Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Leech, John (1817-1864)

LEECH, JOHN (1817–1864), humorous artist, was born in Bennett Street, Stamford Street, London, on 29 Aug. 1817, his father, also John Leech, being proprietor of the London Coffee-house on Ludgate Hill. He was baptised on 15 Nov. at Christ Church, Blackfriars Road. Of Irish extraction, the elder Leech was a man of much natural ability, a good Shakespearean scholar, and a draughtsman of more than ordinary accomplishment. If tradition is to be believed, his son was by no means slow to follow in his footsteps, and Flaxman, who found him drawing at a very early age on his mother's knee, is said to have recommended that so precocious a genius should be permitted to follow its own bent, advice which he practically repeated a few years later. When very young, Leech was sent to the Charterhouse, to the distress of his mother, of whom the pretty story is told that she hired a room in the vicinity of the school from which, unknown to her son, she could watch him in his play hours. His Charterhouse career was not brilliant. Fond of games of skill and of open-air exercises generally, he seems to have had little aptitude for the studies of the place, and the chief memory connected with his sojourn there is the friendship he formed and maintained through life with Thackeray. It is possible, however, that as the future author of 'Vanity Fair' was six years his senior, their boyish connection, like that of Addison and Steele, has been exaggerated. At sixteen, after nine years of 'Grey Friars,' he began, by his father's desire, to study medicine at St. Bartholomew's, where he made the acquaintance of Albert Smith, Percival Leigh, and Gilbert à Beckett, all of whom were subsequently to earn distinction with the pen rather than the scalpel. At St. Bartholomew's Leech was most distinguished for the excellence of his anatomical drawings. His father had intended to place him with Sir George Ballingall of Edinburgh. But his monetary affairs had not prospered, and young Leech left the hospital to follow the instructions of a certain Mr. Whittle of Hoxton, who combined a very moderate business as a doctor with a great deal of pigeon-fancying, and the kind of athletics in favour with strong men at fairs. His portrait, not greatly caricatured, is drawn at length, under the name of Rawkins, in Albert Smith's 'Adventures of Mr. Ledbury,' 1844, which Leech afterwards illustrated during its progress through 'Bentley's Miscellany,' perhaps also supplying his old colleague at Bartholomew's with the leading points of the character itself. Leaving Mr. Whittle, Leech passed to Dr. John Cockle, the son of the inventor of Cockle's pills. But already he was gravitating towards his true vocation, and becoming known among his fellows as a humorous artist. When at length his father's failing fortunes practically collapsed, and he had to relinquish medicine, it was to art that he turned for a livelihood.

