John Leech – “Not an artist of the common type”

sepia photograph of Victorian illustrator John Leech, standing with his hands in his trouser pockets
Leech’s carte de visite (Wikipedia)

John Leech was born 29th August 1817. His father had moved from Ireland to London in about 1813 to work for his uncle, the proprietor of the London Coffee House in Ludgate Hill. By 1823, Leech senior owned the business. It was a well-respected and popular place, which must have been a very stimulating environment for a little boy to grow up in. Leech junior enjoyed drawing from an early age. Wood engraver and illustrator Frederick George Kitton (1856-1904) claims in his biography of the illustrator (1883) that the artist John Flaxman (1755-1826) first noticed the boy’s skills when he was only three years old and advised the parents: “Do not let him be cramped with lessons in drawing; let his genius follow its own bent; he will astonish the world.” When Leech was seven, he started attending Charterhouse School, first as a day boy and then as a boarder. Here he first met novelist William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863), who would become a lifelong friend when they met again at Punch in 1843.

Juvenile doodles by John Leech in one of his schoolbooks, 1820s (photo by the author, image published with kind permission by The Charterhouse)
Cartoon by a young William Makepeace Thackeray, 1820s (photo by the author, image published with kind permission by The Charterhouse)

After finishing at Charterhouse in the early 1830s, he studied medicine at St. Bartholomew’s hospital in London for about two years. His anatomical drawings were outstanding and his greatest achievement during that time. During his studies, he met future author Percival Leigh (1813-1889), who would also become a very good friend and collaborator in various projects. Leech was then apprenticed to a variety of doctors, but his medical career came to an end in 1834.

The coffee house at Ludgate Hill had become unprofitable, so his father decided to sell it and buy another one in Fleet Street. However, within less than a year, he had to declare bankruptcy and his son’s drawing changed from being a hobby into a profession and thus a way of financially supporting his family. His first published work was Etchings and Sketchings by A. Pen, Esq. in 1835 when he was only 18 years old. It contains humorous drawings of typical London street characters such as policemen, cabmen, street musicians, etc. Leech also tried to become the illustrator for Charles Dickens’s (1812-1870) Pickwick Papers (1836-1837) after Robert Seymour (1798-1836) had committed suicide, but Dickens’s preferred Hablot Knight Browne (1815-1882), who had already provided images for one of his earlier publications. However, this was not the beginning of the end of their acquaintance and collaboration. Leech became one of the illustrators for Dickens’s Christmas stories (1843-1846), and his images for A Christmas Carol (1843) are particularly well-known and -loved. They were friends and appeared together in amateur theatre productions.

Leech spent some time in France during the 1830s and studied with an artist in Versailles, having never really received any other formal training as a draughtsman at all. Whilst there, he would have come across works by popular French illustrators such as Honoré Daumier (1808-1879). The exposure to artists such as Daumier would have contributed to his new style of images away from the cruel and crude caricatures by artists such as Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827), James Gillray (1756-1815) and early George Cruikshank (1792-1878) and towards a gentler form of humour. Journalist and fellow Punch employee Henry Silver (1828-1910) wrote about Leech that he was “the first artist working with a pencil who could manage to be comical without ever being coarse.” He had the knack of presenting a mirror to society without offending people but making them laugh at themselves. He was one of them and exposed the ridiculous side of their little everyday worries, latest obsessions and fashions.

By 1840, he was already in demand and had a variety of jobs. Not only his talent for drawing, but also his ability to draw directly on the stone (for lithographs), steel (for etchings) and wood (for engravings) must have helped to secure him jobs, because it would save time and money. He was an illustrator for Bentley’s Miscellany under George Cruikshank and published two books with his friend Percival Leigh, The Comic Latin Grammar and The Comic English Grammar (both published in 1840). His parody of the ‘Mulready envelope’ was very popular. Well-known artist William Mulready (1786-1863) had created this elaborately designed letter sheet for the newly reformed British Post Office the same year. However, it proved unsuccessful and people preferred simple stamps instead. The Mulready envelope stayed in circulation for a few years but was eventually withdrawn.

