(29 August 1817 - 29 October 1864)
The great comic draughtsman and illustrator, was born in London. He was a son of John Leech, a man of cultivated interests, who for some years owned the London Tavern on Ludgate Hill. The father is said to have had no talent for drawing himself, but to have had a very happy knack of guiding and helping the boy who, from his earliest years, showed marked promise with his pencil. The story, a true one, is often told how John Flaxman found the child sitting on his mother's knee with a scrap of paper and a pencil, and predicted that he would make something remarkable. He urged that the boy's gift should on no account be cramped by drawing-lessons -- advice which was followed almost to the letter. During the whole of his life Leech had no serious art training beyond the drawing-lessons which he received at Charterhouse from Mr. Burgess, the drawing-master of that day, who, it may be observed, also taught Thackeray. It is stated in Ottley's Dictionary of Painters that Leech attended the Academy schools, and even exhibited at the Academy. His family know nothing of this. No such name occurs in the Exhibition catalogues, and Mr. Pickersgill hunted the lists of Academy students on behalf of the present writer in vain. The statement is entirely fabulous.
A drawing of a coach and horses, such as the child would have easily seen in that day on Ludgate Hill, done at the age of six, hangs in the Charterhouse Museum, and is a very remarkable piece of childish insight into movement and animal action. It hangs side by side with the last pencil sketch which lay beside Leech's bed when he died.
At the age of seven John Leech was sent as a boarder to Charterhouse, to the house of the Rev. E. Churton, which still exists in Charterhouse Square. Thackeray was during the same period a boarder in the house of the Rev. E. H. Penny, which also still exists in Wilderness Row. A fall from a pony had injured Leech's right shoulder, and debarred him from taking an active part in school games, contributing probably in direct ratio to the boy's development as a draughtsman and caricaturist. He left tlie school after seven years, at the age of fourteen, in the year 1831, and being then intended for the profession of a surgeon, attended the schools at Bartholomew's Hospital, and was placed under Dr. Stanley, who spoke with enthusiasm of his exquisite anatomical drawings. Though these studies added little to his professional zeal, nothing could have been more useful to him with a view to his future art than his training as a surgeon. The exact knowledge of the human body which he obtained thereby was invaluable to him, while his extraordinary natural observation and quickness in catching a passing movement or gesture saved him from the danger into which anatomy has led other men, of stiff and exaggerated muscular action.
On leaving St. Bartholomew's he was placed as an assistant in the city with a certain Mr. Whittle, a very remarkable character, who is introduced by Albert Smith into his novel of Mr. Ledbury, under the name of Dr. Rawkins. At what exact date Leech finally abandoned all idea of the medical profession cannot be said. In 1836, he is known to have spent a month with friends at Versailles, and to have spent some time in the company of a French artist, and it was possibly at that time that the resolve was formed. At about that date he was beginning to find work from the publishers, though for several years it was an anxious struggle. The first sketch which was accepted by a publisher was paid for with a guinea. This was about 1835, and about the same time appeared a little book called Etchings and Sketches by A. Pen, Esq. Some of his earliest work, very rudely cut, was published in Bell's Life, and in 1840, he illustrated Percival Leigh's Comic Latin Grammar and Comic English Grammar.
During these years he spent a good deal of time with friends near Farnborough, and produced a large number of sketches. Many of these are in Charterhouse Library, and though not equal in ease and strengtlh to his later productions, they are full of comic force and admirable drawing. One of them is a large drawing called 'Foreign Afi'airs,' a collection of Frenchmen, very characteristically rendered. This subject, somewhat altered, was the first from his hand which Punch accepted, and it was rendered memorable by the fact that, owing to some mistake on Leech's part, it delayed the publication of Punch for two days. For a year or two, however, his drawings for Punch were few. His first cartoon -- 'Wellington and the Clown' -- appeared in 1843. But from about 1843, till his death in 1864, he contributed over 3000 drawings and cartoons to it, and his fame was now assured.
