Kenny Meadows: Illustrator
by Bob Davenport
In the early days of Punch magazine, the illustrator Kenny Meadows decided to give a dinner for his fellow members of the newly formed staff. One of them, another illustrator, H. G. Hine, turned down the invitation in favour of a quiet night at home. Meeting Meadows the next day, he was surprised to receive a very penitent apology for the behaviour of his colleagues the previous night.
‘What behaviour?’ asked Mr. Hine, unconscious of any possible cause of offence. ‘What! didn’t you hear us? Where do you sleep?’ ‘In front. Why?’ ‘Why? Because before breaking up at three this morning we said, “Let’s give Hine three cheers to finish up with;” which we did, with an unearthly noise, and danced a solemn dance on the pavement, and sang you songs fortissimo, and altogether made a diabolical uproar.’ ‘Never heard a sound,’ said Hine. Meadows turned sorrowfully on his heel without a word, and for some days could not get over his disappointment that, in spite of all their best efforts, his young friend’s rest had been unbroken.
Joseph Kenny Meadows, who is buried in St Pancras Cemetery, was born, or at least baptised, in Cardigan, south Wales, in 1790. His father, James, was a retired naval officer, and according to the engravers George and Edward Dalziel, who worked with him for a time, Kenny (he dropped the name Joseph) spent much of his early years living in a lighthouse, ‘where, he declared, they never had enough to eat. He said, “I used to devour my food like a ravening wolf.” No amount of alcohol ever appeared to hurt him,’ the Dalziels went on, ‘and to those who suffered from excess of indulgence he attributed it entirely to over-eating in their early days, before the constitution was fairly and properly formed.’
He apparently received little education, and as an artist was self-taught by studying often sentimental engravings – ‘wishy-washiness’, in the words of the engraver John Linton, who rated Meadows as ‘a witty man, with some inventive talent, but a poor draftsman’. The journalist and publisher Henry Vizetelly thought Meadows’s drawing was ‘always faulty, but he was gifted with a graceful and witty fancy.’ Meadows’s friend (and nephew by marriage) the literary dogsbody George Hodder wrote that ‘As a draughtsman, he never cared to be guided by those practical laws which regulate the academic exercise of the pictorial art; for he contended that too strict an adherence to Nature only trammelled him, and he preferred relying upon the thought conveyed in his illustrations, rather than upon the mechanical correctness of his outline or perspective.’
Although alcohol didn’t appear ‘to hurt him’, as the Dalziels put it, it did seem to make him self-important. Having ‘imbibed’ at one public dinner, when Punch was mentioned he declared, ‘Gentlemen, I am Punch’ – which, said the Dalziels, was ‘really more than insulting to several Punch men who were present’. And the artist William Powell Frith recalled hearing that Meadows, early one evening, had told fellow artist John Leech that a sight of Leech’s illustrations had made him so disgusted with his own work that he felt like giving up art altogether, only later – after ‘the imbibing of much gin and water’ – to turn on Leech and declare, ‘Give me imagination or nothing, my dear boy! I don’t want your commonplace facts done with a little trick of caricature, as it is called. Why don’t you aim at something better, something higher? I would rather do nothing than the things you do, which, not only in design, but in execution, are unworthy of a true artist.’ This was perhaps making a virtue of necessity. ’Meadows used to say that Nature put him out,’ according to the Dalziels, and ‘Looking at his raised hand with pointed finger, he would say, “I cannot see a hand as I would draw it.”’
In Meadows’s more sober moments, though, as Hodder recalled, ‘The quiet unostentatious way in which he worked at his art, too often under the most adverse and discouraging circumstances, and the pride he displayed when he felt that he had made a “happy hit,” was somewhat like the enthusiasm of a youth who had just attained the honour of a prize.’
By 1823 Meadows had moved to London, where that year he began a collaboration with the lithographer George Scarf to produce the illustrations for five books by James Robinson Planché on historically accurate costumes for six of Shakespeare’s plays.