In August 1841, Leech became a staff member of the newly founded Punch Magazine; a connection that made him a household name in Britain and beyond and would last until his death. It was at Punch were the meaning of ‘cartoon’ was coined as we know it today. A ‘cartoon’ was traditionally a preliminary drawing for a fresco or large painting on sturdy paper or cardboard. This changed in 1843 when a select committee – responsible for the interior decoration of newly built Houses of Parliament – decided to hold a competition to find artists who would create frescos for the new building. The submitted designs – cartoons – were shown at a public exhibition at Westminster Hall in July 1843. The permitted topics had to be connected to British history, and were decidedly ‘high art’. Leech’s full page Substance and Shadows, published in Punch on the 15th July 1843, the last day of the exhibition, shows a group of ragged paupers at the exhibition, who are staring uncomprehendingly at the pretentious pictures. The little boy on the left looks at a cartoon showing a child of his age dressed in beautiful and expensive clothes while he can’t even afford a pair of shoes and must go barefoot. Despite the splendour around them, there is not a happy face in sight. With this image, the illustrator scathingly criticises the government, saying that, whilst they have money to waste on pompous decorations for their new workplace, they seem to have no penny to spare for the starving population of the ‘Hungry Forties’. The accompanying text caustically remarks that the government answered the call for giving the poor bread by giving them an exhibition instead – ‘shadow’ instead of ‘substance’. The heading for this particular image was Cartoon, No. 1, probably hinting that the topics of the competition should have been a bit more substantial and down-to-earth than historical, and literary themes. The following Punch issues also contained numbered ‘cartoons’, each, like the first one, accompanied by a short sarcastic paragraph. From this moment, the word became synonymous with satirical drawings and, over time, humorous pictures in general.

Black and white illustration of a group of poor people standing in an ornate gallery with paintings on the wall all around them.
Cartoon, No. 1, Substance and Shadow, John Leech, Punch Magazine vol. 5, 1843 (Source: Wikipedia)

Although Leech was not a particularly political person, he carried on creating political cartoons – the full page ‘big cuts’ in Punch – until John Tenniel (1820-1914) took over. Leech preferred drawing images of daily life instead in any case. His increasingly popular illustrations contributed to the long-lasting success of Punch, which had a circulation of up to 60,000 copies in its heyday in the 1860s and 1870s. The magazine published altogether over 3,000 of his images over the 23 years that he worked for it.

Apart from Punch, he regularly worked for magazines such as Once a Week and authors such as Douglas William Jerrold (1803-1857) and Robert Smith Surtees (1805-1864). Surtees was a wealthy sporting writer and novelist, who lived in his in his country house in county Durham. Like Leech, he adored the countryside, hunting and horse-riding. Thackeray suggested Leech in 1849 as the illustrator for Surtees’ Mr Sponge’s Sporting Tour (1851). Leech’s talent for drawing horses and landscapes and Surtees’ skill to turn his observations in the field into humorous stories were a great combination. They also collaborated on the author’s later novels Ask Mama (1858) and Plain or Ringlets? (1858-1860).

Leech had married Anne Viola Eaton – Annie – in 1842. She became his prime model for the ‘pretty girls’ in his images that he was known for. With more and more commissions, their income grew and the Leechs moved up in the world. The new generation of illustrators became more respectable and bourgeois during the mid-19th century. Although the stain of bankruptcy blemished his family’s reputation, Leech liked to see himself as a gentleman, and those who knew him said that he was a kind and considerate man with good looks and excellent manners. He and Annie were able to move into bigger and better houses and gave great dinners and garden parties for their friends. They afforded at least a maid, a cook and a governess for the children. In 1862, they purchased The Terrace in Kensington, which was then an up-and-coming London suburb and would become popular with artists such as Frederic Leighton (1830-1896), Luke Fildes (1843-1927) and Edward Linley Sambourne (1844-1910). Leech enjoyed spending his free time at his wealthier friends’ country houses and go fishing, horse-riding and hunting with them. He had always loved horses and, although he could barely afford it, he owned three horses at some point, which he would take on outings in the country. The illustrator was good friends with popular painters such as William Powell Frith (1819-1909) and Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais (1829-1896). He aspired to be a serious painter as well, and new technology in the 1860s made it possible for some of his images to be enlarged and printed on canvas. He then coloured them in and held two exhibitions, which were well-received and financial successes.

