Decorated initial J

ohn Leech was the most popular comic artist of the 1840s and 50s, superseding George Cruikshank as the foremost practitioner of satirical designs. His work for Punch made him into a household name, and he was also admired by his fellow artists. Several posthumous biographies attest to his status and reputation, but his standing among his contemporaries and the public at large is vividly conveyed in the obituaries and elegies which recorded his untimely death. Two examples, one from J. G. Millais’s biography of his father, and one from an anonymous hand writing for The Weekly Review, provide a vivid portrait of the high esteem in which he was held.

Millais’s account draws on a report from George Du Maurier, who recounts the raw emotion of the funeral. Contradicting the stereotype of Victorian reticence and austere masculinity, Du Maurier shows how much Leech’s friends cared for him as they openly wept at the graveside:

A few days later he was laid to rest, and, says Du Maurier, ‘I was invited by Messrs. Bradbury and Evans, the publishers of Punch, to the funeral, which took place at Kensal Green. It was the most touching sight imaginable. The grave was near Thackeray’s, who had died the year before. There were crowds of people, Charles Dickens among them. Canon Hole, a great friend of Leech’s, and who has written most affectionately about him, read the service; and when the coffin was lowered into the grave, John Millais burst into tears and loud sobs, setting an example that was followed all round. We all forgot our manhood, and cried like women! I can recall no funeral in my time where simple grief and affection have been so openly and spontaneously displayed by so many strangers as well as friends not even in France, where people are more demonstrative than here. No burial in Westminster Abbey that I have ever seen ever gave such an expression of universal honour, love, and regret. Whom the gods love die young.’ He was only forty-six. [J. G. Millais, The Life and Letters of John Everett Millais, 1, 274]

Leech's grave, photographed by Simon Edwards, and made available on the Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) Creative Commons licence.

The writer in the Review corroborates this heart-breaking situation and notes how the grief extended to admirers in the manner of modern fandom. This account also reveals the extreme formality of middle-class Victorian funerals, with its emphasis on the slow, ritualistic movement of the cortege.

On Friday afternoon the remains of the late Mr John Leech were consigned to their last resting-place in All Souls’ Cemetery, Kensal Green. Many carriages and a larger concourse of mourning friends than is common on such occasions attended his body to the cemetery chapel, and as they passed along on their melancholy errand, there was a marked and unusual manifestation of sympathy on the part of the tenants of the thoroughfare through which they proceeded to the cemetery. It was as if the latter knew that a great artistic genius had ceased to exist, and were deeply interested in the tribute which his friends and admirers were thus paying to his cherished memory. There was no mistaking the sentiment of those who lined the roads or thronged the paths up to the cemetery chapel. The procession arrived at the gate of the cemetery shortly after half-past one. The carriages passed up the broad roadway towards the north of the cemetery, and drew up in front of the chapel, the bell of which had been mournfully tolling while the procession was slowly moving onwards. The pall bearers were Mr Mark Lemon, Mr Shirley Brooks, Mr Tom Taylor, Mr J. E. Millais, RA, Mr Horace Mayhew, Mr F. M. Evans (Bradbury and Evans, proprietors of Punch), Mr John Tenniel, Mr Samuel Lucas, Mr F. C. Burnand, and Mr Henry Silver. There were seven mourning coaches, the first three being occupied by members and friends of the deceased’s family. He was buried with one grave only between him and Thackeray, who was his school fellow at Charterhouse and his attached friend through life. It was no further back than the commencement of this very year that he stood weeping for his friend, probably on the very spot where his own monument will be erected. [‘The Funeral of Mr John Leech, Kensal Green’, The Weekly Review 134 (12 December 1864): 27]

I am indebted to Ed King for identifying the second of these texts.

Created 25 January 2023