His first essays were in the then popular direction of drawing on stone, and his earliest production was a series of street characters entitled ' Etchings and Sketchings by A. Pen, Esq..' 1835. It was a modest pamphlet of four quarto sheets, '2s. plain, 3s. coloured.' and it consisted of sketches of 'cabmen, policemen, street musicians, donkeys, broken-down hacks, and many other oddities of London life.' After this he seems to have tried political caricatures, and he was also employed upon 'Bell's Life in London.' In 1836 he was one of the unsuccessful competitors for Seymour's place as illustrator of the 'Pickwick Papers' (a copy of his design is published in the Victoria edition of 1887); and he illustrated Theodore Hook's 'Jack Brag.' 1837. But his first popular hit was an adroit pictorial parody of the inappropriate design which Mulready prepared in 1840 for a universal envelope. Leech's imitation (copied in Kitton, Leech, 1883, p. 16) was very funny, and his assumption upon it of the device (a leech in a bottle) which he afterwards made so well known, gave rise to a curious misunderstanding on Mulready's part, of which Frith gives an account (Leech's Life, 1891). In the same year (1840) Leech produced, in concert with his old friend Percival Leigh [q. v.] ('Paul Prendergast'), a 'Comic Latin Grammar.' which was followed, also in 1840, by a 'Comic English Grammar,' and four plates entitled 'The Fiddle-Faddle Fashion Book and Beau Monde à la Française.' In 1841 came the lithographed 'Children of the Mobility' (a skit upon a then fashionable publication dealing with the children of the aristocracy), in which Percival Leigh was again his collaborator. This, a series of seven drawings in a wrapper, was elaborately reproduced in 1875. Besides the above, Leech was employed in 1840 on the 'London Magazine, Charivari and Courrier des Dames.' and he began to supply illustrations to 'Bentley's Miscellany.' But the great event of 1841 was the establishment, in August of that year, of his connection with 'Punch.' then about three weeks old. His contributions began at the fourth number, and, oddly enough, looking to his lifelong connection with the periodical, his first drawing seriously affected the sale. In those days the subdivision of blocks was unknown, and Leech's sketch, being larger than usual, took so long a time to cut that the number in which it appeared was not ready for publication at the date appointed. This was his only drawing in the first volume, and he did not make many for the second. But with the third he began that regular succession of sketches which, collected afterwards under the title of 'Pictures of Life and Character,' 1854–69, and frequently reproduced, constitute the main monument of his genius. From this time until his death in 1864 he was the chief pictorial pillar of 'Punch;' and he is said to have received from this source alone about 40,000l., and to have executed for it some three thousand drawings, of which at least six hundred are cartoons. But he continued at the same time to supply etchings and woodcuts to many separate works. Among others he illustrated, in 'Bentley's Miscellany,' the 'Ingoldsby Legends,' 'Stanley Thorn,' 'Richard Savage,' 'Mr. Ledbury' above mentioned, the 'Fortunes of the Scattergood Family,' the ' Marchioness of Brinvilliers,' 'Brian O'Linn,' &c. He also supplied etchings or cuts for the 'New Monthly Magazine,' 1842–4, Hood's 'Comic Annual,' 'Jack the Giant Killer,' 1843, the 'Illuminated Magazine,' 1843–5, and 'Shilling Magazine,' 1845–8, the 'Comic Arithmetic,' 1844, the 'Christmas Stories of Dickens' 1843–8, Jerrold's 'Story of a Feather,' 1846, and 'Man made of Money,' 1849, Gilbert à Beckett's 'Comic History of England,' 1847, and 'Rome,' 1852, 'Christopher Tadpole,' 1848, Forster's 'Goldsmith,' 1848 (two illustrations), 'Bon Gualtier's Ballads,' 1849, the sporting novels of Mr. R. Scott Surtees, 1853–65, S. W. Fullom's 'Great Highway,' 1854, and 'Man of the World,' 1856, the 'Little Tour in Ireland of Dr. Hole,' 1859, the 'Newton Dogvane' of Mr. Francis, 1859, 'Once a Week,' 1859–64, Pennell's 'Puck on Pegasus,' 1861, and a number of other works, including many designs for the 'Illustrated London News' and Punch's ' Pocket Books,' for the names of which the reader is referred to the 'Bibliography' issued in 1892 by Mr. C. E. S. Chambers.

Many of the etched plates to the foregoing, e.g. the sporting novels and the comic histories, were effectively tinted by hand, after patterns prepared by the artist himself. Though essentially a worker in black and white, Leech, as it often happens, had a strong desire to try his skill at colours. In 1862 he essayed a series of so-called 'sketches in oil,' which were exhibited at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, in June and the following months. These consisted of copies of a selection of his 'Punch' drawings, which had been ingeniously enlarged, transferred to canvas, and coloured lightly in oils. As the artist advanced with this process he considerably improved it in detail, and his exhibition was a great pecuniary success (it brought him nearly 5,000l.), to which a friendly notice by Thackeray (Times, 21 June) not a little contributed. But from an art point of view the experiment could scarcely be regarded as unassailable, and the modest artist was right in saying that his efforts had 'no claim to be regarded, or tested, as finished pictures.' Some of the technical obstacles he victoriously overcame, and the work brought out conspicuously his gift for the picturesque. Nevertheless, the enlargement of drawings, originally conceived on a smaller scale, is scarcely ever effected without loss, and those who remember these pictures also remember that, full of spirit, life, and humour as they were, they were often raw in colouring and thin in execution. An illustrated catalogue, containing all the original blocks from 'Punch.' was issued in 1862. Not long after his connection with 'Punch' had become established, Leech married Miss Ann Eaton. He had two children, a boy and a girl, the former of whom, John George Warrington Leech, who inherited some of his father's artistic gifts, was drowned at South Adelaide in 1876. Leech himself was a man of singularly handsome presence, being over six feet high and extremely well built. He had considerable distinction of manner and much personal charm. By his friends and associates he was praised for his genial, kindly temper, his fund of humorous observation, and his ready sympathy with pain and sorrow. His tenderness and devotion to his family were remarkable even in a naturally amiable man. He is said to have been a good singer of a melancholy song, and affected much the 'King Death' of Procter ; and he occasionally figured, though without enthusiasm, in the amateur theatricals of Dickens, playing Master Matthew in 'Every Man in his Humour* at Miss Kelly's Theatre, Dean Street, Soho (now the Royalty), in 1845. His chief amusement, however, was the hunting-field, and to his runs with the Puckeridge or the Pytchley we owe many of the subjects of his sporting sketches. But though he was a brave man and a bold rider, he was of extremely nervous temperament, which increased as time went on, and one result of the tension caused by the ceaseless application involved by his vocation was an exceptional sensibility to street noises of all kinds, and street music in particular. Indeed this affliction maybe said to have precipitated, if it id not actually bring about, his too early death. In a letter to Michael Thomas Bass, M.P., when bringing in a bill relating to street music, Mark Lemon did not hesitate to trace Leech's ultimately fatal malady, angina pectoris, or breast pang, to the disturbance of his nervous system caused by ' the continual visitation of street-bands and organ-grinders.' It is possible, however, that its real origin, as Dr. John Brown suggests, may have been a strain in hunting. He died on 29 Oct. 1864, at No. 6 The Terrace, Kensington, at the age of forty-seven, and was buried on 4 Nov. at Kensal Green, divided but by one tomb from his old school-fellow and friend Thackeray, who had preceded him in December 1863. A likeness of him by Sir John Millais, R.A., was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1855, and there is a statuette by the late Sir J. E. Boehm, R.A. A collection of 170 of his designs and etchings was issued by Bentley in 1865 in 2 vols, folio.