Leech worked hard his whole life. He financially supported his parents and his unmarried sisters, who were dependent him due to his father’s earlier entrepreneurial misadventures. Overwork, money worries, lack of sleep and thus an increasingly sensitive disposition, led to the premature death of the illustrator. His obituary in Cornhill Magazine states that, even a few hours before his passing on the 29thOctober 1864, Leech still insisted on working on one of his sketches. Apparently, the concerned doctor only allowed him to do so if it wouldn’t exhaust him too much. Simon Houfe writes that there was a children’s party going on in the house whilst he lay dying in his room, and that his friend Millais arrived just moments after friend had passed. Immediately, the artist helped the distraught widow with any necessary arrangements, and colleagues and friends from Punch organised the funeral on Kensal Green Cemetery for the 4th November. Fellow illustrator George du Maurier (1834-1896) recalls the scene at his friend’s funeral almost 30 years later:

“It was the most touching sight imaginable. The grave was near Thackeray’s, who had died the year before. There were crowds of people. Charles Dickens among them; Canon Hole, a great friend of Leech’s, and who had written most affectionately about him, read the service; and when the coffin was lowered into the grave, John Millais burst into tears and loud sobs, setting an example that was followed all round; we all forgot our manhood and cried like women! I can recall no funeral in my time where simple grief and affection have been so openly and spontaneously displayed by so many strangers as well as friends – not even in France where people are more demonstrative than here. No burial in Westminster Abbey have I ever seen gave such an impression of universal honour, love, and regret. “Whom the gods love die young.” He was only forty-six.”   

A man and a woman dressed in ragged clothes standing on a busy urban street talking.
A Street Fight, Punch vol. 47, 1864, wood engraving, PL2882

Not only his friends but also the public were shocked at his demise. Cornhill Magazine wrote in its epitaph in December 1864 that he was “not an artist of the common type” and quoted the Bible to express the general sentiment: “There was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where there was not one dead.” [Exodus 12:30, King James Version] For more than 20 years, people had enjoyed Leech’s illustrations; he had thus become such a presence in their households that they felt they had lost a personal friend. On the 12th November, Punch, for which Leech had worked for over two decades, published a moving obituary, in which Shirley Brooks (1816-1874) declared:

“While society, whose every phase he has illustrated with a truth, a grace, and a tenderness heretofore unknown to satiric art, gladly and proudly takes charge of his fame, they whose pride in the genius of a great associate was equalled by their affection for an attached friend would leave on record that they have known no kindlier, more refined, or more generous nature than that of him who has been thus early called to his rest.”

In the aftermath of the illustrator’s death, his friends organised an auction of his works, the takings of which were used to support Annie and her young children. Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales (1841-1910), future Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898), friends and dealers all bought works, and the sales raised about £7000. Unfortunately, this was not enough to keep The Terrace and the family eventually had to vacate their beloved home in Kensington. Mrs Leech died in 1868, leaving her daughter and son orphans at the ages of 14 and 12 respectively. They became the wards of Millais, Samuel Reynolds Hole (1819-1904) and their uncle Charles Eaton. Leech’s son drowned in a boating accident in Australia in 1876. Ada Rose married in 1881 and tragically died in childbirth in 1885. The surviving daughter became the artist’s only descendent.

