JOHN LEECH'S OUTLINES.
'TEN years and more have slipped away since genial John Leech was ground to his early grave by street organs, and in these days of rapid progress, we already begin to look upon him as an "old master." Happily for us and for our children, his countless pictures of life and character still remain as an inexhaustible fund of pure and profitable delight. They are not yet thumbed into dust, or become nearly scarce enough to be cared for by collectors. In time they will be, and at some future day only a few copies will remain as prized memorials of a great name, as well as the truest records of an age gone by. Connoisseurship at present takes little note of the prints from Punch, and con- fines itself chiefly to the original pencillings by Leech's own land. There are cunning bidders at the auctions for his roughest sketches, and his designs are autotyped like Raphael's drawings. Three years ago an exhibition was held of 1,046 of his Outlines, which were, and for the most part still are, in the possession of the artist's sister. On that occasion, Mr. Ruskin enriched the catalogue with a letter in their praise, in which he advocated the acquisition of at least a characteristic selection from them as a national property. A Committee, too, was formed, for the pur- chase of them with that view. This project has not yet been successful, but a republication of Mr. Ruskin's letter, as an in- troduction to a set of photographic copies of six of these draw- ings,* lays the matter again before the public. We cannot but regret that the scheme has not been brought forward in some more definite and intelligible shape, and we wish that the few specimens now given of Leech's handiwork had represented something more than a single point in the artist's career. The form under which they are issued is, moreover, singularly meagre, no sort of indication being afforded of the circum- stances under which they were drawn. Before referring more particularly to -this set of drawings, we must say something as to the nature of the large collection which it is proposed to buy, and of which the originals of these form little more than the 174th part. The outlines in question are some- what peculiar in their character, and are not to be fully appre- ciated without reference to the artist's method of work. Leech's Portraito the Cltildreri of the Mobility. London: Bentley. 1875. practice in designing for the Press appears to have been this :- He drew his first rough sketch on thick drawing-paper, with generally some indication of the light and shade. From this he traced a mere outline, with all the delicacy and refinement of touch of which he was capable, at the same time improving and adding to the original design. From this traced copy, reversed, he again copied the drawing for publication, putting in the light and shade at the same time. When, as in most cases, this last drawing was executed on the wood, it has, of course, been destroyed in the process of engraving, and all we have left to judge by of its excel- lence is the printed impression with which everybody is familiar. There have thus been, and there still exist in perhaps the great majority of cases, three states or stages of the design, each of which has its special character, and a quality which the others cannot possess in the same degree. The roughest and earliest has the spirit and original freshness of a first thought, which no copy even by the same hand can ever repeat ; the second is the most perfect of the three in its delicate line and matured expression of character, but incomplete by reason of the omission of light and shade ; while the third represents more fully than either the artist's final intention as a whole, yet has the drawback of incomplete realisation at the hands of the engraver, wonder- fully skilful as the cutting has generally been. It is reasonable to expect that one person will derive more pleasure from one of these states of the design and another from another, but it is not clear to us from Mr. Ruskin's criticisms whether he attaches the higher value to the first or to the second. "The first few lines," he says, in which John Leech "sets down his purpose are invariably of all drawing that I know the most wonderful in their accurate felicity and prosperous haste," and he holds that "the admirableness of his work diminished as it became elaborate.' Yet we find him advocating the purchase of this collection, which consists not of the first rapid sketches, but of the careful outlines, and he appears to consider these as all the more valuable because they are devoid of light and shade. He reckons Leech "an absolute master of the elements of character, but not by any means of those of chiaroscuro ;" and hence he seems to think the black and white of Leech's designs a positive blemish, and expends his highest encomium on the "flexibility and lightness of pencilling," to which, he says, "nothing but the best outlines of Italian masters with the silver point can be compared."
It appears to us that this, however true as far as it goes—and we would in no degree under-rate the extreme excellence of his almost magic touch—is but a partial and incomplete view of John Leech's art in its essential qualities of pictorial representation. No one, we think, can study without prejudice the series of his designs in the pages of Punch, and compare them, as mere reali- sations of actual scenes in nature, with all that has been done there since his death, without perceiving how much they owe to a judicious amount of shading, just enough and no more than was necessary to suggest the quality of light and the tone of local colour. Many of his landscape backgrounds, in the hunting scenes, and Mr. Briggs's fishing adventures, for example, have not only a breezy unity worthy of old David Cox, but a feeling of light and atmosphere which are wholly dependent for their expression upon the management of tone. Indeed, Mr. Ruskin's own words, applied by him to Leech's drawing, supply the best description we can give of the judicious use which he makes of shadow :—" Not merely right in the traits which he seizes, but refined in the sacri- fice of what he refuses. The drawing becomes slight through fastidiousness, not indolence, and the finest discretion has left its touches rare." It is just so with his introduction and his saving of tone. When we look at the heavy masses of meaningless black- ness with which the wood draughtsmen of the present day incum- ber their figures, and the coarse stripes with which they belabour their backgrounds and draperies, we cannot help feeling the incom- parable superiority of Leech's practice in the use of mere black and white as a means of expression. It is evident in the first shadow- ing-out of his designs that he had an eye to the effect of light and shade as an essential part of it. We miss it, as we should, in his intermediate outlines, and it never forces itself upon our notice in his finished cuts, as it invariably does in the works of the modern school, so as to distract our attention from the subject. We there- fore wholly demur to the suggestion that Leech's works are valuable for the study of outline drawing only. There is a unity in them from which no element can be omitted without injury to the whole. Indeed the singleness of motive is so pure, the effect so consistent, and the whole thing always so easy and delightful, that it requires no small effort to look at them in the way of criticism at all, one is so tempted to do nothing but enjoy them. We hold, there- fore, that the way to make these designs most profitable to the
student, as well as impart to them the greatest interest as works of art, is not to set apart the outlines and exhibit them alone, but to restore them to the position they occupied in the artist's course of practice. Endeavours should be made to bring together, wherever it is possible, the rough sketch, the corrected outline, and the finished cut belonging to the same design. We should thus learn something of the working of the artist's mind in each case ; and even if Mr. Ruskin be right in considering that the outlines are injured by the addition of light and shade, such a juxtaposition would make the fact more palpable, and thereby convey a lesson of no small instructive value.
