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The Look that Freezes

John Leech and the Victorian Scene

by Simon Houfe
Antique Collectors’ Club (Suffolk), 265 pp., £22.50

How lucky the novelists were in the puff their illustrators gave them in the Victorian age! They doubled and gave visual life to characters and scenes. Lucky also in the proliferation of magazines and the work of the graphic cartoonists and satirists. The age of print was the age of picture, and the pictures stood still and could be pondered. Both novelists and illustrators dwelled on the moments in the life of the crowd and its homes; both staged the incurably stagy Londoners, their quirks, their fantasies, as habit and fashion changed from generation to generation. After the roly-poly Rowlandson comes the savage, political Gillray; after him the gothic, gargoylizing drawing of Cruikshank; after him the long period of domestic Victorian respectability caught by John Leech. In his delicate way, he is as strange as the rest.

An excellent, handsome, and exhaustively illustrated volume—there are twenty-one in color and innumerable black-and-white etchings—has been done on Leech by Simon Houfe. Tall, handsome, Leech was a Londoner who came of Anglo-Irish forebears and inherited perhaps that strain of energy, sociability, lyricism, fancy, and melancholy. He was no bohemian. His air was gentlemanly. His father had a famous and very elegant coffee house near St. Paul’s, which attracted rich city men, artists and writers, publishers and print sellers from nearby Paternoster Row. The boy was sent to the expensive Charterhouse School where Thackeray was a senior boy at the time, and indeed Leech’s humor was more Thackerayan than Dickensian. The father’s intention was to get his son out of trade into the genteel medical profession. The boy did indeed become a medical student. (The reminder of this is his habit of signing his etchings with a little scrawl of a leech in a bottle.)

But the father was weak at arithmetic. He went bankrupt and it has been felt that the shame of the bankruptcy was the spur that turned Leech into one of the hardest working and most prolific graphic artists of his time, and one longing for respectability. In fact, he was a born and most delicate artist. An amazing, elegant watercolor study of the Bath mail, racing all out, done in 1823 when he was six, is reproduced in this volume. At Charterhouse his sketches in the margin of his Latin grammar astonished painters like Frith and Millais, who had watched the schoolboy drawing in the coffee house. He soon got jobs from the printsellers. He especially was drawn to the sporting prints of the earlier Henry Alken, for very early Leech’s fancy had been taken by an expensive taste for the horse and for fox hunting, which lasted all his life. He peddled his work and eventually met Dickens, and though nothing came of this for a time, he eventually got a commission to illustrate A Christmas Carol. One of these pictures, done in color, is the frontispiece of Simon Houfe’s book. Its subject is Mr. Fezziwig’s Christmas ball and we see at once the eye for the detail of character, gesture, and movement, the delicacy of line, in the cheerful people of the jolly whoopee. Mr. Fezziwig, rosy and demure as a plum, eyes bashfully lowered, leads out the dance, and one particularly notices his courtly right leg gracefully in the air as he makes the next step while the crowd admires.

Leech has caught what all the finest illustrators knew how to catch, the split moment in an occasion, not only in Mr. Fezziwig’s step, but in the variety of the passing glances of the crowd of families and their children. Nothing gothic here, simply a tender realism. The moment is everything to Leech. All the lookers-on are caught in it. No bodily or grotesque hullabaloo here, no Regency grotesque, no gross bellies, no riotous breasts or pimpled snouts, no sex. Irony, yes, and the affections. Respectable middle-class London has cheerfully arrived, a genteel good time will be had by all. In the shadows is the fiddler.

This is Simon Houfe’s point. Leech will be the humorist of Victorian domesticity, of a new and untendentious realism. It is particularly interesting that he had picked this up in Paris from Daumier, and indeed some of the drawings of the ups and downs of domestic agitation or somnolence among husbands and wives, one awake in bed and the other snoring, seem to come straight from Daumier himself. In France Leech had also learned the conceits of fashion; the stovepipe trousers, those comic struggles with the hidden framework of the ballooning crinoline, the taste for the sight of genteel indignity. He is the amused connoisseur of manners and such connoisseurship was to become the preoccupation of Punch, after its short radical and political period. When he came to sit at Punch’s round table Leech was uncomfortable with radical politics and was unhappy until Thackeray’s influence with the magazines came in. Yet if he was not political Leech was far from complacent about Victorian evils—as one or two terrifying cartoons show. There is the horrifying picture of a sweatshop where the skeletons of a crowd of young girls are squatting as they simulate sewing dresses for the rich. And he was angered by the indifference of British generals to the misery of the troops in the Crimean War.