A group of people sitting at a dinner table. The men are restricted by the huge dresses of the ladies and cannot reach their food.
Dining under Difficulties, Punch vol. 40, 1861, wood engraving, PL2872

Although a sharp dresser himself, Leech nevertheless enjoyed making fun of absurd fashions. As early as 1840, he illustrated Percy Leigh’s Fiddle-Faddle Fashion Book, which gleefully mocks the fads of the day in word and image. During the 1850s and 1860s, it was of course the (cage) crinoline that offered itself to frequent ridicule. Punch called the craze for wider and wider hoops ‘crinolinomania’. In Dining under Difficulties, Leech shows how some poor gentlemen at a dinner table are so constricted by the ladies’ voluminous dresses that they can’t even reach their food. William Powell Frith commented: “For the unexaggerated truth of this print, I, who write, can vouch, for have I not again and again been obliged to solve the difficulty of using my knife and fork? In spite of the attacks upon it, crinoline had its day – and far too long a day it was.” Leech also demonstrates in Sketches at Brighton how impracticable crinolines were at the seaside as the blowing wind would lift them and show a woman’s undergarments and ankles, which was deemed as improper by many Victorians. We also have an original Leech drawing in the School of Art collection that pokes fun at the ridiculous size of the crinoline. It is difficult to read the text underneath the drawing these days, but the impudent boy’s comment “Come and see the conjuring…” is clearly aimed at the lady’s skill to navigate her massive hoop skirt into the carriage.

People on a windy promenade. The wide hoop skirts of the ladies are being lifted up by the wind and expose their legs and undergarments.
Sketches at Brighton, Once a Week vol. 5, 1861, wood engraving, PL2861
Pencil drawing of a lady wearing a huge crinoline dress trying to get into a carriage. Two boys are standing next to her watching her struggles.
Impudent boy…, John Leech, 1840-1864, pencil drawing, WD124
A couple walking along a country lane. She is wearing a huge hoop skirt under which a group of chicken try to find cover.
UNE ERROR EXCUSABLE. Poulet croyant retrouver la cage dans laquelle ils ont passé leur première jeunesse. (AN EXCUSABLE ERROR. Chickens thinking they have found the cage where they spent their early childhood.), Honoré Daumier, Le Charivari, 12 January 1857, lithograph, PR4005
A young, slim woman stands in front of a mirror with a maid helping her to try on some clothes. A bigger woman sits on the side and watches them.
La Mode – The Souave Jacket, Punch vol. 28, 1860, wood engraving, PL2837

In La Mode – The Souave Jacket he seems to imply that not every fashion trend is suitable for every body shape; a joke that these days might be interpreted as body shaming.

A night scene a sitting room. A man jumps up from his armchair in front of a fireplace. A woman in a nightdress holding a candle stands behind him.
Awful Apparition!, Punch vol. 40, 1861, wood engraving, PL2867

So-called ‘sensation novels’ became very popular during the 19th century. Wilkie Collins (1824-1889)’s The Woman in White was one of the first to establish the genre. The novel was originally serialised in Charles Dickens’s journal All The Year Round, starting in November 1859, and published in book-form in 1860. It was a huge success. The gentleman in Leech’s image is completely engrossed in the story the moment his wife, the ‘awful apparition’, materializes seemingly out of nowhere behind him and scares him half to death. The illustrator clearly refers to the scene at the beginning of the story, in which the main protagonist first encounters the mysterious woman in white, who gives the novel its title:

“There, in the middle of the broad bright high-road—there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven—stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments, her face bent in grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London, as I faced her. I was far too seriously startled by the suddenness with which this extraordinary apparition stood before me, in the dead of night and in that lonely place, to ask what she wanted.” (Chapter IV)

An older man and a young woman standing in front of a carriage in which an older woman is sitting.
The Science of Matrimony, Once a Week vol. 2, 1860, wood engraving, PL2816

