John Leech's
“Pictures of Life and Character”


William Makepeace Thackeray

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Originally printed in the Quarterly Review, No. 191, Dec. 1854.

This web edition published by eBooks@Adelaide.

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John Leech’s Pictures of Life and Character

We, who can recall the consulship of Plancus, and quite respectable, old-fogyfied times, remember amongst other amusements which we had as children the pictures at which we were permitted to look. There was Boydell’s Shakspeare, black and ghastly gallery of murky Opies, glum Northcotes, straddling Fuselis! there were Lear, Oberon, Hamlet, with starting muscles, rolling eyeballs, and long pointing quivering fingers; there was little Prince Arthur (Northcote) crying, in white satin, and bidding good Hubert not put out his eyes; there was Hubert crying; there was little Rutland being run through the poor little body by bloody Clifford; there was Cardinal Beaufort (Reynolds) gnashing his teeth, and grinning and howling demoniacally on his death-bed (a picture frightful to the present day); there was Lady Hamilton (Romney) waving a torch, and dancing before a black background — a melancholy museum indeed. Smirke’s delightful “Seven Ages” only fitfully relieved its general gloom. We did not like to inspect it unless the elders were present, and plenty of lights and company were in the room.

Cheerful relatives used to treat us to Miss Linwood’s. Let the children of the present generation thank their stars THAT tragedy is put out of their way. Miss Linwood’s was worsted-work. Your grandmother or grandaunts took you there and said the pictures were admirable. You saw “the Woodman” in worsted, with his axe and dog, trampling through the snow; the snow bitter cold to look at, the woodman’s pipe wonderful: a gloomy piece, that made you shudder. There were large dingy pictures of woollen martyrs, and scowling warriors with limbs strongly knitted; there was especially, at the end of a black passage, a den of lions, that would frighten any boy not born in Africa, or Exeter ‘Change, and accustomed to them.

Another exhibition used to be West’s Gallery, where the pleasing figures of Lazarus in his grave-clothes, and Death on the pale horse, used to impress us children. The tombs of Westminster Abbey, the vaults at St. Paul’s, the men in armor at the Tower, frowning ferociously out of their helmets, and wielding their dreadful swords; that superhuman Queen Elizabeth at the end of the room, a livid sovereign with glass eyes, a ruff, and a dirty satin petticoat, riding a horse covered with steel: who does not remember these sights in London in the consulship of Plancus? and the wax-work in Fleet Street, not like that of Madame Tussaud’s, whose chamber of death is gay and brilliant; but a nice old gloomy wax-work, full of murderers; and as a chief attraction, the Dead Baby and the Princess Charlotte lying in state?

Our story-books had no pictures in them for the most part. Frank (dear old Frank!) had none; nor the “Parent’s Assistant;” nor the “Evenings at Home;” nor our copy of the “Ami des Enfans:” there were a few just at the end of the Spelling-Book; besides the allegory at the beginning, of Education leading up Youth to the temple of Industry, where Dr. Dilworth and Professor Walkinghame stood with crowns of laurel. There were, we say, just a few pictures at the end of the Spelling-Book, little oval gray woodcuts of Bewick’s, mostly of the Wolf and the Lamb, the Dog and the Shadow, and Brown, Jones, and Robinson with long ringlets and little tights; but for pictures, so to speak, what had we? The rough old wood-blocks in the old harlequin-backed fairy-books had served hundreds of years; before OUR Plancus, in the time of Priscus Plancus — in Queen Anne’s time, who knows? We were flogged at school; we were fifty boys in our boarding-house, and had to wash in a leaden trough, under a cistern, with lumps of fat yellow soap floating about in the ice and water. Are OUR sons ever flogged? Have they not dressing-rooms, hair-oil, hip-baths, and Baden towels? And what picture-books the young villains have! What have these children done that they should be so much happier than we were?

We had the “Arabian Nights” and Walter Scott, to be sure. Smirke’s illustrations to the former are very fine. We did not know how good they were then; but we doubt whether we did not prefer the little old “Miniature Library Nights” with frontispieces by Uwins; for THESE books the pictures don’t count. Every boy of imagination does his own pictures to Scott and the “Arabian Nights” best.