The mid-Victorians had arrived at the ideal of comeliness on the one hand and the consideration of life’s ironies, big and little. Leech was out with his sketchbook all day and finishing drawings at night in a kind of fever of precision. He was harrassed by the need to support his ruined father and his mother, but lack of money did not stop him from dashing romantically into a happy marriage with the idealized Victorian girl of his period—a pearl, a demure rose of innocent grace with dark hair and the slender figure which seemed to bud out of her crinoline. If Leech had his melancholy, he was handsomely sociable, in the Irish way. If he was a spender, he was an earner. He loved giving dinner parties to which Dickens and Thackeray, Frith and Millais came.

It was natural in the family man to turn to drawing the domestic scene, its comedies of manners, its disasters and the pomposities of flunkeydom and the servant problem. The cook bursts in on the guests in the middle of the dinner party to say the boiler has burst or the chimney is on fire and Leech quietly studies, even novelizes minutely, the various reactions of the guests—not forgetting the cook who conveys that it is all their fault, not hers. The servants preoccupied him as they preoccupied Thackeray; if they were “rising” and becoming as snobbish as their masters, they were lofty in giving notice. The word “snob” had come in and Leech had illustrated Thackeray’s Mr. Yellowplush. And he had caught another gift from the novelist: he had an ear for class accents in dialogue.

Lady: You wish to leave—really, it’s very inconvenient. Pray—Have you any reason to be dissatisfied with your Place?

Flunkey: Oh, dear, no, Ma’am—not dissatisfied exactly; but—a—the fact is, Ma’am you don’t keep no wehicle and I find I miss my Carriage exercise.

Another of Leech’s flunkeys has been to the Continent with his employers. Asked by a French girl if he likes France, he replies, “Par Bokkoo, Mamzell. I’ve been so accustomed to gaiety in town, that I’m armost killed with Arnwee here.” Mockery of accents was as alive in the servants’ hall as it was in the drawing room and was a general gift of the times. But the historical point to note is that we are at Punch’s period of the exhaustively explained joke, a fashion that is almost intolerable to us now, although supported by the comic principle that things are made funnier by repetition. Leech’s dialogue was considered a gift.

Many of his domestic sketches of delicate moments have a delightful, unspoken tension in which no one ventures to say what is on his or her mind—as when a lady is given a letter she herself would rather say nothing about to her avid company. Leech was good at the look that freezes, not only in the drawing room but in the street. His own dilemma as an overworked artist going actively mad at domestic interruption appears once or twice.

Such moments did not defeat him. His recourse was to get away to the seaside where perfect ladies look prettier and even dressier in impossible hats, having tea in a rocky cove as the wind blows. More attractive to him as a born outdoor Irishman was the revival of his expensive sporty and horsy tastes. The Irishman-cum-Cockney was a natural fox hunter. Also an angler for salmon. Leech loved society, high or low, in the field; the pomposities, the idiocies, the snobberies and calamities of the hunt. He had got away from London smoke into fresh air and the sight of the long, not quite innocent stretches of landscape. He is a master of the exact line of the horses and of the limbs and body of the riders, the decorum and the indecorum of the hunt. Here he worked closely with the great Surtees, the author of Handley Cross, and is credited with having discovered the immortal Mr. Jorrocks, the Cockney sportsman, for the author. Surtees, like Leech, was a Thackerayean, especially in his ear for the vernacular word. All three knew the society of the brutal chivalry. Brutal? To Leech, at any rate, the horse was sacred and, among fish, the salmon noble, and even as fabulous as a duke. One sketch shows a salmon barking at the angler he has entangled. Such fantasies came straight from the Irish in the artist.

Leech’s fame was by now national. The melancholy man had become lyrical. Frith swore by the delicacy of his drawing. Of all people, even Ruskin wrote about his eye for the truth to nature—rather overdoing the argument, as Simon Houfe says. But the delicacy of Leech’s eye is remarkable in a realist. How subtly he drew Marley’s ghost for A Christmas Carol as Scrooge crouches in his mean little room, to which only a miserable little fire in the grate gives a mocking gleam of light! Leech was subtle with the ghost where others would have staged it. Leech was certainly neither coarse nor obvious. We can see that, in his handsome way, he had an edge to his nerves. In middle life he had developed a maniacal hatred of barrel organs and street music, that jaunty plague of Victorian life, and here he can be savage.

Leech’s early death at forty-seven was a shock. The handsome man liked to live handsomely and moved from one London house to the next grander one. Dickens was one of those to help rescue his widow when the family were left very poor. Illustrators seem to have been forced to live more fecklessly than the novelists to whom they were so close. Simon Houfe is very thorough and very readable on the technical aspect of Leech’s prolific art. There was no decline in it, indeed some of the very late things are superb in composition and show him becoming a fine and serious painter. In the unfinished study called “Tom Noddy,” where Tom is riding his horse into the sea while two gorgeous Pre-Raphaelite ladies look on, there is an astonishing response to the degrees of distance in a seascape. The professional touch is that the horse itself is caught at the moment of turning its head in bewilderment, or perhaps in intelligent fear of the serene expanse of meaningless water.

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