John Leech (caricaturist)

Last updated

John Leech
John Leech - DPLA - 22ea4a2e58332c3f5fce03f53c5ca64e (page 1).jpg
Leech's carte de visite
Born(1817-08-29)29 August 1817
London, England
Died29 October 1864(1864-10-29) (aged 47)
London, England
Occupation(s) Caricaturist and illustrator

John Leech (29 August 1817 29 October 1864) was a British caricaturist and illustrator. [1] He was best known for his work for Punch , a humorous magazine for a broad middle-class audience, combining verbal and graphic political satire with light social comedy. Leech catered to contemporary prejudices, such as anti-Americanism and antisemitism and supported acceptable social reforms. Leech's critical yet humorous cartoons on the Crimean War helped shape public attitudes toward heroism, warfare, and Britons' role in the world. [2] [3]


Leech also enjoys fame as the first illustrator of Charles Dickens' 1843 novella A Christmas Carol . [4] He was furthermore a pioneer in comics, creating the recurring character Mr. Briggs and some sequential illustrated gags. [4]

Early life

John Leech was born in London. His father, a native of Ireland, was the landlord of the London Coffee House on Ludgate Hill, "a man", on the testimony of those who knew him, "of fine culture, a profound Shakespearian, and a thorough gentleman." His mother was descended from the family of Richard Bentley. Like his father. Leech was skillful at drawing with a pencil, which he began doing at a very early age. When he was only three, he was discovered by John Flaxman, who was visiting, seated on his mother's knee, drawing with much gravity. The sculptor admired his sketch, adding, "Do not let him be cramped with lessons in drawing; let his genius follow its own bent; he will astonish the world"—advice which was followed. A mail-coach, done when he was six years old, is already full of surprising vigour and variety in its galloping horses. Leech was educated at Charterhouse School, where William Makepeace Thackeray, his lifelong friend, was a fellow pupil, and at sixteen he began to study for the medical profession at St Bartholomew's Hospital, where he won praise for the accuracy and beauty of his anatomical drawings. He was then placed under a Mr Whittle, an eccentric practitioner, the original of "Rawkins" in Albert Smith's Adventures of Mr Ledbury, and afterwards under Dr John Cockle; but gradually he drifted into the artistic profession. His nickname also being "Blicky" stuck with him during his life, along with being famous.

Artistic career

Leech engraving featured in Punch JohnLeechHimself.jpg
Leech engraving featured in Punch
A scene from Leech's Comic History of Rome, depicting the Rape of the Sabine Women. The women are portrayed in Victorian costume being carried off from the "Corona et Ancora" ("Crown and Anchor", a common English pub sign in seafaring towns.) Comic History of Rome p 010 The Romans walking off with the Sabine Women.jpg
A scene from Leech's Comic History of Rome, depicting the Rape of the Sabine Women. The women are portrayed in Victorian costume being carried off from the "Corona et Ancora" ("Crown and Anchor", a common English pub sign in seafaring towns.)

He was eighteen when his first designs were published, a quarto of four pages, entitled Etchings and Sketchings by A. Pen, Esq., comic character studies from the London streets. Then he drew some political lithographs, did rough sketches for Bell's Life, produced a popular parody on Mulready's postal envelope, and, on the death of Dickens illustrator Robert Seymour in 1836, unsuccessfully submitted his renderings to illustrate The Pickwick Papers .

In 1840 Leech began his contributions to the magazines with a series of etchings in Bentley's Miscellany , where George Cruikshank had published his plates to Jack Sheppard and Oliver Twist , and was illustrating Guy Fawkes in feebler fashion.

In company with the elder master Leech designed for the Ingoldsby Legends and Stanley Thorn, and until 1847 produced many independent series of etchings. These were not his best work; their technique is imperfect and we never feel that they express the artist's individuality, the Richard Savage plates, for instance, being strongly reminiscent of Cruikshank, and The Dance at Stamford Hall of Hablot Browne.

In 1845 Leech illustrated St Giles and St James in Douglas William Jerrold's new Shilling Magazine, with plates more vigorous and accomplished than those in Bentley, but it is in subjects of a somewhat later date, and especially in those lightly etched and meant to be printed with colour, that we see the artist's best powers with the needle and acid.

