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John Leech’s cartoons of Louis Napoleon were banned in France

Posted in Art, Artist, Famous artists, Historical articles, History, Illustrators, News, Politics, Royalty on Friday, 21 February 2014

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This edited article about British art first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 562 published on 21 October 1972.

Shakespeare Punch Cartoon by Leech,  picture, image, illustration

‘Clever Juvenile (loq.) "Shakespeare? Pooh! For my part, I consider Shakespeare a very much over-rated man"’ – Punch cartoon by John Leech

France was first in the field of social and political magazine journalism, with the magazines, “La Caricature” and “Le Charivari.” Britain was quick to seize upon a good thing.

“Punch, or the London Charivari” was born in 1841, and was directly inspired, as its sub-title suggests, by the French satirical weekly. In fact, however, “Punch” was predated by the “Monthly Sheet of Caricatures,” a lithographed journal put out by publisher Thomas McLean as early as 1830. John Doyle was the best of McLean’s artists, a statement which says much for the decline of the British political and satirical cartoon since the heady days of Gillray and of Cruikshank. John Doyle was a dull portrait painter who turned to producing dull cartoons of the statesmen of his day, in situations that made trite and stuffy comment on some political happening or other. It was a long cry from the acid pens of the great caricaturists of yesteryear.

By the mid-19th century and the coming of “Punch,” wood-engraving had begun to take over from copper-plate etching as a means of large-scale graphic reproduction. Cruikshank’s cartoons were worked directly on to the copper plate by the artist himself. But not every draughtsman had this special skill. Moreover, printing from a block is altogether cheaper than printing from an etching; so it was that a whole generation of new craftsmen appeared; professional wood-engravers, who did nothing but transfer other men’s drawings onto engraved blocks of wood for printing. Some of these engravers were good (one of the best was Edward Whymper, the first man to climb the Matterhorn), and some were not so good. The difference between the good and the not so good accounts for the flat, dull and “wooden” appearance of so much of the graphic work of the period. Thumb through any illustrated book or magazine of the period, and you will see it for yourself.

John Leech was a caricaturist in the great tradition; indeed he collaborated with George Cruikshank at one stage, and his style of drawing and choice of subjects greatly resembled those of the older artist.

It was Leech who first applied the word “cartoon” in its modern meaning, and it happened this way. In 1843, there was a big exhibition of designs submitted for the frescoes to be painted on the walls of the new Houses of Parliament, and these were correctly called “cartoons,” as finished working drawings had been so-called since the days of the Old Italian masters.

Finding most of the Houses of Parliament cartoons to be pretentious and ludicrous, Leech satirised them in a series of “cartoons” of his own. The name stuck, and remains stuck to this day, to this particular type of work.

Though he never attempted the grotesque excesses of Gillray, nor the near-criminal libellings of Cruikshank during his period with “The Scourge,” John Leech was a caricaturist who believed in giving his subjects a rough ride. He attacked the Prime Minister, Lord Russell, for his handling of the Ecclesiastical Titles Bill, in a cartoon that was said to have contributed to Russell’s subsequent fall from power.

He reserved his strongest venom, however, for foreigners, especially the French. He attacked Louis Napoleon on many occasions. Thanks largely to his efforts, “Punch” was twice banned from France.

His dislike of foreigners did not blind Leech to the shortcomings of his own people. When the British government’s treatment of Little Greece exceeded the bounds of the precepts taught on the playing fields of Eton, he drew Mr Punch holding an extremely sneaky-looking lion by the ear and saying: “Why don’t you hit someone your own size?”

In practical terms, in the sense of the price of freedom being eternal vigilance, John Leech, by his direct action, chalked up a palpable victory in the case of Mr Graham. Mr Graham was the then Home Secretary, and it was alleged that, in pursuance of his official privilege, the despicable Mr Graham had been opening private letters. Leech composed a design for sticking on envelopes of steaming kettles, Nosey-Parkers and snakes-in-the-grass, which sold like hot cakes. Mr Graham gave up opening people’s letters.

As the years went by, Leech’s cartoons grew more staid, and took a more sober view of politics and international affairs. On the other hand, he gained a new fame for his drawings of pretty girls.

Relieved, perhaps, that they were spared the acidulous pen of his earlier years, the powers-that-be granted him a pension in his old age.

John Tenniel began where John Leech left off. By a wry chance, he was one of those artists who submitted a design for a fresco in the New Houses of Parliament (his was accepted), and he knew Leech well till the latter’s death.

It was he who moulded the familiar characters of the national goddesses – Britannia, Columbia, Germainia, La France, and the rest. Under Tenniel’s skilful pencil (he drew directly on to the wood block – in reverse, for printing – for his engraver to complete), this noble company of well-upholstered ladies shook hands, flourished weapons at each other, presented laurel wreaths to national heroes, depending upon the requirements of the depicted occasion. Yet, Tenniel was much more than the stuffy draughtsman of the Establishment, as he is often dismissed. For one thing, he was the illustrator of “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass,” and some of his cartoons show him to have been a humourist of rare intelligence and playfulness.

His most famous cartoon, though far from his best, was “Dropping the Pilot,” in which Bismarck, the German Chancellor, is shown leaving the Ship of State, watched by the Emperor. This was Tenniel’s wry comment on the old statesman’s enforced resignation at the hands of his young ruler. It was said to have pleased both Bismarck and the Emperor.

John Tenniel’s output comprised over two-and-a-half thousand cartoons, stretching over half a century of Victorian life. They were a comment upon that life and, unlike the works of Gillray, or even Leech, they made no attempt to change it. Tenniel’s unique achievement was to make the cartoon respectable. They knighted him.

But it was not until the first part of the 20th century, during World War One that a cartoon character appeared which captured the imagination of the British public, so much so that he became almost an institution. This was the character of “Old Bill,” created by Bruce Bairnsfather, a humourist-artist who served in the war as an officer. But officer though he might be, Bairnsfather was clearly on the side of the common soldier. “Old Bill” was a tough, walrus-moustached old sweat with a sour sense of humour which reflected exactly the ironic view of the war held by the ordinary soldier in the trenches. Even today, in an age accustomed to “black humour,” some of the “Old Bill” cartoons are still capable of making us wince.

In modern days, the cartoonist David Low, who died in 1963, is perhaps the most important of all the British political cartoonists. His simple brush drawings, almost oriental in style, were often vitriolic, and very much to the point. Politicians must have hated him.

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