From that time, indeed, he was to know no rest, the calls upon his pencil being incessant, and his work for the engniver taxing a delicate constitution and a nervous temperament to the uttermost. In 1844, he illustrated the Christmas Carol for Dickens. In 1847 and 1852, appeared the Comic History of England and the Comic History of Rome (of which the original sketches are at Charterhouse), In 1853, and at intervals therefrom, appeared Surtees' novels. Sponge's Sporting Tour (most of the drawings in the hands of a Charterhouse master), 'Handley Cross,' 'Plain or Ringlets,' 'Mr. Romford's Hounds,' etc. In 1858, he illustrated A Little Tour in Ireland, the result of a holiday tour with Canon Hole. He illustrated in all some fifty books, besides producing an infinite number of drawings for the Illustrated London News and other periodicals.
His drawings for Punch have been collected in a series of four volumes called Pictures of Life and Character; the cartoons from Punch being likewise reprinted in a single volume. In 1862, he exhibited at the Egyptian Hall a set of his drawings from Punch, enlarged by a peculiar process of stretching a prepared elastic surface on which a small woodcut had been printed. This enlarged drawing was then coloured. It may be mentioned that Leech had at all times cherished the hope of being able some day to find leisure for the independent practice of painting, but the leisure never came. His health, which had been always precarious, slowly broke down under the strain of his work. He suffered from nervous depression, which was painfully augmented by the necessity of living among the distracting sounds of London. In the last year of his life, 1864, he suffered much from these causes, and the condition of his health became serious. He had been with his friend Thackeray at the Founders' Day Dinner of his old school (Charterhouse) in the December of 1863, but before the next anniversary came round both of them had passed away. Leech died of angina pectoris on October 14, 1864. In his room lay a beautiful half-finished "first thought" for a drawing for Punch, which hangs to-day in Charterhouse Museum.
John Leech is known to the English world as an inimitable master of humour, a creator of wholesome laughter, one to whom the honour is primarily due of having altered the whole course of English caricature by rescuing it from all that was ill-natured, malicious and gross -- epithets which may be truly applied to the work of some of the earlier caricaturists. This fact is fully recognised, but it is not so well known to all who have enjoyed his healthy humour, that he was one of the most refined and consummate draughtsmen who ever lived. Those who are well acquainted with his original pencil drawings -- and by these alone can he be judged -- are well aware that in subtlety and expression of line they often rival the best silver point of the old masters. He drew almost entirely in pencil -- hard pencil cut to a fine point. For the woodcutter, indeed, he never used any other medium, and he hardly ever, even for irresponsible sketching, employed pen-and-ink.
Of many hundreds of original sketches which have passed through the present writer's hands not more than half-a-dozen are in pen-and-ink, and these merely casual drawings thrown off because he happened to have a pen in his hand. It is necessary to emphasise this fact because it is commonly supposed by those who know only the somewhat coarse but effective woodcuts of Punch that Leech drew in rather bold pen-and-ink, and that his style was rough and ready. Indeed a recent American authority on pen-and-ink has fallen into the strange mistake of comparing him as a pen-draughtsman with his brilliant successor, Charles Keene. The comparison, of course, cannot be justly made. The later illustrators lived in the days when a design could be transferred to the block by photography, enabling them to work out a highly-finished pen-and-ink drawing on paper which they could then retain as a valuable asset. John Leech, on the other hand, had to place his own drawing, always a work of exquisite delicacy, on to the wood block. The drawing wholly disappeared from view under the knife of the wood-engravers of that day to reappear in the rude and effective style which was accepted by them and by the public as the proper style for caricature -- one, however, which was wholly unlike Leech's masterly pencil work. His method was as follows: As the idea of a subject came into his mind, he would set it down in pencil with extraordinary rapidity and with a complete sense of composition; these "first thoughts," as they have been named, bearing a close resemblance to the final issue. From these "first thoughts" he selected and traced the leading lines on vegetable tracing paper. These tracings are often extremely slight, but more often they are drawn with a sensitive delicacy and artistic expression which is quite remarkable considering the material on which they are drawn and the transitory purpose for which they were intended. (Many examples of both these stages may be seen in the Charterhouse Collection.)