Such considerations apply to the set of photographs now before us, in common with the rest of the Outlines. They would have been rendered far more interesting had the lithographic prints for which they were designed been reproduced by their side, the more so because, in impressions from stone, we see the real touches of the artist's hand without the intervention of an engraver. To judge fairly of these designs, the place they occupy in the history of Leech's career should also be taken into account. The date (1841) of the original publication of the series of eight lithographs, of which these are the outline designs for six, takes us back to a period when the kind of humorous social sketches of which John Leech afterwards became the founder had no existence. The series were entitled "Portraits of the Children of the Mobility," and accompanied by some jocular letter-press by Mr. Perceval Leigh, written in a vein of satire of a kind then popular, and of which the social zoologies of Mr. Albert Smith were the leading type. The name "Mobility," as applied to the street gamins and lower classes generally, was of course meant as a parody or correlative to the word "Nobility," as the work was in some sort a burlesque on the Books of Beauty, in which it was formerly the fashion to publish portraits of ladies of rank. In a modern edition of the prints, this somewhat laboured fooling may well be spared, and the editor has perhaps been judicious in retaining no more than some fragments of really characteristic talk which belong to the groups. But some ordi- nary care might have been taken to put the words into the right mouths. It is inexcusable that a dialogue belonging to an omitted print should be set opposite to one of these pictures, with which it has nothing to do, in the place of that origin- ally written for it, which would have told its meaning. This has actually been done in the case of the fifth outline in the present series, which represents an altercation between two apothecaries' boys, who have been cracking heartless jokes and tossing for halfpence while customers wait for their physic. The same motive is echoed in the background by a quite Hogarthian touch in the incident of a poor child's funeral passing a per- formance of Punch's show. A lean dog smelling near the physic- bottles is also evidently introduced in sly allusion to the proper disposal of their contents. In the lithograph this dog comes in between the figures and amends the composition. Instead, how- ever, of the real dialogue between the boys, which is set out at length in the original, or one word to give the true key to this compact little scene of serious comedy, the print is now accompanied by a wholly irrelevant extract from a fire of chaff which was given by the author in another picture to a newsboy and a muffin-boy on the one part and a page in buttons on the other.
Although Leech's skill as a draughtsman had not come to maturity when he executed these lithographs, they possess many of its characteristic good qualities, one being the careful modelling and unstrained expression of the hands and feet, and it would be difficult to find an Academic painter's study as worthy of the name of artistic drapery as the natural fall and folds of the ragged, ill-fitting, and second-hand clothes of these street children, under all the various conditions of warp and wear and tear to which they are reduced. Leech, as is well known, was not regularly educated as an artist, but these studies, executed at the age of twenty-four, show the kind of self-education which enabled him to fulfil a prophecy recorded as having been made of him, when quite a child, by the great Flaxman. "That boy's drawing," said he to John Leech's father, "is wonderful. Do not let him be cramped by lessons in drawing. Let his genius follow its own bent ; he will astonish the world." He did so ; not by a sudden outburst of genius, but by constant observation and study, and the gradual and painstaking acquisition of power. These lithographs, which must now be scarce, are of special interest as the first public indication of the peculiar nature of Leech's genius. Up to their time he had been chiefly known as a clever caricaturist in the illustration of such works as the comic Latin and English grammars published the year before by
the same author. He had not, we believe, been then employed at all on Punch, which was itself in its earliest infancy. But here the truthful observation of character as distinguished from carica- ture, and the governing sense of beauty and fitness which pre- served him from ever becoming either vulgar or sentimental, begin to show themselves. We do not, indeed, remember that he ever afterwards ventured to steer so near to the latter shallows as he does in some of these designs—for example, in the group of the half-starved family of the Blenkinsops, who have seen better days—but even here he manages to draw the deeper water of true pathos. The two climbing chimney-sweeps, also, are purely pathetic in their unaffected truth to nature. Here the outlinea are decidedly better than the shaded lithographs, and the half- frozen look of the wretched little urchins is enough to tell us what the season is, without the snow on the ground in con- trast with their blackness. In other cases the drawing on the stone has as decided an advantage, notably in that of the pretty Miss Flinn, whose exceptional charms are made far more- attractive in the finished print than in the outline. The present publication is enriched with an exceedingly agreeable portrait or the artist, photographed apparently from a good drawing, but we trust that future selections will be made yet more interesting and instructive in the manner we have suggested.