Of funny pictures there were none especially intended for us children. There was Rowlandson’s “Doctor Syntax”: Doctor Syntax in a fuzz-wig, on a horse with legs like sausages, riding races, making love, frolicking with rosy exuberant damsels. Those pictures were very funny, and that aquatinting and the gay-colored plates very pleasant to witness; but if we could not read the poem in those days, could we digest it in this? Nevertheless, apart from the text which we could not master, we remember Doctor Syntax pleasantly, like those cheerful painted hieroglyphics in the Nineveh Court at Sydenham. What matter for the arrow-head, illegible stuff? give us the placid grinning kings, twanging their jolly bows over their rident horses, wounding those good-humored enemies, who tumble gayly off the towers, or drown, smiling, in the dimpling waters, amidst the anerithmon gelasma of the fish.

After Doctor Syntax, the apparition of Corinthian Tom, Jerry Hawthorn, and the facetious Bob Logic must be recorded — a wondrous history indeed theirs was! When the future student of our manners comes to look over the pictures and the writing of these queer volumes, what will he think of our society, customs, and language in the consulship of Plancus? “Corinthian,” it appears, was the phrase applied to men of fashion and ton in Plancus’s time: they were the brilliant predecessors of the “swell” of the present period — brilliant, but somewhat barbarous, it must be confessed. The Corinthians were in the habit of drinking a great deal too much in Tom Cribb’s parlor: they used to go and see “life” in the gin-shops; of nights, walking home (as well as they could), they used to knock down “Charleys,” poor harmless old watchmen with lanterns, guardians of the streets of Rome, Planco Consule. They perpetrated a vast deal of boxing; they put on the “mufflers” in Jackson’s rooms; they “sported their prads” in the Ring in the Park; they attended cock-fights, and were enlightened patrons of dogs and destroyers of rats. Besides these sports, the delassemens of gentlemen mixing with the people, our patricians, of course, occasionally enjoyed the society of their own class. What a wonderful picture that used to be of Corinthian Tom dancing with Corinthian Kate at Almack’s! What a prodigious dress Kate wore! With what graceful ABANDON the pair flung their arms about as they swept through the mazy quadrille, with all the noblemen standing round in their stars and uniforms! You may still, doubtless, see the pictures at the British Museum, or find the volumes in the corner of some old country-house library. You are led to suppose that the English aristocracy of 1820 DID dance and caper in that way, and box and drink at Tom Cribb’s, and knock down watchmen; and the children of today, turning to their elders, may say “Grandmamma, did you wear such a dress as that, when you danced at Almack’s? There was very little of it, grandmamma. Did grandpapa kill many watchmen when he was a young man, and frequent thieves’ gin-shops, cock-fights, and the ring, before you married him? Did he use to talk the extraordinary slang and jargon which is printed in this book? He is very much changed. He seems a gentlemanly old boy enough now.”

In the above-named consulate, when WE had grandfathers alive, there would be in the old gentleman’s library in the country two or three old mottled portfolios, or great swollen scrap-books of blue paper, full of the comic prints of grandpapa’s time, ere Plancus ever had the fasces borne before him. These prints were signed Gilray, Bunbury, Rowlandson, Woodward, and some actually George Cruikshank — for George is a veteran now, and he took the etching needle in hand as a child. He caricatured “Boney,” borrowing not a little from Gilray in his first puerile efforts. He drew Louis XVIII. trying on Boney’s boots. Before the century was actually in its teens we believe that George Cruikshank was amusing the public.

