John Leech, Illustrator and caricaturist for Punch magazine

Many of the Hammersmith & Fulham archives are still in Lilla Huset in Talgarth Road where they were housed before we moved to Hammersmith Library.  I was looking through some of the old volumes and came across John Leech’s Pictures of Life & Character from the collection of ‘Mr Punch’.

John Leech’s Pictures of Life & Character from the collection of ‘Mr Punch’

John Leech’s Pictures of Life & Character from the collection of ‘Mr Punch’

John Leach (1817-1864) was a popular Victorian illustrator and caricaturist but I was not aware of any links to Hammersmith or Fulham.  He was born in the City of London in 1817 and rather than follow his father and uncle into the restaurant business he was determined to become an artist.  A little research, however, revealed that he had lived for some years in Brook Green.

John Leech

John Leech

Leech was a good friend of Charles Dickens and illustrated some of his novels.  In the winter of 1843 he produced four illustrations, etched on steel and coloured by hand, as well as wood text engravings for A Christmas Carol:

Frontispiece. “Mr Fizzywig’s Ball”, illustration for Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, 1843

Frontispiece. “Mr Fizzywig’s Ball”, illustration for Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, 1843

Another book he illustrated for Dickens was Cricket on the Hearth published two years later:

Text illustration from Charles Dickens’ Cricket on the Hearth, 1845

Text illustration from Charles Dickens’ Cricket on the Hearth, 1845

Another author he worked with was Gilbert à Beckett whom he had met in 1832 when they were both medical students and who later became a writer at Punch. He wrote A Comic History of Britain for which Leech provided both colour prints and text illustrations:

“Henry VIII monk hunting”, illustration for A Comic History of Britain

“Henry VIII monk hunting”, illustration for A Comic History of Britain

Early in 1845, John Leech and his wife, Annie, moved from Bloomsbury to 10 Brook Green, next door to their friend, Mark Lemon, at no 12 in “the quiet suburb” of Hammersmith. He obviously enjoyed being a “villa dweller” as is described in the following letter to Hohn Foster:

Letter and drawing of Leech’s house in Brook Green (reproduced from Houfe’s biography)

Letter and drawing of Leech’s house in Brook Green (reproduced from Houfe’s biography)

Leech’s move to Hammersmith coincided with the order to call out the militia in early 1846.  Leech joined and had fun with the over-domesticated, amateur soldiers in “The Brook Green Militia Man”.  In the drawing of Militia Man being presented with colours (an old shirt tied to a stick) can be seen Leech’s house in the background.

Presentation of Colours to the Brook Green Volunteers

Presentation of Colours to the Brook Green Volunteers

John Leech is best known for are his illustrations for Punch magazine, a connection that started in 1841 and continued until his death. He was not one for the original engravers but he was asked to do some work a few weeks later.  Unfortunately, he sent in his drawings on wood block so late that the magazine could not appear in time, distribution failed and there was a serious fall in the week’s circulation.  Not surprisingly, it was some time before he was offered more work and he was much helped in this by his old school friend, W M Thackeray, joining the staff.

Leech contributed more than 3000 illustrations to the magazine and was soon a popular illustrator. It was felt he reflected the views and attitudes of much of the magazine’s readership.  He was seen as a family man, unpretentious, patriotic, championing the underdog and standing up for the common sense view.  His social observations often highlighted the plight of the poor and forgotten or concerned the daily humour of family life and leisure in Victorian England.

Much of his drawing is considered autobiographical.  During his early marriage when he was living in Brook Green he produced the series ‘Domestic Bliss’:

In 1948, he moved to the more affluent Notting Hill Terrace, Kensington and this was reflected in his drawings:

'Servantgalism, or, what's to become of the missuses' by John Leech

‘Servantgalism, or, what’s to become of the missuses’ by John Leech

Later Leech discovered the country and a new series was developed about Mr Briggs and the pleasures of horse-keeping.  He became a well known sporting illustrator and in the 1850s he contributed numerous etchings of sporting scenes, together with woodcuts, to the novels of by Robert Smith Surtees, including to the Handley Cross novels featuring the character of Mr Jorrocks.  Hopefully this later material will be in a future blog.

[Fiona Fowler, volunteer Local History Room and Archives]

Bibliography

[Except for the first book which you need to request, the books are available on the shelves in the Local History Room].

Leech, John Pictures of Life & Character from the collection of ‘Mr Punch’ 1887, H927.4 LEE

à Beckett, G A  A Comic History of Britain, 1st ed 1850, H&F Library ed 1897,  H928.7 ABE

Brown, John  John Leech & other papers, 1882, H920 LEE

Houfe, Simon  John Leech & the Victorian Scene 1984, H920 LEE

Speilmann, M H  History of Punch, 1895, H920.08 PUN

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