Cartoonist, caricaturist, and illustrator famous for his work for Punch, Leech was educated at Charterhouse, and then studied medicine, but turned to art. From 1841 he contributed hundreds of sketches of middle-class life and political cartoons to Punch, as well as to the Illustrated London News (1856) and Once a Week (1859-62). He illustrated several books, including Dickens's A Christmas Carol and the sporting novels of R. S. Surtees.
John Leech, the son of a Coffee House proprietor, was born in London on 29th August, 1817. He was educated at Charterhouse, while W. M. Thackeray was still a student there, and at the age of sixteen he went to St. Bartholomew's to study medicine. Leech's teachers should became aware of Leech's superb anatomical drawings and began commissioning him to paint portraits. was one of the artists considered to replace Robert Seymour for Pickwick and, although not selected, Leech left medical school and tried to make a living from drawing and painting. His first known published work was a pamphlet called Etchings and Sketchings, By A Pen, Esq. (1835), which included drawings of street characters such as cabmen, policemen, street musicians, etc., the very sort of people who inhabit the early Sketches by Boz. For the next few years he produced a series of humourous pamphlets including the Comic Latin Grammar, The Fiddle-Faddle Fashion Book and The Children of Mobility. His work during this period also included illustrations for the magazine Bell's Life in London. Although influenced by the work of James Gillray and George Cruikshank, Leech's humour was as one critic pointed out "less grotesque, less boisterous, less exaggerated, nearer to the truth and to ordinary experience."
In 1840 Leech was employed by the London Magazine to supply illustrations. The following year he was recruited by a new journal, founded by Mark Lemon and Henry Mayhew. Leech's humourous drawings were extremely popular, and were one of the main reasons why the new magazine, Punch, became such a great success. Over the next twenty-three years Punch Magazine published 3,000 of Leech's drawings and 600 cartoons. J. A. Hammerton notes that "Leech was a great attraction of Punch in those days, and his unrivalled power of graphic humour largely contributed to the successful founding of that unique journal" (14). A significant percentage of Leech's drawings dealt with political issues. Like the editors of the magazine, Lemon and Mayhew, Leech held fairly radical views. Between 1842 and 1845 Leech produced a series of cartoons such as Capital and Labour, Cheap Clothing and The Agricultural Question, which are critical of the morality of the capitalist system. In the cartoon Substance and Shadow (1843), Leech criticized artists for ignoring social issues such as poverty. One may assume that his depiction of Ignorance and Want in A Christmas Carol (1843) is a graphic exemplar of how the artist with a social conscience may address such issues.
Spartacus Educational article on Leech
Hammerton, J. A. The Dickens Picture-Book: A Record of the Dickens Illustrators. London: Educational Book Co., n. d.
Last modified 29 October 2007