In those great colored prints in our grandfathers’ portfolios in the library, and in some other apartments of the house, where the caricatures used to be pasted in those days, we found things quite beyond our comprehension. Boney was represented as a fierce dwarf, with goggle eyes, a huge laced hat and tricolored plume, a crooked sabre, reeking with blood: a little demon revelling in lust, murder, massacre. John Bull was shown kicking him a good deal: indeed he was prodigiously kicked all through that series of pictures; by Sidney Smith and our brave allies the gallant Turks; by the excellent and patriotic Spaniards; by the amiable and indignant Russians — all nations had boots at the service of poor Master Boney. How Pitt used to defy him! How good old George, King of Brobdingnag, laughed at Gulliver-Boney, sailing about in his tank to make sport for their Majesties! This little fiend, this beggar’s brat, cowardly, murderous, and atheistic as he was (we remember, in those old portfolios, pictures representing Boney and his family in rags, gnawing raw bones in a Corsican hut; Boney murdering the sick at Jaffa; Boney with a hookah and a large turban, having adopted the Turkish religion, &c.)— this Corsican monster, nevertheless, had some devoted friends in England, according to the Gilray chronicle — a set of villains who loved atheism, tyranny, plunder, and wickedness in general, like their French friend. In the pictures these men were all represented as dwarfs, like their ally. The miscreants got into power at one time, and, if we remember right, were called the Broad-backed Administration. One with shaggy eyebrows and a bristly beard, the hirsute ringleader of the rascals, was, it appears, called Charles James Fox; another miscreant, with a blotched countenance, was a certain Sheridan; other imps were hight Erskine, Norfolk (Jockey of), Moira, Henry Petty. As in our childish, innocence we used to look at these demons, now sprawling and tipsy in their cups; now scaling heaven, from which the angelic Pitt hurled them down; now cursing the light (their atrocious ringleader Fox was represented with hairy cloven feet, and a tail and horns); now kissing Boney’s boot, but inevitably discomfited by Pitt and the other good angels: we hated these vicious wretches, as good children should; we were on the side of Virtue and Pitt and Grandpapa. But if our sisters wanted to look at the portfolios, the good old grandfather used to hesitate. There were some prints among them very odd indeed; some that girls could not understand; some that boys, indeed, had best not see. We swiftly turn over those prohibited pages. How many of them there were in the wild, coarse, reckless, ribald, generous book of old English humor!

How savage the satire was — how fierce the assault — what garbage hurled at opponents — what foul blows were hit — what language of Billingsgate flung! Fancy a party in a country-house now looking over Woodward’s facetiae or some of the Gilray comicalities, or the slatternly Saturnalia of Rowlandson! Whilst we live we must laugh, and have folks to make us laugh. We cannot afford to lose Satyr with his pipe and dances and gambols. But we have washed, combed, clothed, and taught the rogue good manners: or rather, let us say, he has learned them himself; for he is of nature soft and kindly, and he has put aside his mad pranks and tipsy habits; and, frolicsome always, has become gentle and harmless, smitten into shame by he pure presence of our women and the sweet confiding smiles of our children. Among the veterans, the old pictorial satirists, we have mentioned the famous name of one humorous designer who is still alive and at work. Did we not see, by his own hand, his own portrait of his own famous face, and whiskers, in the Illustrated London News the other day? There was a print in that paper of an assemblage of Teetotalers in “Sadler’s Wells Theatre,” and we straightway recognized the old Roman hand — the old Roman’s of the time of Plancus — George Cruikshank’s. There were the old bonnets and droll faces and shoes, and short trousers, and figures of 1820 sure enough. And there was George (who has taken to the water-doctrine, as all the world knows) handing some teetotal cresses over a plank to the table where the pledge was being administered. How often has George drawn that picture of Cruikshank! Where haven’t we seen it? How fine it was, facing the effigy of Mr. Ainsworth in Ainsworth’s Magazine when George illustrated that periodical! How grand and severe he stands in that design in G. C.‘s “Omnibus,” where he represents himself tonged like St. Dunstan, and tweaking a wretch of a publisher by the nose! The collectors of George’s etchings — oh the charming etchings! — oh the dear old “German Popular Tales!”— the capital “Points of Humor”— the delightful “Phrenology” and “Scrap-books,” of the good time, OUR time — Plancus’s in fact! — the collectors of the Georgian etchings, we say, have at least a hundred pictures of the artist. Why, we remember him in his favorite Hessian boots in “Tom and Jerry” itself; and in woodcuts as far back as the Queen’s trial. He has rather deserted satire and comedy of late years, having turned his attention to the serious, and warlike, and sublime. Having confessed our age and prejudices, we prefer the comic and fanciful to the historic, romantic, and at present didactic George. May respect, and length of days, and comfortable repose attend the brave, honest, kindly, pure-minded artist, humorist, moralist! It was he first who brought English pictorial humor and children acquainted. Our young people and their fathers and mothers owe him many a pleasant hour and harmless laugh. Is there no way in which the country could acknowledge the long services and brave career of such a friend and benefactor?