Frontispiece of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, first edition 1843, illustrated by Leech Charles Dickens-A Christmas Carol-Title page-First edition 1843.jpg
Frontispiece of Dickens' A Christmas Carol , first edition 1843, illustrated by Leech

Among such of his designs are four charming plates to Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol (1843), the broadly humorous etchings in the Comic History of England (18471848), [5] and the still finer illustrations to The Comic History of Rome (1851) [6] —which last, particularly in its minor woodcuts, shows some exquisitely graceful touches, as witness the fair faces that rise from the surging water in Cloelia and her Companions Escaping from the Etruscan Camp .

Among his other etchings are those in Young Master Troublesome or Master Jacky's Holidays, and the frontispiece to Hints on Life, or How to Rise in Society (1845)—a series of minute subjects linked gracefully together by coils of smoke, illustrating the various ranks and conditions of men, one of them—the doctor by his patient's bedside—almost equalling in vivacity and precision the best of Cruikshank's similar scenes.

Then in the 1850s come the numerous etchings of sporting scenes, contributed, together with woodcuts, to the Handley Cross novels by Robert Smith Surtees.

Lithographic work

Leech's lithographic work includes the 1841 Portraits of the Children of the Mobility, an important series dealing with the humorous and pathetic aspects of London street "Arabs", which were afterwards so often and so effectively to employ the artist's pencil[ citation needed ]. Amid all the squalor which they depict, they are full of individual beauties in the delicate or touching expression of a face, in the graceful turn of a limb[ citation needed ]. The book is scarce in its original form, but in 1875 two reproductions of the outline sketches for the designs were published—a lithographic issue of the whole series, and a finer photographic transcript of six of the subjects, which is more valuable than even the finished illustrations of 1841, in which the added light and shade is frequently spotty and ineffective, arid the lining itself has not the freedom which we find in some of Leech's other lithographs, notably in the fly leaves, published at the Punch office, and in the inimitable subject of the nuptial couch of the Caudles, which also appeared, in woodcut form, as a political cartoon, with Mrs Caudle, personated by Brougham, disturbing by untimely loquacity the slumbers of the lord chancellor, whose haggard cheek rests on the woolsack for pillow.[ citation needed ]

Wood engraving

Substance and Shadow, published in Punch, 1843, the first use of the word cartoon to refer to a satirical drawing SubstanceandShadow.jpg
Substance and Shadow, published in Punch, 1843, the first use of the word cartoon to refer to a satirical drawing

It was in work for the wood-engravers that Leech was most prolific and individual. Among the earlier of such designs are the illustrations to the Comic English and Latin Grammars (1840), to Written Caricatures (1841), to Hood's Comic Annual, (1842), and to Albert Smith's Wassail Bowl (1843), subjects mainly of a small vignette size, transcribed with the best skill of such woodcutters as Orrin Smith, and not, like the larger and later Punch illustrations, cut at speed by several engravers working at once on the subdivided block.

It was in 1841 that Leech's connection with Punch began, a connection which subsisted until his death, and resulted in the production of the best-known and most admirable of his designs. His first contribution appeared in the issue of 7 August, a full-page illustration—entitled Foreign Affairs of character studies from the neighbourhood of Leicester Square. His cartoons deal at first mainly with social subjects, and are rough and imperfect in execution, but gradually their method gains in power and their subjects become more distinctly political, and by 1849 the artist is strong enough to produce the splendidly humorous national personification which appears in Disraeli Measuring the British Lion.

About 1845 we have the first of that long series of half-page and quarter-page pictures of life and manners, executed with a hand as gentle as it was skilful, containing, as Ruskin has said, "admittedly 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", which has yet appeared.

In addition to his work for the weekly issue of Punch, Leech contributed largely to the Punch almanacks and pocket-books, from Once a Week between 1859 and 1862, to The Illustrated London News , where some of his largest and best sporting scenes appeared, and to innumerable novels and miscellaneous volumes besides, of which it is only necessary to specify A Little Tour in Ireland (1859). This last piece is noticeable as showing the artist's treatment of pure landscape, though it also contains some of his daintiest figure pieces, like that of the wind-blown girl, standing on the summit of a pedestal, with the swifts darting around her and the breadth of sea beyond.

