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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

John Leech

By Russell Sturgis (1836–1909)

[Born in Baltimore, Md., 1836. Died in New York, N. Y., 1909. The Century Magazine. 1879.]

THIRTY-SEVEN and a half years ago, in London, there appeared a prospectus of a proposed new journal. The newsmen handed it to their customers: it was headed by a fairly clever picture in the fashion of the day, a wood-cut of just such character as were Hablot Browne’s contributions to another journal then in its second year,—“Master Humphrey’s Clock,” edited by Charles Dickens and published by Chapman & Hall. This head-piece represented the well-known puppet of London street shows—that very “Punch” whose most famous gentlemen-ushers were Messrs. Codlin and Short—standing between two masked personages, his “author” and his “artist”; and the first line declares that it is a “refuge for destitute wit” which is here established, thereby asserting a connection between the new journal and the recognized fashion of comic publication for the previous century or two. On the seventeenth of July, 1841, came out the first number of “Punch”; it seems not very funny to a reader of to-day; its manner of jesting is ponderous and, except for its freedom from offence, reminds one of that eighteenth century “wit” now only known to book-collectors as to be found in the comic publications alluded to. The illustrations, besides one full-page “cartoon,” were wretched little cuts an inch high, scattered through the text; the cartoon itself is better, but is not a design at all, only five heads of “Candidates under different Phases,”—five separate pictures irregularly distributed over the page. The Parliamentary elections of that summer were just concluded. The Whigs had been beaten pretty badly. Lord Melbourne’s ministry was evidently endangered; the Tories were on the alert and ready to build up their own government on the ruins of the old one, and by means of the popular majorities they had won. “Punch” is chiefly occupied with politics at first, and very blue reading it is. Except for the preservation in these pages of some of those old stories and local allusions which help the reader of history wonderfully, even Miss Martineau’s record of those times is more amusing than that of our joker.

But in the fourth number of “Punch,” “for the week ending August 7, 1841,” the cartoon was by a different hand. John Leech had signed his name in full in the left-hand lower corner; a scroll in the very centre of the page bore the inscription “Foreign Affairs,” and, as author’s name, the mark so well known afterward, a bottle with inverted glass over the stopper and a wriggling “leech” within. Below the scroll, a London sidewalk is seen thronged with the denizens of Leicester Square, eight men and two women, walking and staring, or conversing in a group. The lowest type of escaped fraudulent debtor, the most truculent style of gambler in fairly prosperous condition, the female chorus-singer growing old and stout; all are here as easy to recognize as if described in words. Above are detached studies. In one portly figure, whose back only is seen, but who has an inscription, “The Great Singer,” we recognize Lablache. In a pianist with a cataract of coarse hair, a better informed reader of English journals, or one who had the patience to wade through this very number of “Punch,” might recognize some celebrity of the day—can it be Liszt? But the important thing to our inquiry is the easy strength seen in the drawing of these twenty grotesque figures. They are hardly caricature. Take any one of them and it will be evident that we have before us a portrait. The original of that portrait was “padding with thin soles” the pavement of Regent street in August, 1841. His son is there to-day, in a somewhat different hat and coat and without straps to his trousers….

Did the dissatisfied subscribers of “Punch” (who must have been many, for the paper was sold to new owners not many weeks after this “week ending August 7, 1841,” and was bought by Messrs. Bradbury & Evans very cheaply—some say for a hundred pounds!)—did they welcome the new hand? Was his name already known well enough to carry with it assurance of better work than that done by A. S. H. and W. N.? It must have been familiar already to amateurs and students of wood-engraving and of book-illustration. For Leech, though only a twenty-four-year-old man in 1841, was a three-year-old designer for wood-cuts….

