The 2021 movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Louis Wain (1860-1939) and Claire Foy as his wife Emily has certainly raised attention about the life and work of the mercurial painter and prolific illustrator of anthropomorphic cats.
As poignantly portrayed in the film, his humorous feline depictions, of which he typically produced several hundred sketches a year, had their roots in an emotionally intense period when his wife was dying of cancer.
To comfort her he brought home a stray kitten which they named Peter – the subject of his earliest cat drawings.
While his work became hugely popular in Victorian and early 20th century Britain, Wain was increasingly troubled by his mental health. He ended up in hospital on a pauper’s ward but, after a public campaign to help him, he was transferred to London’s Bethlem Hospital and later to Napsbury Hospital in Hertfordshire where he was able to continue to paint in pleasant surroundings with a garden and colony of cats.
In terms of the current Louis Wain market, while his work has many fans, the plentiful supply of material means collectors tend to be selective and prices at auction therefore range across a wide spectrum. Many sell for hundreds of pounds but only a small number of the larger and more colourful paintings make five-figure sums.
While such works are significantly rarer in the saleroom, a few notable prices came at Bonhams (27.5/26/20/14.5% buyer’s premium) last year when two pictures broke the £10,000 barrier – The Tabby Toboggan Club that made £11,000 in April 2022 and then Pensive Puss that made £12,000 in July.
Incidentally, Wain’s striking Cubist-style ceramic cats have also recorded some strong sums of late, such as the record £8500 for an example at Kinghams in May 2022 (see ATG No 2548), although there is not much evidence of significant crossover interest between the two categories.
The latest picture at Bonhams – A Highway Robbery – offered in a Knightsbridge auction of Modern British and Irish Art on March 22 was the best of the bunch so far.
A 20½ x 2ft 5in (52 x 73cm) signed gouache and pencil on paper, it was a comparatively large work on paper with an attractively large number of feline figures with lots of activity and plenty of humour.
Bonhams head of sale Catherine White told ATG: “Although works by the artist do appear on the auction market relatively frequently, this was a particularly fun example and quintessentially ‘Wain’. The composition was a little more complex than other examples and had a more detailed narrative to the work.
"Wain is a master at capturing numerous characters and personalities in the facial expressions and mannerisms of his cats and this painting was a great example of this.
“We have certainly seen an increased interest in the market for his work over the last year or two.”
While the extent to which this recent demand was down to the film remains a moot point, this picture clearly had strong appeal for Wain collectors and, flying past a £3000- 5000 estimate, it was knocked down at £30,000 and broke an 18-year old record.
The sum surpassed the previous high for Wain at auction: £25,000 for an oil painting of cats dancing around a maypole that sold at Bonhams in 2005.
Another work by the artist at the latest sale was a pen and ink drawing titled On the River. The 21 x 2ft 6in (53 x 76cm) signed sketch again had a good size, a lot of cats on show and a complex composition. Estimated at £2000-3000, it drew decent interest and sold at £4000, an above-average price for a drawing by Wain.
Another popular name with a strong following is the railway enthusiasts’ favourite Terence Cuneo (1907-96).
Cuneo is a reliable performer at auction and here Bonhams offered a good-sized signed oil canvas of a famous train at full steam – all important factors in the market – which drew demand against a £30,000-50,000 estimate.
The depiction of the 1930s steam locomotive Duchess of Hamilton measured 2ft 6in x 3ft 3in (75cm x 1m) and dated from 1978, 14 years after it officially stopped operating and two years before it first ran as the National Railway Museum’s flagship locomotive. It remained operational until 1989, before becoming a static exhibit at the York museum.
A signed oil on canvas with provenance to locomotive specialist collector Allen Levy, it drew a number of interested parties at Bonhams and was knocked down at £45,000, the highest sum at auction for Cuneo since Sworders sold Evening star at full steam for £65,000 in March 2020 (ATG No 2436).