Public exhibition

In 1862 Leech appealed to the public with a very successful exhibition of some of the most remarkable of his Punch drawings[ citation needed ]. These were enlarged by a mechanical process, and coloured in oils by the artist himself, with the assistance and under the direction of his friend John Everett Millais. Millais had earlier painted a portrait of a child reading Leech's comic book Mr Briggs' Sporting Tour.[ citation needed ]


Leech was a rapid and indefatigable worker.[ citation needed ] Dean Hole said he observed the artist produce three finished drawings on the wood, designed, traced, and rectified, "without much effort as it seemed, between breakfast and dinner"[ citation needed ]. The best technical qualities of Leech's art, his precision and vivacity in the use of the line, are seen most clearly in the first sketches for his woodcuts, and in the more finished drawings made on tracing-paper from these first outlines, before the chiaroscuro was added and the designs were transcribed by the engraver.[ citation needed ] Turning to the mental qualities of his art, it would be a mistaken criticism which ranked him as a comic draughtsman. Like Hogarth he was a true humorist, a student of human life, though he observed humanity mainly in its whimsical aspects,

Hitting all he saw with shafts
With gentle satire, kin to charity,
That harmed not.[ citation needed ]

The earnestness and gravity of moral purpose which is so constant a note in the work of Hogarth is indeed far less characteristic of Leech, but there are touches of pathos and of tragedy in such of the Punch designs as the Poor Man's Friend (1845), and General Février turned Traitor (1855), and in The Queen of the Arena in the first volume of Once a Week, which are sufficient to prove that more solemn powers, for which his daily work afforded no scope, lay dormant in their artist.[ citation needed ]

The purity and manliness of Leech's own character are impressed on his art. We find in it little of the exaggeration and grotesqueness, and none of the fierce political enthusiasm, of which the designs of James Gillray are so full. Compared with that of his great contemporary, George Cruikshank, his work is restricted both in compass of subject and in artistic dexterity.[ citation needed ]

Leech was played by Simon Callow in the 2017 film The Man Who Invented Christmas which depicts the 1843 writing and production of Dickens' A Christmas Carol.[ citation needed ]


Grave of John Leech in Kensal Green Cemetery Grave of John Leech in Kensal Green Cemetery.jpg
Grave of John Leech in Kensal Green Cemetery

He died on the 29th October 1864 and was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery, close to his friend William Makepeace Thackeray (two graves to the left).[ citation needed ]

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cartoon</span> Type of two-dimensional visual art

A cartoon is a type of visual art that is typically drawn, frequently animated, in an unrealistic or semi-realistic style. The specific meaning has evolved over time, but the modern usage usually refers to either: an image or series of images intended for satire, caricature, or humor; or a motion picture that relies on a sequence of illustrations for its animation. Someone who creates cartoons in the first sense is called a cartoonist, and in the second sense they are usually called an animator.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">John Tenniel</span> British illustrator and cartoonist (1820–1914)

Sir John Tenniel was an English illustrator, graphic humorist and political cartoonist prominent in the second half of the 19th century. An alumnus of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, he was knighted for artistic achievements in 1893, the first such honour ever bestowed on an illustrator or cartoonist.

<i>Punch</i> (magazine) British weekly magazine of humour and satire

Punch, or The London Charivari was a British weekly magazine of humour and satire established in 1841 by Henry Mayhew and wood-engraver Ebenezer Landells. Historically, it was most influential in the 1840s and 1850s, when it helped to coin the term "cartoon" in its modern sense as a humorous illustration. From 1850, John Tenniel was the chief cartoon artist at the magazine for over 50 years.

<i>A Christmas Carol</i> 1843 novella by Charles Dickens

A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas, commonly known as A Christmas Carol, is a novella by Charles Dickens, first published in London by Chapman & Hall in 1843 and illustrated by John Leech. A Christmas Carol recounts the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, an elderly miser who is visited by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley and the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come. After their visits, Scrooge is transformed into a kinder, gentler man.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Political cartoon</span> Illustration used to comment on current events and personalities

A political cartoon, a form of editorial cartoon, is a cartoon graphic with caricatures of public figures, expressing the artist's opinion. An artist who writes and draws such images is known as an editorial cartoonist. They typically combine artistic skill, hyperbole and satire in order to either question authority or draw attention to corruption, political violence and other social ills.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Caricature</span> Simplified or exaggerated artistic image

A caricature is a rendered image showing the features of its subject in a simplified or exaggerated way through sketching, pencil strokes, or other artistic drawings. Caricatures can be either insulting or complimentary, and can serve a political purpose, be drawn solely for entertainment, or for a combination of both. Caricatures of politicians are commonly used in editorial cartoons, while caricatures of movie stars are often found in entertainment magazines.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Illustration</span> Depiction made by an artist