Since George’s time humor has been converted. Comus and his wicked satyrs and leering fauns have disappeared, and fled into the lowest haunts; and Comus’s lady (if she had a taste for humor, which may be doubted) might take up our funny picture-books without the slightest precautionary squeamishness. What can be purer than the charming fancies of Richard Doyle? In all Mr. Punch’s huge galleries can’t we walk as safely as through Miss Pinkerton’s schoolrooms? And as we look at Mr. Punch’s pictures, at the Illustrated News pictures, at all the pictures in the book-shop windows at this Christmas season, as oldsters, we feel a certain pang of envy against the youngsters — they are too well off. Why hadn’t WE picture-books? Why were we flogged so? A plague on the lictors and their rods in the time of Plancus!

And now, after this rambling preface, we are arrived at the subject in hand — Mr. John Leech and his “Pictures of Life and Character,” in the collection of Mr. Punch. This book is better than plum-cake at Christmas. It is an enduring plum-cake, which you may eat and which you may slice and deliver to your friends; and to which, having cut it, you may come again and welcome, from year’s end to year’s end. In the frontispiece you see Mr. Punch examining the pictures in his gallery — a portly, well-dressed, middle-aged, respectable gentleman, in a white neck-cloth, and a polite evening costume — smiling in a very bland and agreeable manner upon one of his pleasant drawings, taken out of one of his handsome portfolios. Mr. Punch has very good reason to smile at the work and be satisfied with the artist. Mr. Leech, his chief contributor, and some kindred humorists, with pencil and pen have served Mr. Punch admirably. Time was, if we remember Mr. P.‘s history rightly, that he did not wear silk stockings nor well-made clothes (the little dorsal irregularity in his figure is almost an ornament now, so excellent a tailor has he). He was of humble beginnings. It is said he kept a ragged little booth, which he put up at corners of streets; associated with beadles, policemen, his own ugly wife (whom he treated most scandalously), and persons in a low station of life; earning a precarious livelihood by the cracking of wild jokes, the singing of ribald songs, and halfpence extorted from passers-by. He is the Satyric genius we spoke of anon: he cracks his jokes still, for satire must live; but he is combed, washed, neatly clothed, and perfectly presentable. He goes into the very best company; he keeps a stud at Melton; he has a moor in Scotland; he rides in the Park; has his stall at the Opera; is constantly dining out at clubs and in private society; and goes every night in the season to balls and parties, where you see the most beautiful women possible. He is welcomed amongst his new friends the great; though, like the good old English gentleman of the song, he does not forget the small. He pats the heads of street boys and girls; relishes the jokes of Jack the costermonger and Bob the dustman; good-naturedly spies out Molly the cook flirting with policeman X, or Mary the nursemaid as she listens to the fascinating guardsman. He used rather to laugh at guardsmen, “plungers,” and other military men; and was until latter days very contemptuous in his behavior towards Frenchmen. He has a natural antipathy to pomp, and swagger, and fierce demeanor. But now that the guardsmen are gone to war, and the dandies of “The Rag”— dandies no more — are battling like heroes at Balaklava and Inkermann1 by the side of their heroic allies, Mr. Punch’s laughter is changed to hearty respect and enthusiasm. It is not against courage and honor he wars: but this great moralist — must it be owned? — has some popular British prejudices, and these led him in peace time to laugh at soldiers and Frenchmen. If those hulking footmen who accompanied the carriages to the opening of Parliament the other day, would form a plush brigade, wear only gunpowder in their hair, and strike with their great canes on the enemy, Mr. Punch would leave off laughing at Jeames, who meanwhile remains among us, to all outward appearance regardless of satire, and calmly consuming his five meals per diem. Against lawyers, beadles, bishops and clergy, and authorities, Mr. Punch is still rather bitter. At the time of the Papal aggression he was prodigiously angry; and one of the chief misfortunes which happened to him at that period was that, through the violent opinions which he expressed regarding the Roman Catholic hierarchy, he lost the invaluable services, the graceful pencil, the harmless wit, the charming fancy of Mr. Doyle. Another member of Mr. Punch’s cabinet, the biographer of Jeames, the author of the “Snob Papers,” resigned his functions on account of Mr. Punch’s assaults upon the present Emperor of the French nation, whose anger Jeames thought it was unpatriotic to arouse. Mr. Punch parted with these contributors: he filled their places with others as good. The boys at the railroad stations cried Punch just as cheerily, and sold just as many numbers, after these events as before.

