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John Leech

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John Leech

by Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt
watercolour, 1854
15 3/4 in. x 10 in. (400 mm x 254 mm)
Purchased, 1892
Primary Collection
NPG 899

Sitterback to top

  • John Leech (1817-1864), Illustrator and caricaturist. Sitter in 14 portraits, Artist associated with 1 portrait.

Artistback to top

  • Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt (1829-1896), Painter and President of the Royal Academy; ex-officio Trustee of the National Portrait Gallery. Artist associated with 41 portraits, Sitter in 76 portraits.

This portraitback to top

This portrait is said to have been drawn while Leech and Millais were staying at the Peacock Inn, Baslow, near Chatsworth. The two were intimate friends and spent several hunting and fishing holidays together.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Funnell, Peter; Warner, Malcolm, Millais: Portraits, 1999 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 19 February to 6 June 1999), p. 101 Read entry

    Though twelve years his senior, the Punch draughtsman John Leech was among the two or three closest friends Millais ever had. Having met perhaps through Thackeray, they admired each other’s work, shared much the same sense of humour, and were both passionate sportsmen. They were on fairly close terms from 1853, and Millais sent drawings to Leech from Brig o’ Turk that summer and autumn with a view to publication in Punch. Their friendship was sealed early in the following year when Leech introduced Millais to foxhunting; this was was shortly after the departure for the Holy Land of Holman Hunt, whom Leech came to replace as Millais’s most cherished companion. Leech used incidents from their fishing and shooting trips in Scotland as the basis for some of the adventures of his beloved Punch character Mr Briggs. He suffered from acute nervousness and angina, and his early death – aged only forty-six – left Millais devastated. Millais was a pall-bearer at his funeral, and wept openly as the coffin was lowered into the grave.1

    When Millais gave evidence before the Royal Academy Commission in 1863, he called Leech ‘one of the greatest artists of the day’ and suggested that the Academy should be able to accept him as a member despite the ‘low’ nature of his art.2 In a letter of 12 February 1882 to George Evans, who was collecting material for a Leech biography, he wrote: ‘He was one of the best gentlemen I ever knew, with an astounding appreciation of everything sad or humorous. He was both manly and gentle, nervous and brave, and the most delightful companion that I ever had. I loved John Leech (and another who is also gone) better than any other friends I have known.’3

    The portrait dates from the summer of 1854, when Millais spent a long holiday with Leech, his wife, baby daughter and sister Esther, at the Peacock Inn (now the Cavendish Hotel) at Baslow, near Chatsworth. Millais travelled down from Scotland on 13 July and stayed for almost six weeks. ‘Some of the happiest days we spent together were at the Peacock Inn, Baslow, Derbyshire,’ he wrote in the letter to Evans, ‘where every kindness was shown him by the Duke [of Devonshire] and Sir Joseph Paxton, shooting, fishing and cricketing. We played together in a match with a neighbouring village, and at a supper he gave to the teams he sang “King death” with becoming gravity.’4

    1 Millais, Life, vol.I, p 274.

    2 Simon Houfe, John Leech and the Victorian Scene, 1984, p 239.

    3 Houghton Library, Harvard University, MS Eng 1028; William Powell Frith, John Leech, His Life and Work, 1891, vol.II, p 277 (the other deceased friend Millais mentions was probably Charles Collins).

    4 Ibid.; Frith, op. cit., vol.II, pp 279-80.

  • Ormond, Richard, Early Victorian Portraits, 1973, p. 266
  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 373

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Events of 1854back to top

Current affairs

The Working Men's College in London is founded by Frederick Maurice, who along with Charles Kingsley, a leading proponent of Christian Socialism, mocked by its opponents as 'muscular Christianity'. Christian Socialism attempted to combine the fundamental aims of socialism with the ethics of Christianity.
William Howard Russell is sent to cover the Crimean war by his paper, The Times; his dispatches mark the start of modern war correspondence.

Art and science

The artist William Powell Frith paints his famous Ramsgate Sands, Life at the Seaside, an astute observation of modern leisure time.
Dr John Snow, the founder of epidemiology, discovers that cholera is spread by water, rather than air, following the deaths of 500 people in ten days who had drank from a water pump in Broad Street. The Public Health Act is passed in response, setting up the General Board of Health.


Britain enters the Crimean war on 31 March, after an alliance is formed between Turkey, France, Sardinia and Britain against Russia. Florence Nightingale achieves great fame in introducing modern nursing techniques to the battlefield, earning her the title 'Lady with the Lamp'.

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