The period of Leech's pictorial activity (1840-64) covers the middte of the century. He comes, for practical purposes, between Cruikshank and Du Maurier, and in that order plays an indispensable part in the progressive transformation of humorous art from the broad brutalities of the earlier men to the gentler and more subdued satire now in vogue. As Cruikshank refines upon Gillray and Rowlandson, so Leech refines upon Cruikshank, but to a much greater extent. His humour is to the full as keen, his sense of fun as marked ; but it is less grotesque, less boisterous, less exaggerated, nearer to truth and to ordinary experience. It is thoroughly manly, hearty, and generous. It delights in domestic respectabilities; in handsome, healthy womankind ; in the captivating caprices and makebelieves of childhood. It detests affectations, pretensions, social deceptions of all sorts ; but it has a compassionate eye for eccentricities which are pardonable, and vanities that inj ure no one. Being honest and manly, it is also exceptionally pure in tone, and never depends for its laugh upon dubious equivocations. Its pictures of social dilemmas, of popular humours, of national antipathies, are of the most graphic and mirth-provoking kind, and yet the raillery is invariably good-humoured. In these days, when photography has multiplied the opportunities of accuracy, and the employment of the model prevails to an extent wholly unknown to Leech and his predecessors, it is impossible to contend that his drawing is always academic, or to rebut the charge that it is frequently conventional. But his gift for seizing fugitive expression and for mentally registering transitory situation was extraordinary. Long practice had made it unerring in its way, and Leech perhaps wisely concentrated his attention upon these points. Yet he possessed, like Eeene, a marvellous faculty for landscape, and in many cases the backgrounds to his sketches are in themselves of striking beauty. No words define his general position in art better than Mr. Ruskin's: 'His work contains the finest definition and natural history of the classes of our society; the kindest and subtlest analysis of its foibles, the tenderest flattery of its pretty and well-bred ways, with which the modesty of subservient genius ever immortalised or amused careless masters.'

[Leech's Life has recently (1891) been written in two bulky volumes by Mr. W.P. Frith, R.A., the artist's personal friend. Another friend, Dr. S. R. Hole, dean of Rochester, is understood to be meditating a volume of recollections. Besides Mr. Friths book, there is the John Leech of Mr. F. G. Kitton, 1883 (revised edit. 1884); Thackeray's paper in the Quarterly, December 1854; Cornhill Mag. December 1864; Dr. John Brown's paper in the North British Review, March 1866; Quarterly Review, April 1865; Englishman's Mag. April 1865; Dickens's review of The Rising Generation, Forster's Life, 1872, bk. vi. ch. iii.; Scribner's Mag. 1878; Everitt's English Caricaturists, 1886, pp. 277-335; Manchester Quarterly, 1890. The catalogue of the library of Mr. C. J. Pocock, sold by Sotheby in 1890, contains a list of many of Leech's drawings and paintings.]

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