The story of high society cat lovers inspired by Louis Wain
Benedict Cumberbatch’s next role in Louis Wain’s electric life sees him play Edwardian artist Louis Wain, whose anthropomorphic style has sparked a craze for cats among the upper echelons.
While Wain’s story (or tail …) is somewhat sad due to his struggles with schizophrenia later in life, his legacy needs to be celebrated in many ways. His art, as seen in newspapers, children’s books, and greeting cards, is credited with starting a trend to imbue animals with human characteristics. During this time, his love of cats coincided with a trend among Edwardian high society to import exotic breeds to Britain.
Wain was also the chairman of the National Cat Club, a group of keen cat enthusiasts who held competitive cat shows across the UK. Its president was the Duchess of Bedford, herself a proud owner of Siamese cats, who often held galas and events to raise funds for the cause. In fact, one event in 1901, the annual New Years Supper for the London Cat Meat Men (don’t worry, they supplied the cats with meat, not the other way around), was so oversubscribed that hundreds of these feline feeders have been turned away on the doorstep.
The National Cat Club competitions saw a large number of peer supporters of the cause. Lady Gertude Decies’ tabby shorts Xenophon won the award for best English shorthair cat in 1901, as did Lady Alexander of Ballochmyle’s Billie Blue Eyes in 1905. Meanwhile, Lady Marcus Beresford was so fascinated by the feline genre that ‘she opened catteries in Bishopsgate filled with exotic and rare breeds, which at one point were the largest in England. The Countess of Aberdeen also had a keen interest in breeding, specializing in blue Persians and silver tabbies, and Viscountess Maitland eventually became the vice president of the glitzy cat club.
Another notable name among lovers of competitive cats was Princess Helena Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Helena had a weakness for longhair kittens, with bruises and chinchillas being especially preferred. She also lived near another cat lover, Lady Berseford, the latter advising her on the sale of rare cats. Never far from these adorable companions, the princess often had them photographed and even had two silver models of her pretty Persians made and placed on her boudoir table at Windsor’s Cumberland Lodge.
In his latest book, A Persian rhapsody in blueJohn G Smithson recounts the rise in popularity of the aforementioned Persian breed, a very fashionable option at the time. Smithson explains how the adoration for this blue-colored cat came to fruition, from the first imports recorded in the 1620s to the cat craze of the 20th century. “An incredibly complex journey,” as Smithson describes it, it follows the path of the Persian cats, “from [their] genetic ancestral home in the mountainous regions of Khorasan province, for [their] establishment in Western Europe, and in particular, [their] a strong presence in the British Isles. ‘
However, today’s most influential cats don’t belong to aristocrats – they’re social media stars. #Cat has 108 billion views on TikTok and 249 million more Instagram posts, proving that the love for our feline friends certainly hasn’t waned over the years. There’s the famous (Kate Beckinsale’s Clive who appears regularly on her profile, while accompanying the actress on her dental visits), the funny (the icon of the Smudge meme, the infamous Real Housewives of Beverly Hills argument edit and its many iterations), and fashion (current It-cat Benson whose style is impeccable, as approved by his huge following of fashion fans). The crown of the most followed cat on Instagram, however, belongs to Nala, who has amassed 4.3 million cherished followers. With her silvery coat and big sky blue eyes, she may be the Billie Blue Eyes of modern times, the beautiful tabby of the old Ballochmyle seat. I’m sure Lady Alexander would have agreed, it’s really the cat’s pajamas.