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 …

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