An illustration is a decoration, interpretation or visual explanation of a text, concept or process, designed for integration in print and digital published media, such as posters, flyers, magazines, books, teaching materials, animations, video games and films. An illustration is typically created by an illustrator. Digital illustrations are often used to make websites and apps more user-friendly, such as the use of emojis to accompany digital type. llustration also means providing an example; either in writing or in picture form.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">George Cruikshank</span> British caricaturist and book illustrator (1792–1878)

George Cruikshank was a British caricaturist and book illustrator, praised as the "modern Hogarth" during his life. His book illustrations for his friend Charles Dickens, and many other authors, reached an international audience.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Richard Doyle (illustrator)</span> English illustrator

Richard "Dickie" Doyle was a British illustrator of the Victorian era. His work frequently appeared, amongst other places, in Punch magazine; he drew the cover of the first issue, and designed the magazine's masthead, a design that was used for over a century.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Harry Furniss</span>

Harry Furniss was a British illustrator. He established his career on the Illustrated London News before moving to Punch. He also illustrated Lewis Carroll's novel Sylvie and Bruno.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Charles Keene (artist)</span> English artist and illustrator (1823–1891)

Charles Samuel Keene was an English artist and illustrator, who worked in black and white.

<i>The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch</i>

The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch or simply Mr. Punch is a graphic novel written by Neil Gaiman, illustrated and designed by Dave McKean. It was published in 1994.

This is a timeline of significant events in comics prior to the 20th century.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Robert Seymour (illustrator)</span>

Robert Seymour was a British illustrator known for his illustrations for The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens and for his caricatures. He committed suicide after arguing with Dickens over the illustrations for Pickwick.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Robert William Buss</span> British artist (1804–1875)

Robert William Buss was a Victorian artist, etcher and illustrator perhaps best known for his painting Dickens' Dream. He was the father of Frances Buss, a pioneer of girls' education.

Alfred Henry Forrester was an English author, comics artist, illustrator and artist, who was also known under the pseudonym of Alfred Crowquill.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Joseph Clayton Clark</span>

Joseph Clayton Clark, who worked under the pseudonym "Kyd", was a British artist best known for his illustrations of characters from the novels of Charles Dickens. The artwork was published in magazines or sold as watercolor paintings, rather than included in an edition of the novels.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Kenny Meadows</span> British artist and illustrator

Joseph Kenny Meadows, better known as Kenny Meadows, was a British caricaturist and illustrator. He is best known for the drawings that he contributed to Punch and for his illustrations of scenes from Shakespeare's plays. Much of his work was drawn in a humorous bohemian style. He was well known for the quality of his illustrations, although the critical reception of his work was often mixed.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ernest Griset</span> Painter and illustrator

Ernest Henri Griset was a French-born painter and illustrator noted for the humorous interpretations of his subjects.

<i>The Comic History of Rome</i>

The Comic History of Rome (1851) is a humorous look at the people and events of ancient Rome from its Foundation to the Assassination of Julius Caesar with text by the English humorist Gilbert Abbott à Beckett and comic illustrations by John Leech, famous for his illustrations for the novella A Christmas Carol (1843) by Charles Dickens. In his introduction, à Beckett wrote that, "The writer of this book is animated by an earnest wish to aid, as far as he is able, in the project of combining instruction with amusement." Largely, however, to modern eyes the humour lies not in à Beckett's somewhat dated text but rather that it is in Leech's "delightfully anachronistic illustrations that the book's true subversion lies, offering as they do a critique of Victorian society itself."


  1. Ray, Gordon N. (1991). "John Leech (1817 – 1864)". The illustrator and the book in England from 1790 to 1914. Dover. p. 82. ISBN   9780486269559.
  2. Richard D. Altick, "'Punch's First Ten Years: The Ingredients of Success", Journal of Newspaper & Periodical History (1991) 7#2 pp. 5–16
  3. Henry J. Miller, "John Leech and the Shaping of the Victorian Cartoon: The Context of Respectability", Victorian Periodicals Review (2009) 42#3 pp. 267–291.
  4. 1 2 "John Leech". Retrieved 31 July 2019.
  5. "Posner Memorial Collection in Electronic Format".
  6. "Posner Memorial Collection in Electronic Format".

Biographies of Leech have been written by

Further reading