded as feminine, women with cats were coded as promiscuous and voracious. By the last decades of the nineteenth century, the term “pussy” had emerged as a synonym for the female genitals. Hughes writes of music-hall acts in which female performers would gradually raise their skirts to reveal a kitten secreted in a front pocket of their bloomers, the creatures’ little triangular heads standing in for the female pubis.

The cultural moment in which Wain seized cats as his métier, then, was marked by the destabilization of sexual norms—visible, if not to all, then at least to those who, like cats, could see in the dark—along with social, scientific, and psychological upheaval and innovation. It was “a jumpy time,” Hughes says. “The air positively thrummed with disruptive jolts or sparks that you could neither see nor smell but still sensed were everywhere.” Wain’s cats, with their wide-drawn eyes and bristling fur, expressed the tumult of the period through their bodies. Inspired in part by a 1912 exhibition of Italian futurists, Wain later expanded into ceramics, creating a range of porcelain “Futurist Mascot Cats.” The manufacture of his figurines was one of the lesser casualties of the First World War, but for Hughes they mark a high point of his creative genius. She writes, “Like Picasso with his cubes that were actually flat, or Matisse with his forays into figures that curled off the page, Louis Wain had entered into an exploratory dialogue between painting and three-dimensional form.” A century on—with Hello Kitty a globally familiar phenomenon—Wain’s figurines have become highly collectible specimens of the future they foretold.

And what of Wain’s drawings—which delighted readers of the Illustrated London News and were sufficiently popular to warrant the annual publication of a Christmastime volume? H. G. Wells, a champion of Wain’s, declared that “English cats that do not look and live like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves.” In subsequent generations, Wain’s drawings have come in and out of vogue. His late work, in which his cats almost cease to be representational and dissolve instead into pattern and color, was especially popular in the nineteen-­sixties and seventies, when he was seen as a precursor to the zany borderlands of psychedelia.

In his last decades, Wain’s own mental illness effloresced. He spent his final years in an asylum that seems to have offered him the best of what that word suggests: a safe place in which he was free from the cares and duties of the commercial marketplace. It has become conventional to view Wain’s wilder, stranger cats and landscapes as the product of an increasingly disordered mind; notoriously, psychiatrists interested in the art of the mentally ill used a collection of eight of his late cat pictures to demonstrate the progression of schizophrenia. But, Hughes points out, there is no evidence to confirm that the order in which the psychiatrists placed the pictures was the order in which Wain made them. Another way of looking at these works, she argues, is as the late-in-life experimentation of an artist who was always in the avant-garde, even if his milieu was the popular world of newsprint and deadlines rather than the garrets and galleries of the fine artist.

Wain’s late cats, with their curlicued ears and bedazzled whiskers, remain astonishing and often disturbing. For all their hippie-era popularity, they are scarcely in tune with today’s therapeutic resurgence of psychedelics: with their startled fur and zonked-out eyes, they look more likely to trigger trauma than to remedy it. And though one might imagine that Wain’s earlier œuvre of anthropomorphized felines would be ideally suited to our contemporary age—given that the Internet has become a repository of cat images and videos in quantities surely outstripped only by its supply of pornography—those cats seem as alien today as would the sound of a cats’-meat barrow trundling down the street. Unlike the woodland and domestic creatures of his enduring contemporary Beatrix Potter, which are forever straddling the boundary between human civilization, with its tea parties and buttoned waistcoats, and animal nature, with its savage cruelties and appetites, the cats Wain drew for popular consumption were often rendered as humanoid animals, with the bodies of hominids and only the heads of felids. They are cats doing people things, rather than cats doing cat things.

A scroll through Instagram Reels or TikTok, though, reveals that what we tend to see when we look at cats today is their strangeness, even as they share the spaces in which we live: their celebrated aloofness, their capacity for unwavering focus, their inscrutability, and, above all, their absolute humorlessness. (Wain’s cats were often laughing, even if the laughter was strained.) The fascination of looking at cats on social media lies in the distance between their experience and ours—a distance that researchers are reportedly trying to bridge by way of A.I., trawling YouTube and other sites to explore how differences in ear position, say, might help us resolve Montaigne’s question and tell us what on earth our cats are thinking, especially about us. Wain’s cats were human impersonators in a world undergoing rapid and disconcerting transformation; he was, as Hughes notes, “puzzling out how to get this shaky new world down on paper.” The cats of social media, on the other hand, are doing their own thing. If Louis Wain’s cats were caterwauling heralds of modernism, the unblinking cats of the Internet offer a glimpse into nonhuman experience. They give us a way of preparing ourselves for—or possibly numbing ourselves against—the arrival of what we blurrily recognize to be a post-human world. ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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