The final drawing on the wood has, of course, disappeared in the process of cutting, and it is probably true that no finished independent drawing by John Leech in his best period can now be appealed to. But the examples which are to be seen of liis work in its earlier stages at Charterhouse, South Kensington, Bradford and Nottingham, and in the private collections of Mr. A. Brassey, the writer, and others, display him as one of the greatest masters of the pencil -- all question of the purpose to which he was called upon to apply it standing, of course, apart -- who has ever worked. In these slight pencillings, not intended to have any permanency, and thrown off by Leech without any idea that they were to be the only evidences by which his true worth could be hereafter judged -- they were, indeed, many of them rescued from the waste-paper basket by his sisters -- are to be found the highest qualities of sensitive draughtsmanship, rapid and expressive seizure of movement, and above all an infallible sense of composition and arrangement which place them in the highest rank as works of art.
Of Leech's private life and character it need only be said that those who knew him best -- among whom were Thackeray, Sir John Millais, and Dean Hole -- bore loving and enthusiastic testimony to his manly, gentle, and chivalrous disposition. It was a nature singularly rich in all the best sympathies -- a nature which was reflected both in his art and in his life. G. S.D. (Rev. G. S. Davies)
Bryan's Dictionary of Painters and Engravers, 1876 - Reprinted, 1894, 1899
Leech, John. (Brit.) (1817 - 1864.) Was educated at the Charter House School in London, and was also a pupil for some time in the Royal Academy, where he exhibited a few pictures of a genre character, which were in no way remarkable. His sketches in Bell's Life in London were the first of his works which attracted attention to him as an artist. He was connected with Punch as early as 1841, remaining upon the active staff of that journal for twenty- three years, and receiving for his services, it was estimated, £40,000. Many of his sketches, enlarged and colored, were exhibited in London in 1861, drawing crowds of visitors and realizing some £5,000. The lithographs of these were very popular and extensively sold, as were his many contributions to Punch, when collected in book form. Among the great number of works illustrated by Leech are:
"John Leech is different from all of these, and taken as a whole surpasses them all, even Cruikshank; and seats himself next, though below, William Hogarth. Well might Thackeray, in his delightful notice of his friend and fellow-Carthusian in the Quarterly, say, "There is no blinking the fact that in Mr. Punch's Cabinet John Leech is the right-hand man. Fancy a Dumber of Punch without Leech's picture! What would you give for it?' This was said ten years ago (1852). How much more true is it now! ...It is this wholesomeness, and, to use the right word, this goodness, that makes Leech more than a drawer of funny pictures, more even than a great artist. It makes him a teacher and an example of virtue in its widest sense." -- Dr. John Brown, in Spare Hours.
"Nothing was more characteristic of Leech, and nothing was more enjoyable in his works, than the evident genial sympathy with which he entered into every phase of the many-sided English life of the hunting-field, the seaside, the ballroom, the drawing-room, the nursery... John Leech had also a fine appreciation of English scenery, and in those bits of it which he introduced into his sketches he did it full justice, while he elevated by their artistic completeness the character of the sketches." -- Rossetti.
"Very few artists, very few men of any profession, have been privileged to give the amount of pleasure which Leech conferred in very different quarters, and on very different ages ...To the infinite honor of Leech and of the promoters and proprietors of Punch, it was pleasure of the most innocent description." -- Mrs. Tytler's Modern Painters.
"His [Dickens'] opinion of Leech, in a word, was, that he turned caricature into character; and would leave behind him not a little of the history of his time and its follies sketched with inimitable grace ...To represent female beauty as Mr. Leech represents it, an artist must have a delicate perception of it; and the gift of being able to realize it to us as with two or three slight, sure touches of the pencil. This power Mr. Leech assesses in an extraordinary degree... His wit is good-natured, and always the wit of a gentleman." -- Forster's Life of Dickens, Vol. II. Chap. XVIII.
"The out-door sketcher will not fail to remark the excellent fidelity with which Mr. Leech draws the backgrounds of his little pictures. The homely landscape, the sea, the winter wood by which the huntsmen ride, the light and clouds, the birds floating overhead, are indicated by a few strokes which show the artist's untiring watchfulness and love of nature ...No man has ever depicted the little 'snob' with such delightful touch. Leech fondles and dandles this creature as he does the children. To remember one or two of these gents is to laugh." -- Thackeray, in the London Times, June 21, 1862.
Artists of the nineteenth century, their works, biographical sketches, Clara Erskine Clement Waters & Laurence Hutton, (1883)
View painter's work: John Leech (1817-1864)