1 This was written in 1854.

There is no blinking the fact that in Mr. Punch’s cabinet John Leech is the right-hand man. Fancy a number of Punch without Leech’s pictures! What would you give for it? The learned gentlemen who write the work must feel that, without him, it were as well left alone. Look at the rivals whom the popularity of Punch has brought into the field; the direct imitators of Mr. Leech’s manner — the artists with a manner of their own — how inferior their pencils are to his in humor, in depicting the public manners, in arresting, amusing the nation. The truth, the strength, the free vigor, the kind humor, the John Bull pluck and spirit of that hand are approached by no competitor. With what dexterity he draws a horse, a woman, a child! He feels them all, so to speak, like a man. What plump young beauties those are with which Mr. Punch’s chief contributor supplies the old gentleman’s pictorial harem! What famous thews and sinews Mr. Punch’s horses have, and how Briggs, on the back of them, scampers across country! You see youth, strength, enjoyment, manliness in those drawings, and in none more so, to our thinking, than in the hundred pictures of children which this artist loves to design. Like a brave, hearty, good-natured Briton, he becomes quite soft and tender with the little creatures, pats gently their little golden heads, and watches with unfailing pleasure their ways, their sports, their jokes, laughter, caresses. Enfans terribles come home from Eton; young Miss practising her first flirtation; poor little ragged Polly making dirt-pies in the gutter, or staggering under the weight of Jacky, her nursechild, who is as big as herself — all these little ones, patrician and plebeian, meet with kindness from this kind heart, and are watched with curious nicety by this amiable observer.

We remember, in one of those ancient Gilray portfolios, a print which used to cause a sort of terror in us youthful spectators, and in which the Prince of Wales (his Royal Highness was a Foxite then) was represented as sitting alone in a magnificent hall after a voluptuous meal, and using a great steel fork in the guise of a toothpick. Fancy the first young gentleman living employing such a weapon in such a way! The most elegant Prince of Europe engaged with a two-pronged iron fork — the heir of Britannia with a BIDENT! The man of genius who drew that picture saw little of the society which he satirized and amused. Gilray watched public characters as they walked by the shop in St. James’s Street, or passed through the lobby of the House of Commons. His studio was a garret, or little better; his place of amusement a tavern-parlor, where his club held its nightly sittings over their pipes and sanded floor. You could not have society represented by men to whom it was not familiar. When Gavarni came to England a few years since — one of the wittiest of men, one of the most brilliant and dexterous of draughtsmen — he published a book of “Les Anglais,” and his Anglais were all Frenchmen. The eye, so keen and so long practised to observe Parisian life, could not perceive English character. A social painter must be of the world which he depicts, and native to the manners which he portrays.

