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  • Writer's pictureSarah

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain - an exhibition at the Royal Bethlem Hospital

Updated: Jan 3, 2022

There aren't many perks of working in the NHS (apart from the shared values, innovation, team work and amazing staff), but sometimes something pops up and I say to myself that I really am fortunate to work for part of this amazing institution. Today was one of those days. I was able to preview the Louis Wain exhibition opening tomorrow in the Bethlem Museum of the Mind.

Two statues in white stone depicting Raving and Melancholy Madness on either side of a staircase leading to the Museum of the Mind
The entrance to the Museum of The Mind - Raving and Melancholy Madness

You might be more familiar with it's old nickname of Bedlam. Previously situated in Kennington (now the home of The Imperial War Museum) the hospital moved to it's current location in 1930. As well as helping the recovery of people with mental illness as part of South London & the Maudsley, the Bethlem site also houses an amazing Museum and gallery. The permanent display is well worth a visit in its own right, it doesn't shy away from the brutality of previous 'treatments'.

Louis Wain is now to be the subject of a film scheduled for release on 31st December starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy. Entitled 'The Electrical Life of Louis Wain', it refers to his theory that everything in life is connected to electricity; from the fur on his cat to the workings of his mind.

Louis studied art at the West London School of Art and subsequently worked for London Illustrated and other magazines/newspapers. His marriage to a woman 10 years his senior who'd been his sisters' governess was rather shocking at the time. Three years after they married, she sadly developed breast cancer and took comfort in cuddling her cat, Peter. She urged him to draw Peter, and then for Wain to publish his drawings. In this way the well known cat artist was born.

His work was misinterpreted by art critics for a while. The highly detailed patterns in the 'white space' were thought to represent the workings of his mind. These have latterly been re-interpreted as references to his family's textile business and the designs that they used.

Wain was not much of a businessman, and didn't copyright his work. Thus he was both highly successful and also on the breadline.

Wain also painted dogs - but the paws are rather cat like!

In later life when he became mentally unwell he was initially admitted to Springfield Hospital in Tooting (now part of South West London and St George's), which was a paupers' institution at the time. His friends, including H.G. Wells, raised the funds for Wain to be treated and looked after at the Bethlem (previous site at Kennington). He was moved again to Napsbury near St Alban's where he ended his days.

The exhibition includes works painted whilst at Bethlem including a Christmas mirror. It seemed that the nurses asked Louis to help with decorations and he painted the mirror, he was said to be a helpful patient.

I'm really looking forward to seeing the film. Whilst we are all waiting, why not pop along yourself and get a feel for the man and his art?

When is it on? The exhibition runs from 4th December 2021 to 14th April 2022

Where can I find more details? Bethlem Museum of the Mind

Where is it on?

Bethlem Museum of the Mind

Bethlem Royal Hospital

Monks Orchard Road


Kent BR3 3BX


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