John Leech (1817-1864) John Leech was a fluent and incisive draughtsman, who had great success as a cartoonist for Punch and as a literary illustrator, especially of John Surtees’ sporting subjects.
John Leech was born at 28 Bennett Street, off Stamford Street, Southwark, London on 29 August 1817. His father, a native of Ireland, was the assistant proprietor of the London Coffee House on Ludgate Hill. Educated at Charterhouse School, he began to study medicine at St Bartholomew’s Hospital at the age of fifteen, and worked for a while as an apprentice doctor. However, he was forced to abandon this medical career following his father’s bankruptcy.
Soon turning to his talent for drawing to develop a career, Leech produced a pamphlet – Etchings and Sketchings (1835) – in his preferred medium of lithography. In 1836, he gained further, direct experience of the handling of lithography when he visited Paris and fell under the influence of such French artists as Honoré Daumier and Paul Gavarni.
Later he would meet the caricaturist Comte Amedée de Noë (known as ‘Cham’) and the painter Edouard Manet. From 1838, he also took lessons from J Orrin Smith in wood engraving, the medium more widely used in British periodicals.
Leech established himself with contributions to Bentley’s Miscellany in 1840, and in 1841 submitted a drawing to Punch. Two years later, he began to produce cuts regularly for the periodical, sharing work with John Tenniel, and excelling in images of fashionable life. During this period, he also developed close friendships with the novelists Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray. He and Dickens collaborated on a number of books, beginning with A Christmas Carol (1843), and throughout the 1840s they holidayed together and shared the stage in some memorable amateur productions. A former Charterhouse contemporary, Thackeray wrote in his obituary of Leech that ‘he always looked at society from the gentleman’s point of view’. Leech was instrumental in the ‘gentrification’ of Punch, and became well known for his many illustrations of sporting and hunting subjects, most notably for J R Surtees’s Handley Cross (1854). As late as 1860, Leech received lessons in oils from another friend, John Everett Millais, in order to prepare for a – highly successful – exhibition at the Egyptian Hall (1862).
Leech died at his home at 6 The Terrace, Kensington, London on 29 October 1864, and was buried at Kensal Green cemetery on 4 November, with Tenniel among his pall-bearers. He had been married to Annie Eaton from 1842, and was father to a daughter and a son.
In the following years, John Ruskin tried to help provide for the sisters of Leech, by organising the sale of his outline drawings. In 1872, they were exhibited at The Gallery, 9 Conduit Street with an accompanying catalogue written by Ruskin. Yet, even with his support, the scheme failed, and he himself was the largest purchaser. He placed the drawings in such collections at the Museum of St George, Walkley, Sheffield (now the Ruskin Collection of Museum Sheffield).