In the late 1830s he produced illustrations of some of the characters of his friend Charles Dickens, and in 1840 he achieved increased popularity with The Heads of the People: or, Portraits of the English, for which writers including Thackeray, Douglas Jerrold and Leigh Hunt – other friends of his – wrote essays in support of his illustrations and which was also published in Paris in French.
These illustrations were reproduced by wood engraving, in which the usual technique at the time was for the illustrator to draw directly on a wood block, from which an engraver would cut the unwanted material to leave the lines of the drawing in relief; so Meadows’s illustrations survive only in their printed form.
He found work as a useful illustrator for periodicals which were introducing wood engraving as a means of cheap mass-market illustration, and contributed from 1841 to the first seven volumes of Punch (including the cover illustration used throughout the fifth volume) – though some felt he lacked the keen sense of the ridiculous necessary for a good comic artist, and that his drawings were more grotesque than really funny or witty.
He was also employed by the Illustrated London News (founded in 1842), particularly for Christmas issues and portraits.
In 1830 he married Agnes Henning, the daughter of the sculptor John Henning and sister of the artist Archibald S. Henning. A ‘quiet, thriftful woman’, she was given ‘every sixpence that he earned … and she used to give him a small sum whenever he spent his evenings abroad … at the Shakespeare Club.’ Not that a small allowance seemed to hold him back. Frith told how he and Meadows were among the artists who illustrated a book of British ballads edited by Samuel Carter Hall (published in 1842). They were all invited one evening to Hall’s home – the Rosary, as he called it – to present their work for his comments:
Our refreshment was coffee and biscuits, a repast very unsatisfactory to all of us, more or less – to Meadows especially. Kenny bore his disappointment very well till we left the Rosery – this we did at the earliest moment consistent with good manners – when he said, after criticising our entertainment in strong language: ‘There is a house close by where we can get supper. What do you fellows say?’
We all said ‘that was the place for us.’
Under Meadows’ guidance, we found an inn and an excellent supper, and about midnight, when the fun was getting fast and furious, I left; Meadows remaining with two or three other choice spirits – how long I only knew when I met him a few days afterwards. The time of his return home may be guessed by what follows. Day was breaking as Meadows stealthily entered his bedroom, almost praying that Mrs. Meadows might be asleep; but that lady awoke, and, catching sight of her husband, said: ‘You are very late, Meadows.’
‘Oh no,’ said Meadows, ‘I am not; it’s quite early.’
(‘So it was, you know,’ said the Bohemian to me, as he told me of his reception.)
‘Early!’ exclaimed the wife. ‘Why, what o’clock is it?’
‘Oh, about one, or a little after,’ said Kenny.
Unluckily, at that moment the peculiar but unmistakable cry of the milkman was heard – ‘and that pretty well settled the time, you know, Frith.’
Meadows, said Frith, was ‘a jovial soul, loving company and the refreshments that attend it, in which he indulged in happy forgetfulness till “all but he departed”’.
His main ambition was to illustrate the complete works of Shakespeare – ‘he knew all the principal passages of Shakespeare by heart’, according to the historian of Punch M. H. Spielmann – and he achieved this between 1839 and 1843, producing over 1,000 images for a three-volume edition by Barry Cornwall. He then became a much-sought-after illustrator of children’s books and holiday stories, and in June 1864 it was announced that ‘Her Majesty [Queen Victoria], on the recommendation of Lord Palmerston [the prime minister], has been graciously pleased to confer upon Mr. Kenny Meadows, the artist, a pension of 80l. a year [equivalent to about £9,000 p.a. today] in consideration of the merit displayed in his “Illustrated Shakespeare,” and other well-known works.’
At the time of the 1851 and 1861 censuses Meadows was living at Fitzroy Terrace, Kentish Town, and described himself as a ‘painter in watercolour’ and ‘artist, watercolour painter’. He was, says Hodder, ‘very fond of a quiet stroll into the country – as far as Hampstead or Highgate’. He particularly enjoyed hearing about Coleridge’s associations with Highgate, and reminiscing about people whom he had himself known there.
