By 1907, Wain had oversaturated the market and was finding it nearly impossible to sell new work. The beginning of World War I led to further economic hardship and additional grief: With one sister dead in 1913 after several years spent in an insane asylum, Wain’s eldest sister died in 1915. The artist’s own delusions grew more sinister and violent as he became convinced that his other sisters were responsible for the elder one’s death.
“Schizophrenia runs in the family, and there is evidence to show that Wain exhibited schizophrenia behavior decades before he was diagnosed,” says Harry Boxer, a dealer of outsider and visionary art through his eponymous gallery. “Looking into the cats’ eyes, they become more manic from 1914 onwards.”
Wain’s reputation as an eccentric artist masked his mental instability from friends and family. When he began to grow violent toward his sisters, Wain was admitted to the pauper ward of Springfield Hospital in Tooting, South London, in 1924. He was discovered by chance a year later—many of his fans had presumed Wain was dead. A public appeal involving the popular science fiction writer H.G. Wells and Ramsay MacDonald, London’s prime minister at the time, succeeded in having Wain transferred—first to Bethlem Royal Hospital, and later in 1930 to Napsbury Hospital near St. Albans.
The dazzlingly colorful, fractal, and powerfully enigmatic kaleidoscopic cats for which Wain is revered today were produced during his period of hospitalization. But we must not presume these works are caused by or evidence of Wain’s psychological suffering, argues Beetles, who practiced medicine before retiring to become a collector and dealer of British art.
“It was an entirely different time back then, when sanitariums were actually sanctuaries,” he says. “For the first time in his life, Wain was freed from all responsibility.” In the leafy environment of Napsbury Hospital’s gardens, Wain was able to find an uninterrupted tranquility and his work resultantly flourished, taking on a wholly new aesthetic.
“There is no question Wain suffered from schizophrenia, but most of the literature surrounding how his disorder progressed is unfounded or just plain wrong,” says Beetles. Countless psychiatric textbooks latch onto an iconic series of eight Wain cat portraits—four in crayon, four in gouache—as visual evidence of a mental breakdown, the result of a claim made in a book called Psychotic Art that was published in the 1950s.