An artist in the making

Object 49: A History of Charterhouse in 100 Objects

Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects, based on artefacts in the British Museum and broadcast on BBC Radio 4 as a series of 15 minute talks, captured the imagination of many people. The History of Charterhouse in 100 Objects is based on a similar concept, exploring the artefacts remaining in our Museum store. Object 49 has now been added to the series.

One of the joys of working in the Charterhouse Archive is helping researchers with their studies, whether they are family genealogists or academic historians. It is a two-way process because inevitably we learn something new from the researcher as well.

One of the more intriguing recent archive enquiries came from a librarian at the University of Leicester Special Collections Library who came across an early Charterhouse textbook while preparing an exhibition about Victorian childhood. The University’s copy of Rudiments of the Latin Language for the Use of Charterhouse School (published in 1825) was filled with striking and remarkably well-drawn ‘doodles’. The name written on the flyleaf was ‘Berney’, so the librarian asked whether we had any record of a boy by this name and, if so, was he an artist? There were indeed two Berney brothers, George and Thomas, at Charterhouse between 1826 and 1830 and, although we had no record of them as artists, George just happened to be in the same boarding house as John Leech, who later became a renowned cartoonist for Punch. It seemed quite a coincidence that two boys in Churton’s House at the same time were both talented artists, particularly as the Charterhouse Archive holds John Leech’s own copy of Rudiments of the Latin Language, also filled with doodles. We sent a couple of examples of Leech’s drawings to Leicester University for comparison and, much to our excitement, the drawings matched – Leech’s style is quite distinctive, particularly his amazingly accurate and lively horse illustrations, and there was no mistaking his work. He was clearly entertaining his friends by illustrating their text books as well as his own. The drawings in each book are not identical, but follow similar themes; some are numbered to match the content of particular translation exercises. This confirmed that the text book in the Charterhouse Archive really was illustrated by John Leech whilst he was a pupil and not, as one expert in marginalia had suggested, added when he was a mature adult.

Title page of John Leech’s exercise book from the Charterhouse Archives.

John Leech joined Charterhouse aged just seven years old in January 1825, leaving at the end of 1831. The little boy was initially very homesick, even though for his first two years he was in a small boarding house for younger boys run by the Misses Wilkie. He wrote home to his mother, “I understand that you came to see me yesterday and me being on the Green, you did not see me. As that made me still more unhappy, I beg you will come and see me on Saturday for I am very unhappy”. Contemporaries recalled that he struggled academically, but was “a gentle, dear little fellow” and very popular with his contemporaries. Leech himself recalled that he always got someone else to do his Latin exercises for him, so we might guess that he repaid the favour by giving away drawings.

   Coach and horses drawn by John Leech aged just six years old, from the Charterhouse Archives.

After Charterhouse John Leech studied medicine at St Bartholomew’s Hospital (just next door to the London Charterhouse), but in 1834 his father’s coffee house business went bankrupt and, since a career in medicine required financial backing, John turned instead to his artistic talents to make a living. His witty lithograph cartoons were soon in demand for book illustrations, most notably Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and magazines. He is probably best known as a prolific illustrator for the satirical magazine, Punch, but also for the Illustrated London News and many other journals and books. John Leech was the first in a fine tradition of Carthusian satirical cartoonists, including Max Beerbohm (Rg 1890), Osbert Lancaster (P1925) and Charles Peattie (G1975).

Links:

https://leicester.omeka.net/exhibits/show/victorianschooldays/pupilsday/johnleech

https://staffblogs.le.ac.uk/specialcollections/2017/06/05/the-schoolboy-sketches-of-john-leech/

 

 

 

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