Between 1830 and 1838 he had exhibited on four occasions with the Society of British Artists. He also exhibited work at the Royal Academy in 1830 (‘Mrs Buckstone’), 1845 (‘Isabella. – Measure for Measure, Act II, scene 4’) and 1853 (‘Eve in Paradise. “Eve separate he spies, veiled in a cloud of fragrance, where she stood. Half spied, so thick the roses blushing about her glow’d.” – Paradise Lost’). And at one point, to settle a long-running dispute about an unpaid butcher’s bill, he agreed to paint a portrait of the butcher’s wife. She arrived at his studio in a black satin dress to which she had added ‘such a prolific magnificence of jewellery as could only be displayed on a lady of the most ample proportions’, in emulation of Meadows’s flattering portrait of the landlady of his and the butcher’s local pub, which hung there and which the butcher had admired.
Meadows gave her one sitting and sent the portrait home, but without a solitary indication of the adornments with which the butcher’s wife had loaded her tremendous breadth of chest. Remonstrance followed as a matter of course; but Meadows calmly replied to these that his agreement was to paint a butcher’s wife and not a jeweller’s shop. That he had done, but the trinkets would be extras.
Ultimately another bargain had to be struck, by which Kenny Meadows agreed to paint into the picture a gorgeous brooch in exchange for so many ribs of beef, a given number of legs of mutton as the equivalent for so many lengths of chain, and countless chops and steaks as the artistic value of a watch which the lady had displayed openly on her bosom. In the introduction of this blazonry, however, the artist’s hand lost its accustomed facility, for so slowly did he work that, in Kenny Meadows’ own words, he had ‘the run of his teeth’ in that butcher’s shop for some weeks before the ‘kit-cat’ was completed.
Meadows’s wife died in 1865 and was interred in St Pancras Cemetery with her brother Archibald, who had died the previous year. Despite his fondness for carousing far into the morning and although, said Vizetelly, Meadows ‘had a weak, puny frame, and was constantly writhing with rheumatism’, he himself lived to the ‘patriarchal old age’ of 83 – having outlived all his old friends. He died on 19 August 1874, and was buried with his wife and brother-in-law five days later.
• The Brothers Dalziel [George and Edward Dalziel], A Record of Fifty Years’ Work in Conjunction with Many of the Most Distinguished Artists of the Period 1840–1890 (London: Methuen, 1901)
• Graham Everitt, English Caricaturists and Graphic Humourists of the Nineteenth Century: How They Illustrated and Interpreted Their Times (London: Swan Sonnenschein, Le Bas & Lowrey, 1886)
• William Powell Frith, John Leech: His Life and Work, vol. 2 (London: Richard Bentley, 1891)
• Algernon Graves, The Royal Academy of Arts: A Complete Dictionary of Contributors and Their Work from its Foundation in 1769 to 1904, vol. 5: Lawrence to Nye (London: Henry Graves / George Bell, 1906)
• George Hodder, Memories of My Time, Including Personal Reminiscences of Eminent Men (London: Tinsley Brothers, 1870)
• Frederic G. Kitton, Dickens and His Illustrators (London: George Redway, 1899)
• W. J. Linton, Threescore and Ten Years, 1820 to 1890: Recollections (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1894)
• London Daily News, 7 June 1864 (‘The Court’)
• Athol Mayhew, A Jorum of ‘Punch’ with Those Who Helped to Brew It, being the Early History of ‘The London Charivari’ (London: Downey & Co. 1895)
• Kenny Meadows, Heads of the People: or, Portraits of the English, with Original Essays by Distinguished Writers (London: Robert Tyas, 1840, 1841)
• Robert L. Patten, ‘Meadows, (Joseph) Kenny (bap. 1790, d. 1874)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
• M. H. Spielmann, The History of ‘Punch’ (London: Cassell, 1895)
• Henry Vizetelly, Glances Back through Seventy Years: Autobiographical and Other Reminiscences, vol. 1 (London: Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1893)