Now, any one who looks over Mr. Leech’s portfolio must see that the social pictures which he gives us are authentic. What comfortable little drawing-rooms and dining-rooms, what snug libraries we enter; what fine young-gentlemanly wags they are, those beautiful little dandies who wake up gouty old grandpapa to ring the bell; who decline aunt’s pudding and custards, saying that they will reserve themselves for an anchovy toast with the claret; who talk together in ball-room doors, where Fred whispers Charley — pointing to a dear little partner seven years old —“My dear Charley, she has very much gone off; you should have seen that girl last season!” Look well at everything appertaining to the economy of the famous Mr. Briggs: how snug, quiet, appropriate all the appointments are! What a comfortable, neat, clean, middle-class house Briggs’s is (in the Bayswater suburb of London, we should guess from the sketches of the surrounding scenery)! What a good stable he has, with a loose box for those celebrated hunters which he rides! How pleasant, clean, and warm his breakfast-table looks! What a trim little maid brings in the top-boots which horrify Mrs. B! What a snug dressing-room he has, complete in all its appointments, and in which he appears trying on the delightful hunting-cap which Mrs. Briggs flings into the fire! How cosy all the Briggs party seem in their dining-room: Briggs reading a Treatise on Dog-breaking by a lamp; Mamma and Grannie with their respective needleworks; the children clustering round a great book of prints — a great book of prints such as this before us, which, at this season, must make thousands of children happy by as many firesides! The inner life of all these people is represented: Leech draws them as naturally as Teniers depicts Dutch boors, or Morland pigs and stables. It is your house and mine: we are looking at everybody’s family circle. Our boys coming from school give themselves such airs, the young scapegraces! our girls, going to parties, are so tricked out by fond mammas — a social history of London in the middle of the nineteenth century. As such, future students — lucky they to have a book so pleasant — will regard these pages: even the mutations of fashion they may follow here if they be so inclined. Mr. Leech has as fine an eye for tailory and millinery as for horse-flesh. How they change those cloaks and bonnets. How we have to pay milliners’ bills from year to year! Where are those prodigious chatelaines of 1850 which no lady could be without? Where those charming waistcoats, those “stunning” waistcoats, which our young girls used to wear a few brief seasons back, and which cause ‘Gus, in the sweet little sketch of “La Mode,” to ask Ellen for her tailor’s address. ‘Gus is a young warrior by this time, very likely facing the enemy at Inkerman; and pretty Ellen, and that love of a sister of hers, are married and happy, let us hope, superintending one of those delightful nursery scenes which our artist depicts with such tender humor. Fortunate artist, indeed! You see he must have been bred at a good public school; that he has ridden many a good horse in his day; paid, no doubt, out of his own purse for the originals of some of those lovely caps and bonnets; and watched paternally the ways, smiles, frolics, and slumbers of his favorite little people.

As you look at the drawings, secrets come out of them — private jokes, as it were, imparted to you by the author for your special delectation. How remarkably, for instance, has Mr. Leech observed the hair-dressers of the present age! Look at “Mr. Tongs,” whom that hideous old bald woman, who ties on her bonnet at the glass, informs that “she has used the whole bottle of Balm of California, but her hair comes off yet.” You can see the bear’s-grease not only on Tongs’s head but on his hands, which he is clapping clammily together. Remark him who is telling his client “there is cholera in the hair;” and that lucky rogue whom the young lady bids to cut off “a long thick piece”— for somebody, doubtless. All these men are different, and delightfully natural and absurd. Why should hair-dressing be an absurd profession?

The amateur will remark what an excellent part hands play in Mr. Leech’s pieces: his admirable actors use them with perfect naturalness. Look at Betty, putting the urn down; at cook, laying her hands on the kitchen table, whilst her policeman grumbles at the cold meat. They are cook’s and housemaid’s hands without mistake, and not without a certain beauty too. The bald old lady, who is tying her bonnet at Tongs’s, has hands which you see are trembling. Watch the fingers of the two old harridans who are talking scandal: for what long years past they have pointed out holes in their neighbors’ dresses and mud on their flounces. “Here’s a go! I’ve lost my diamond ring.” As the dustman utters this pathetic cry, and looks at his hand, you burst out laughing. These are among the little points of humor. One could indicate hundreds of such as one turns over the pleasant pages.

There is a little snob or gent, whom we all of us know, who wears little tufts on his little chin, outrageous pins and pantaloons, smokes cigars on tobacconists’ counters, sucks his cane in the streets, struts about with Mrs. Snob and the baby (Mrs. S. an immense woman, whom Snob nevertheless bullies), who is a favorite abomination of Leech, and pursued by that savage humorist into a thousand of his haunts. There he is, choosing waistcoats at the tailor’s — such waistcoats! Yonder he is giving a shilling to the sweeper who calls him “Capting;” now he is offering a paletot to a huge giant who is going out in the rain. They don’t know their own pictures, very likely; if they did, they would have a meeting, and thirty or forty of them would be deputed to thrash Mr. Leech. One feels a pity for the poor little bucks. In a minute or two, when we close this discourse and walk the streets, we shall see a dozen such.

Ere we shut the desk up, just one word to point out to the unwary specially to note the backgrounds of landscapes in Leech’s drawings — homely drawings of moor and wood, and seashore and London street — the scenes of his little dramas. They are as excellently true to nature as the actors themselves; our respect for the genius and humor which invented both increases as we look and look again at the designs. May we have more of them; more pleasant Christmas volumes, over which we and our children can laugh together. Can we have too much of truth, and fun, and beauty, and kindness?

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