Sir Leslie Ward, RP (1851-1922), known as ‘Spy’ For almost 40 years, Sir Leslie Ward defined the look of the society paper, Vanity Fair. His well observed, meticulously conceived cartoons permanently altered the art of caricature in England. From the cruel and often grotesque caricatures made popular by the likes of Gillray and Daumier, Leslie Ward made caricature acceptable and, indeed, necessary to the who’s who of Victorian high society.
Leslie Ward was born at Harewood Square, London (on the site of what is now Marylebone Station), on 21 November 1851. He was exposed to the artistic life from birth as his father, Edward Matthew Ward, and mother, Henrietta Ada Ward, were both professional artists. His father produced historical paintings and his mother was a fashionable painter of portraits.
Indeed, the artistic tradition of Ward’s family stretched back further still. His maternal grandfather, George Raphael Ward, was a mezzotint engraver and miniature painter, his mother’s great-uncle was John Jackson RA, portrait painter in ordinary to William IV, and his great-grandfather, James Ward, was a versatile painter of landscapes, animals and portraits, engraver, lithographer and modeller. His godfather, Charles Robert Leslie, after whom he was named, was also a Royal Academician and father to George Dunlop Leslie, who won the Royal Academy Schools Silver Medal in 1814.
Ward was strongly influenced by the artistic environment in which he found himself as a young child. At the age of four, he holidayed in Calais with his parents, and produced what he considered to be his first caricatures, of a number of French soldiers loitering at the docks. As his parents were popular and highly sociable in artistic circles, the young Ward was introduced to a great number of the Victorian period’s most influential literary and artistic figures. The novelist, Wilkie Collins, was a close friend of his parents, as was his brother, Charles Allston Collins, one of the original members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Other artists who visited his parents’ studios when he was child included Daniel Maclise, Sir Edwin Landseer, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt.
Ward was also introduced to the Queen and Prince Consort, who made regular visits to the studio. One such visit was during the progress of one of his father’s commissioned pictures, The Visit of Queen Victoria to the Tomb of Napoleon I, which was referred to in The Spectator’s review of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1858 as ‘a stagey, flashy, vulgar affair, with scarcely a redeeming point’.
Leslie Ward enjoyed a happy childhood. While he was still young, the family moved from Harewood Square to Upton Park, Slough, a rural environment that he adored. His artistic surroundings nurtured his desire to become an artist. Despite this, and the fact the he was a regular sitter for his parents, Ward never received a single lesson from either. His father was actually keen to dissuade him from becoming an artist and wished to see him educated in a more traditional manner. Initially, he attended Chase’s School, Salt Hill, near Slough. However, he did not stay long as the school was soon broken up due to the ill health of the headmaster. As a result, he was sent to study at Eton at a younger age than was planned. At the request of his father, his aptitude and love for drawing was not encouraged whilst he was at Eton. Nevertheless, he continued to indulge his passion, regularly drawing the school’s masters and his fellow pupils, and so becoming Eton’s unofficial caricaturist. While he was still young, the family returned to London, moving to Kent Villa, Kensington, a large house with two studios one on top of the other for his parents. On school holidays, he spent much of his time watching his parents work there, as well as at the temporary studio erected on the terrace of the House of Lords, where he watched his father paint frescoes for the Houses of Parliament.
At the age of 16, Ward turned his attention to modelling and started a bust of his younger brother, Wriothesley Russell Ward. Working on it in his holidays, he finished it in time to submit it to the Royal Academy, where it was accepted and exhibited at the Summer Exhibition of 1867. However, he chose not to follow up on this success, deeming the process too much of a physical and mental strain on him. As a young man, he also indulged in a growing interest in the stage. During his school holidays, he would assist at various playhouses across London by painting scenery and playing in small roles. He first appeared in front of a large audience at the Bijou Theatre in Bayswater as part of an amateur company called ‘The Shooting Stars’, comprised largely of Cambridge undergraduates.
After leaving school at the age of 16, Leslie Ward travelled to Paris with a group of friends, for little more reason than to enjoy himself and soak up the city’s artistic atmosphere. However, his father’s desire to see him installed in a secure vocation resulted in Ward entering the office of Sydney Smirke RA, to study architecture. Smirke was a highly respected architect, whose most well-known works include the Carlton Club and the Reading Room at the British Museum. However, the mechanical process of the profession did not appeal to Ward, and his period with Smirke only served to strengthen his resolve to become an artist. After a year, Smirke had completed his work on the exhibition galleries at the Royal Academy’s Burlington House and decided to retire. During this time, Ward had been made a member of the Architecture Association, and his father arranged for him to continue his architectural studies with Edward Barry RA. However, when he was informed that his period of study with Barry would last for another five years, Ward declined the offer and resolved finally to tell his father that he wished to pursue a career as an artist. He found an ally in the painter and Royal Academician, William Powell Frith, a close family friend who agreed to mediate between Leslie Ward and his father. The intervention of Frith at last saw his father relent and give his blessing to his chosen career.