During the year 1842, Leech worked steadily for “Punch,” though the more commonplace sketches of Hine, and the stilted and “hifalutin” designs of Kenny Meadows, are more frequent in those pages. There are also a lot of smug and drawing-room-like pictures which seem to be by Harvey. It is odd enough to see one of Leech’s firm and simple designs in the adjoining column to one of those others, with their lady-like grace and pretty turns of the head, and smoothness and smirk. Leech, for his part, gets into full career toward the close of the third volume; the big picture illustrating the pleasures of folding-doors, and “of hearing the ‘Battle of Prague’ played with a running accompaniment of one, and two, and three,—and one, and two, and three,—and”—is a good landmark; it shows the future style of the artist, his way of treating feature and expression, his touch, his ingenuity in handling accessories, and that neatness of his legends and inscriptions which never forsook him. In the fifth volume, toward the close of 1848, there is a picture (perhaps not the first, indeed) and a legend, about the organ-grinding nuisance which, in after life, at least, was a real distress and burden to the sensitive artist: “Wanted,” it says, “by an aged lady, of a very nervous temperament, a professor who will undertake to mesmerize all the organs in her street—Salary, so much per organ.” For “aged lady,” read, delicately organized man of twenty-six!

“Punch” was bravely “liberal” in those early days; full of sympathy with advanced ideas, and with the opponents of privilege and stately establishments; even to the extent of making immense fun of royalty and the royal family, and the rapidly lengthening list of royal children. It is an odd contrast between the touchingly loyal tone of only ten years later, and the quite ferocious fun made of Prince Albert, of the Duke of Cambridge and his daughter’s marriage, of the expense of the royal establishment as contrasted with the wretchedness of the poor—a theme constantly urged. A change came over the public mind in England, not long after the events of 1848 and 1849, and this is as visible elsewhere as in the pages of “Punch.” Prince Albert was indeed a favorite mark for ridicule, at least on certain occasions, till a much later time, but the queen and her children and her household, and royalty as an institution, were all treated as things very sacred and very precious, from about the year 1850. Concerning Ireland, too, and Irish government, there was in the early volumes a certain feeling of regret and apology not to be found later; in the sixth volume, the Queen and the Czar Nicholas are seen sitting at the two ends of a table, while above their heads hang the map of Ireland and the map of Poland, and the Queen, pointing to her own dependency, says: “Brother, brother, we’re both in the wrong!” In the same volume a really admirable cartoon is entitled “The Game Laws, or the Sacrifice of the Peasant to the Hare”; and a more uncompromising bit of anti-privilege thought no one need ask for. All these are by Leech. There is a marked change in the artist’s temper in after life. It is not probable that he ever forgot to be charitable, or to be pitiful, or to be indignant at gross abuses; but assuredly his mind was fixed upon other things….

In “Punch” for this year, 1844, are several fanciful designs which are remarkable enough. “Old Port introducing Gout to the Fine Young English Gentleman” contains a portrait of “Gout” which it is a pity we cannot find room for. But these fantasies are not his best work. The holiday-schoolboy at the pastry-cook’s counter, who tells the saleswoman that he has had—“two jellies, seven of them, and eleven of them, and six of those, and four bath-buns, a sausage-roll, ten almond-cakes, and a bottle of ginger-beer”;—the capital heads of the two swimmers at a watering-place, of which the lips of one say almost in the horror-stricken ear of the other: “I beg your parding, Captain, but could you oblige me with my little account?” the old gentleman and the ragged little boy who meet, in front of a sweet-shop, in “A Lumping Penn’orth,” between whom passes this dialogue: “Now, my man, what would you say, if I gave you a penny?” “Vy, that you vos a jolly old Brick!”—these portraits of the people of London are what our kindly and observant artist was sent to London to make. Here is his own portrait, as he was in July, 1846, when the maid said to him: “If you please, sir, here’s the printer’s boy called again!” And here is his portrait in January, 1847, “first (and only) fiddle” to the orchestra in “Mr. Punch’s Fancy Ball.” This picture is a huge double-page cartoon; on the floor are the celebrities of the day dancing and conversing,—Lord Brougham with the “Standard,” Mr. Punch (of course) with Britannia, and O’Connell, Lord Derby, Wellington, and the rest; but the orchestra is made up of the editors and contributors to “Punch.” Let Dr. John Brown describe them; for he claims to know them all (see his essay on Leech, reprinted in “Spare Hours”): “On the left is Mayhew playing the cornet, then Percival Leigh the double-bass, Gilbert A’Becket the violin, Doyle the clarinet, Leech next playing the same—tall, handsome, and nervous—Mark Lemon the editor, as conductor, appealing to the fell Jerrold to moderate his bitter transports on the drum. Mooning over all is Thackeray—big, vague, child-like—playing on the piccolo; and Tom Taylor earnestly pegging away on the piano.”…

