John Leech (1817-1864), the English magazine caricaturist, was a Londoner of Irish descent, the son of a coffee-house proprietor. Educated at Charterhouse with W. M. Thackeray, Leech enjoyed a life-long friendship with that novelist (near whom he lies buried at Kensall Green, London), but is more commonly associated with Thackeray's rival, Charles Dickens. Leech early on in his life abandoned the study of medicine for that of art, publishing Etchings and Sketchings by A. Pen, Esq. (1835) when he was just eighteen. From 1841 he contributed hundreds of sketches of middle-class life and political cartoons to the magazines Punch, the Illustrated London News, and Once a Week, lauded by late-Victorian illustrator George Du Maurier as one of the most significant and influential illustrated periodicals.
Compare Plate Five with pp. 86-87 of the Penguin A Christmas Carol. Most noteworthy in the collaborative relationship between Dickens and Leech are the latter's eight plates (four of them hand-coloured) for A Christmas Carol, published on 17 December 1843, although Leech was also the chief illustrator for the other four Christmas Books, which are now largely forgotten. Particularly interesting is Leech's illustration of "The Ghost of Christmas Present" (Penguin, p. 88), complementing the text (pp. 86-87).
Questions for Discussion
1. Identify the precise moment from the text that Leech has depicted. What visual and textual clues enabled you to make this identification?
2. Illustrated fiction had been printed in England since Smollett's Sir Launcelot Greaves (1760-62), so that nineteenth-century readers were sometimes highly adept at 'reading' pictures that accompanied a printed text. Given the placement of this etching relative to the passage illustrated, how would the reader of Christmas, 1843, have mediated picture and text? What would be his or her reaction on turning the page and encountering the plate?
3. What evidence do text and plate offer to support Philip Collins's contention that in A Christmas Carol "Dickens is making up his Christmas mythology as he goes"?
4. What qualities of Leech as given in the biographical note above are evident in this plate? Cite particular cues in the plate itself.
Last modified 12 June 2001