Mike Guilfoyle, vice-chair of the Friends of Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries, is surprised to discover that one of his favourite actors, Benedict Cumberbatch, has taken on the role of Louis Wain in The Electrical Life of Louis Wain’, an eccentric artist and cat lover. He is even more surprised to discover a local link.
In an idle moment I was wondering which film role the versatile actor Benedict Cumberbatch might next take on. To my pleasant surprise it was a period piece biopic called The Electrical Life of Louis Wain
The film centres on the life of Louis William Wain (d. 1939) who was an eccentric English artist best known for his prolific drawings, which mostly featured anthropomorphised large-eyed cats and kittens.
In his later years, he is believed to have suffered from a schizophrenic illness (although this claim is disputed among some clinicians). In 1924 he was certified insane and committed to a pauper ward of Springfield Mental Hospital in Tooting.
A year later, he was discovered there, and his distressing circumstances were widely publicized, leading to appeals from such figures as H. G. Wells and the personal intervention of Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin.
He was transferred to the Bethlem Royal Hospital then in Southwark (now located in Beckenham), and again in 1930 to Napsbury Hospital nr. St Albans in Hertfordshire.
When I started to look more closely at his familial links I lighted upon a local connection. Louis Wain’s father William had moved to London from Leek in Staffordshire where he met a Julie Felice Boiteux (from an Anglo-French family) who attended the same Roman Catholic church St. James, Spanish Place Chapel ,Marylebone.
She was also a talented artist and designed for museums, as well as being involved with textile designs, used for Turkish carpets. They married in 1859.
Louis had 5 younger sisters (two of whom became noted as competent artists) and his father worked as a textile salesman and his mother also designed church fabrics.
One of Julie’s brother’s (Louis’ uncle) was Jules Just Boiteux (d.1907) who was a designer/draughtsman living in Peckham.
After on-line cross referencing using cemetery burial records it was revealed that Jules Just Boiteux was in fact interred in Brockley cemetery on the February 9 1907.
Louis Wain’s obsession with cats appeared to stem from an emotionally intense period of his life. During this time, his wife who was dying from cancer, was comforted when he brought her home a stray kitten they named Peter. Peter was the subject of his first cat drawings and the impetus to his later work
Louis Wain is buried at Saint Mary’s Catholic Cemetery (adjoining Kensal Green Cemetery) next to the same burial plots as his five sisters and father. His mother died in 1910 and is buried in Margate.
He is probably best remembered through a quote from H.G. Wells: “He has made the cat his own. He invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world. English cats that do not look and live like Louis Wain’s cats are ashamed of themselves.”
Louis often gave lectures on the welfare of cats and encouraged people to take in stray cats, not just pure bred cats. He was elected as President and Chairman of the National Cat Club, which he served for many years, and the logo he designed for the National Cat Club is still used to this day.
Readers might be interested to know that the Bethlem Museum of the Mind, Beckenham, will be placing dozens of his works on display in an exhibition entitled. Animal Therapy: The Cats of Louis Wain ( December 4 2021 -14 April 2022)
Ladywell cemetery can claim as it’s own the celebrated Lewisham born artist, Horatio Henry Couldery (1832-1918) who also painted animals. He was especially noted for his depictions of domestic cats and dogs.). His artwork was once described by the famous Victorian art critic John Ruskin as ‘unsurpassable’. Horatio Henry Couldery died in Sydenham and was interred in Ladywell cemetery on the February 9 1918.