Writers and artists often used physiognomy to identify certain social groups rather than individuals. Physiognomy is the ‘art’ of reading a person’s character from his facial traits. It was popularized, for example, by Swiss Protestant minister Johann Caspar Lavatar (1741-1801) in his book Physiognomy, Designed to Promote the Knowledge and the Love of Mankind (published 1775-1778). Minorities such as Jews and Irishmen, who had to deal with racial prejudices due to their different religion and nationality in any case, were stereotyped further with supposed typical facial features. Jewish people were presented with hawk noses, which can be observed in Leech’s The Science of Matrimony. The older man in the middle of the scene has in addition an overall dark appearance, with long hair and beard and dark clothes. This representation of a Jewish man had already been employed earlier by Dickens. Drawn by George Cruikshank, Fagin – the Jew in Oliver Twist (1837) – is a shady figure and bears a strong resemblance to the man in Leech’s image. The same can be said about Svengali in George du Maurier (1834-1896)’s novel Trilby (1894). Jewish people were also often described as beady-eyed, cunning and greedy. In The Science of Matrimony they are given “keen Jewish eyes”; there are “old hook-nosed men” in the Jewish quarter, and “six young ladies” are all “covered with rings and collars” and all have “the same keen, eager, Jewish look”. Leech supplies the matching illustrations to these stereotypical descriptions.

Although Leech’s images reflect a common perception of and prejudice towards Jewish people during the 19th century, his biographer Simon Houfe suspects that Leech’s antipathy towards them was also due to bad experiences he had made in sponging houses run by Jews during his early adulthood. The artist Frith explains in his biography of Leech:

“If John Leech could have entertained a prejudice against any human beings, it must have been against the Jewish race, for there is scarcely an instance in which he deals with the Jews that they do not suffer under his hand. The points of their physiognomy are rather cruelly prominent sometimes, even almost to caricature, and they are constantly placed in ludicrous positions.”

Black and white illustration of a little boy and a little girl standing opposite a young woman.
A Word to the Wise, Punch vol. 38, 1860, wood engraving,
PL2851
A woman, a girl and a boy in a sitting room. The boy is pulling at the woman's skirt.
A Poser, Punch vol. 40, 1861, wood engraving, PL2869
Black and white illustration of a little girl in the process of cutting a little boy's hair. An adult woman has just caught them in the act.
Complimentary to Paterfamilias, Punch vol. 38, 1860, wood engraving, PL2832

Leech was very fond of children and had fun depicting their little quirks and adventures. Especially their precociousness towards adults was – and still is – always a source of amusement in his images. The boy in A Word to the Wise, for example, has overheard his father talking about him and uses the information to his advantage by demanding treats from the new nurse as otherwise he might become a very naughty boy indeed. A Poser and Complimentary to Paterfamilias demonstrate children’s sometimes hilarious literal mindedness and pragmatism. The Liberal politician and journalist George W. E. Russell (1853-1919) calls Leech “the sacred bard of child-life”. He believed that the artist was inspired by the children of his sister Caroline’s school, which Leech financially supported.  The illustrator often used his own daughter Ada Rose, born in 1854, and son John Charles Warrington, born in 1855, as models for his sketches in Punch. Leech and his wife had longingly waited for many years to become parents, and before they could enjoy life as a family, tragedy had struck: A daughter, Rose Annie, had been born prematurely in 1847 and sadly died in 1849. The artist was a loving and generous father and referred to his offspring as ‘chicks’, and Kitton explains that Leech regularly threw parties for his children. According to Houfe, who wrote about the artist almost exactly 100 years later, “children were both seen and heard at The Terrace.”

