Now largely forgotten, despite his prolific output during the course of a relatively brief career (1852-1865), John McLenan was one of America's finest caricaturists and realists in the decade preceding the Civil War. Although he worked for numerous New York publishing houses, and even a few of Boston's publishers, he produced some of his finest work for the New York house of Harper & Company, illustrating two Wilkie Collins novels (The Woman in White and No Name) and two Dickens novels (Great Expectations and Great Expectations for that house's large-scale format, wide-circulation magazine Harper's Weekly: A Journal of Civilisation.

John McLenan, although just 34 at the time he worked on the series for Great Expectations, was a seasoned veteran who was regarded as 'The American Phiz' for both the quality and quantity of his illustrations of such works as Dickens's Great Expectations in Harper's Weekly (7 May through December 3, 1859). Sinclair Hamilton describes (in terms reminiscent of Italian Renaissance artist Cimabue's discovery of young Giotto tending sheep) the start of McLenan's fourteen-year career in book illustration:

Discovered by DeWitt C. Hitchcock working in a pork-packing establishment in Cincinnati and making drawings on the tops of barrels, McLenan became one of the most prolific of our [i. e., America's] early illustrators. . . . . He was also well known as a comic draftsman. His work will bear comparison with the best of his time. [180]

Before undertaking the illustration of The Woman in White, A Tale, and Great Expectations for Harper & Company, he already had enjoyed a certain vogue among other leading New York publishers: Charles Scribner; H. Long & Brother; D. Appleton; J. C. Derby; DeWitt and Davenport; Sheldon, Lamport & Blakeman; Dick & Fitzgerald; Stringer & Townsend; Bunce & Brother; A. Ranney; Edward Livermore; T. W. Strong; Mason Brothers; J. Q. Preble; Carlton & Porter; E. D. Long; Rudd & Carleton; and Derby & Jackson. His relationship with Harper & Company began in 1856, and by 1859 he appears to have become a frequent contributor. Aside from Harper's Weekly, his work appeared in The New York Picayune, the Jolly Joker, and Harper's New Monthly Magazine. Although neither a deliberate emulator of Hablot Knight Browne ("Phiz") nor a highly innovative illustrator, McLenan was certainly as prolific an illustrator in mid-nineteenth-century New York as Phiz was in London; and of course neither Phiz nor McLenan worked in the somewhat academic, professional, and naturalistic style of the Sixties School to which Marcus Stone belonged.

The unique feature of the 1861 American single-volume edition of Great Expectations is the frontispiece, signed "H. L. S.," and therefore not by McLenan, and probably by the Philadelphia-born house illustrator for Harper & Brothers, Henry Louis Stephens (1824-1882), whom Sinclair Hamilton credits with seventeen major illustrated works, including American editions of W. M. Thackeray's Vanity Fair (New York: Frank J. Thompson, 1859-1860) and Charles Reade's Very Hard Cash (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1864: 18 plates). In contrast, Hamilton credits McLenan with fifty-six major illustrated works, including a great many travelogues, the Harper's serialization of Great Expectations (1859: 64 plates), and both Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White (Harper's, 1860: 74 plates) and No Name (Harper's, 1863: 63 plates).

Unfortunately, Great Expectations was among the last works that McLenan illustrated; because he died four years later, at the comparatively early age of thirty-eight, he missed the opportunity to meet Charles Dickens on his 1867 American reading tour, an opportunity enjoyed by Sol Eytinge (1833-1905), illustrator of Ticknor & Fields' new six-volume Diamond edition of CD's works:

The memorial which appeared in the May [1865] number of Yankee Notions called him "one of the best draughtsmen America has ever produced" and said of him: "Equally at home in caricature and in sketches from the life, with a quick perception of the ridiculous and a fine appreciation of the picturesque, he soon took his place among the illustrators of our current literature, second to none." (Cited by Frank Weitenkampf in his "Foreword" to Early American Book Illustration, xli)

Reference

Hamilton, Sinclair; "Foreword," Frank Weitenkampf. Early American Book and Wood Engravers 1670-1870. Vol. 1, Main Catalogue. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U. P., 1968.


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Last updated 28 November 2006