It does not appear from any record of Leech’s life within reach at what time he had his experience of the hunting-field. That he always loved horses is evident, and that he owned them and enjoyed riding; it must have been his custom from an early day to take a two-days’ winter run into the country, visiting some friend in the hunting-districts. By the time he was thirty-five, the long series of his hunting-field pictures begins, not to cease till his death. In “Punch” for 1855, we find “The Parson in the Ditch.”… “I say, Jack! who’s that come to grief in the ditch?” “Only the parson.” “Oh! leave him there, then! He won’t be wanted until next Sunday!” Such are the gracious remarks of the young Nimrods. The picture is selected on account of its landscape background. Leech’s professed admirers, writing soon after his death in 1864, have much to say about his love of and power over landscape, but a plenty of designs could be brought to show how carelessly he could draw out-of-door nature, and how seldom, in his earlier life, he seems to have cared to give it especial thought. Still, this one must be accepted at full! This is really a capital distance—flat and leading far away—a December countryside in England, as if of April with us; and this is only the first of a great many landscape bits equally good and suggestive, which accompany the hunting-scenes and go far to reconcile one to their constant recurrence.

For, indeed, to any one who respects the history and believes in the continued manliness and virtue of English national character, the modern abandonment of the whole nation to sport seems a wretched thing; and it is pitiful to see the unquestioning way in which so able and amiable a man gives up his time to representing the incidents of the hunting-field. The ways and manners of the young patricians are not a whit more amusing than those of London omnibus drivers and cabbies—as Leech represents them. They say things not nearly so witty; there is no room for pathos; there is actually nothing delightful about it but the horses and the landscape, and, to the young swells themselves and their families, the constant contemplation of themselves engaged in their favorite pursuit. Our good-natured moralist enters into the spirit of many classes of men, and gives us with equal hand scenes of life on sea and on shore, in the streets and in the fields; and it is all life, tragedy and comedy, business and rest, mingled in due proportion. But these scores of pictures, all devoted to one of the many sports which have for their very nature the cruel destruction of animals—this amusement of chasing and tearing to pieces a beast who is cared for and made much of in his native haunts, for the very purpose of this chase, is a hard thing to an outsider….

The year 1864 came, and found our admirable artist still at work as vigorously as ever; not robust, not rugged, but in seeming good health and spirits, and fit to live and work for years. To “Punch” for that year he had contributed eighty pictures, when, on the fifth of November, appeared a very amusing cut: An Irishman, dreadfully maltreated in a street fight, is taken charge of by his wife, while a capitally indicated group of the victor and his friends is seen in the distance, and two little Irish boys nearer. “Terence, ye great ummadawn,” says the “wife of his bussum” to the vanquished hero, “what do yer git into this Thrubble fur?” Says the hero in response: “D’ye call it Thrubble, now? Why, it’s Engyement.” It is as good a thing as ever Leech did—as good a cut as ever was in “Punch.” When he laid his pencil down beside this drawing, it was never to take it up again; and six days before the appearance of the paper in which the cut was published, he had passed away. In his death there was taken from modern England her closest observer and most suggestive delineator of men and women. To the great Cruikshank, human character was rather a thing to draw inspiration from than simply to portray: Oliver Twist and Jack Falstaff, in Cruikshank’s work, are conceptions as completely abstract as his fairies and witches. If the reader will look back to the July number of this magazine, he will see how much more varied and how much more imaginative and powerful is Cruikshank’s art. But he could never have done what Leech did, still less what Leech might have done. To represent every class of English life, and the peculiar types of form and character, developed in different parts of the kingdom, with sympathizing and loving touch, and to contrast with these pictures of his countrymen many studies of foreign life, almost as thorough and accurate, though often touched with that pleasant exaggeration, which makes some portraiture more like than life; to do this was Leech’s appointed task, and to a certain extent he fulfilled it. In one sense, his art is monotonous; its range is limited; a hundred pictures could be selected which would show all that Leech achieved during his too brief career of twenty-five years. But the pleasure this body of work is capable of giving is not limited by its narrowness of range; every fresh design is a fresh enjoyment, however like it is to the last. And there is not one which is not pure and refined in thought and purpose.