Black and white illustration of a servant girl standing in front of a couple and showing off her fine clothes.
Servantgalism, Punch vol. 39, 1860, wood engraving, PL2857
Two black and white illustration. At the top, a boy sitting on an armchair cleaning boots. A servant maid stands in front of him. Lower image, a young page stands in front of a closed door and eats a piece of pie.
Our Page, Once a Week vol. 1, 1859, wood engraving, PL2754

In the 1850s, Punch started a series of cartoons called Servantgalism to which Leech frequently contributed. The images show servants acting ‘above their station’ by trying to copy their betters’ fashion, speech and ambition to make something of themselves, and not fulfilling their tasks as dutifully as they were supposed to. The young woman is dressed up to the nines for her interview and appears to have hitched up her skirts to show off the impressive hoop underneath. She confidently responds to the bemused lady of the house when asked why she left her last position. Leech had already created the character of John Thomas, a London footman with an attitude, for Punch in 1848. That series became known as Flukeiana, and he drew images for it until the end of his life.

Punch was not the only magazine that mocked aspiring servants; Leech created the Our Page illustrations for a short story of the same name by C. P. William in Once a Week. William explains his difficulties in finding a suitable page for his household, resulting in defeat after some frustrating experiences. One illustration shows a juvenile casually lounging in an armchair whilst polishing his master’s boots; he is announcing to the astonished maidservant that he won’t be a ‘slave’ for much longer. The other one shows a young page cheekily eating some of the pie that is certainly not meant for him. These scenes were very popular as many middle-class readers could relate to them; however there seems little evidence of what their household staff thought about them. Let’s just imagine that they had a laugh, too.

Karen Westendorf (Curatorial and Technical Assistant)

 

Sources: 

You can find all images that we hold of John Leech in the School of Art collection here: http://museum.aber.ac.uk 

The juvenile drawings by John Leech and William Makepeace Thackeray are currently on display in the museum of the Charterhouse. If you would like to visit the Charterhouse, please find all information here: https://thecharterhouse.org 

Allingham, Philip W. Substance and Shadow: https://victorianweb.org/art/illustration/leech/101.html

Collins, Wilkie. The Woman in White: https://gutenberg.org/files/583/583-h/583-h.htm

Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/46675/46675-h/46675-h.htm

Du Maurier, George. Trilby: https://gutenberg.org/files/39858/39858-h/39858-h.htm

Frith, William Powell. John Leech, His Life and Work: https://archive.org/details/johnleechhislife36663gut

Houfe, Simon. John Leech and the Victorian Scene. Antique Collectors’ Club, 1984.

Houfe, Simon. John Leech. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/16322 

Kitton, Fred G., John Leech Artist and Humourist: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101067641884&view=1up&seq=1&skin=2021

Knox, Alexander Andrew Knox (GAMMA). The Science of Matrimony: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Science_of_Matrimony

Leech, John and Leigh, Percy.The Fiddle-Faddle Fashion Book: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=WZG5y4sWojsC&pg=PT5#v=onepage&q&f=true

Miller, Henry J. “John Leech and the Shaping of the Victorian Cartoon: The Context of Respectability.” Victorian Periodicals Review 42.3 (2009): 267-291. JSTOR. Web. 05 Mar. 2020.

Nead, Lynda. Fashion and Visual Culture in the 19th Century: The Crinoline Cage: https://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/fashion-and-visual-culture-in-the-19th-century-the-crinoline-cage

Price, R. G. G. A History of Punch. Collins, 1957.

Russell, George W.E. Collections and Recollections: https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.502319/page/n310/mode/2up

Whiteley, Derek Pepys. George du Maurier: His Life and Work (English Masters in Black and White). Art and Technics, 1948.

Williams, C.P. Our Page, Once a Week vol. 1, 1859: https://archive.org/details/01OnceAWeekJulDec1859/mode/2up

White, Gleeson. English Illustration The Sixties: https://archive.org/details/englishillustra00whitgoog/page/n4/mode/2up

John Leech Obituary, Cornhill Magazine vol. 10 issue 60, 1864: https://archive.org/details/sim_cornhill-magazine_1864-12_10_60 

Substance and Shadow, Punch vol. 5, 1843: https://archive.org/details/sim_punch_1843_5_0/mode/1up?view=theater

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