His first commission was to end in unfortunate circumstances. Through his father, Ward obtained work undertaking a series of interior drawings for a family friend, a Mrs Butler Johnson Munro. However, after three months’ work, Mrs Butler Johnson Munro suddenly died, leaving Ward with just a five pound note he had been paid after his first day. He did not have the heart to send a claim for full payment to her executors.
A six-week visit to Lord Lytton at Knebworth, in the company of his parents, gave Ward his first real encouragement that he could succeed as an artist. During his stay, he painted a watercolour of Knebworth’s great hall and had Lord Lytton sit for a portrait. (He also caricatured his host from memory.) On his return home, his painting of the great hall was accepted by the Royal Academy and, determined to win his father’s approval, he began his preparation to enter the Royal Academy Schools. This preliminary course of instruction included study at the Slade School of Fine Art, under Professor Edward Poynter. In 1871, following an extended holiday with friends in Scotland, he entered the Royal Academy Schools as probationer in Architecture, before becoming a full-time student.
Much of his time at the Royal Academy was spent exhibiting portraits in oil and watercolour and he could easily have made a career in that field. Portraits that he exhibited at the Royal Academy included drawings of his brother, Wriothesley, and his sister, Beatrice. Though he exhibited great talent in portrait painting, and would be elected to the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in 1891, he still held a great love for caricature and continued to draw the various personalities who crossed his path.
Leslie Ward’s association with the society paper, Vanity Fair, began with a garden party hosted by Lord Leven. Here, he observed the eminent zoologist, Professor Richard Owen, who was nicknamed ‘Old Bones’. So taken by what he described as his ‘antediluvian incongruity’, he resolved to caricature him. At this time, Thomas Gibson Bowles, the founder of Vanity Fair, had grown dissatisfied with the artists working for him the absence of his main caricaturist, Carlo Pellegrini, and was searching for new cartoonists. John Everett Millais, having known of Leslie Ward’s skill and enjoyment in creating caricatures and his admiration for Vanity Fair, called to see a collection of his work. Particularly taken with the caricature of ‘Old Bones’, he urged Ward to submit it to Vanity Fair. He did so, and it was accepted and published in 1873. The cartoon was unsigned, as Bowles did not approve of Ward’s original idea for a signature. When Bowles handed Ward a dictionary and suggested he search for a pseudonym, the page fell open on the ’S’s’ and his eye was caught by ‘Spy’.
Following the publication of his first cartoon, Leslie Ward became a permanent staff member at Vanity Fair and he was able to turn his attention ‘whole-heartedly and with infinite pleasure’ to caricature. When he and Vanity Fair’s other great cartoonist, Carlo Pellegrini, were first introduced at a social event, Pellegrini jokingly told onlookers that he had taught Ward everything he knew. He laughed it off, knowing it not to be the case, but when numerous journalists believed it to be true and put it into print, Ward grew to regret not correcting the comment. Nevertheless, this first meeting began a lasting friendship and great mutual admiration.
‘Spy’ was an apt pseudonym for Ward, as he often found himself ‘stalking’ his subjects everywhere from the law courts and Houses of Parliament to society gatherings and theatres of London, before drawing them from memory. In his early days at Vanity Fair, he was often given subjects that were refused by Pellegrini, and his caricatures were often the result of hours of continual attempts, watching his subjects as they walked or drove past. In Thomas Gibson Bowles, Ward found a valuable ally when studying his subjects. As Ward explains, ‘he was so thoroughly a man of the world and withal so tactful and resourceful that I was glad when we worked in company. It was a great help for me, and I was able to employ my attention in observing while he took the responsibility of conversations and entertainment of the subject entirely off my hands’. In January 1873, Ward received a commission from William Luson Thomas, editor of The Graphic, and contributed a number of portrait drawings to the paper, including those of Sir John Cockburn, Benjamin Disraeli, William Gladstone and Lord Leighton. In 1876, he left The Graphic and worked exclusively for Vanity Fair alongside Pellegrini. When Pellegrini died in 1889, Ward produced virtually every cartoon.
In 1874, his parents had left London and moved to Windsor. As Ward was required to stay in London, he took rooms in Connaught Street, and a studio in William Street, Lowndes Square. As his fame grew and his time became more precious, he began to require many of his subjects to come to this studio and sit for him. This procedure frequently irritated him, as his sitters often made requests as to how they should be portrayed, or complained about the final result. Nevertheless, he continued to accept commissions to produce portraits, partly because he remained greatly fond of the process of portrait painting, but also because it was well paid. In an 1897 interview given by Oliver Armstrong Fry, then editor of Vanity Fair, to Frank Banfield of Cassell’s Magazine, it was reported that Ward received between £300 and £400 for a portrait. Later in life, he would regret not allowing himself more time to work in this medium.
The nature of his work and his association with such a reputable society magazine as Vanity Fair meant that Leslie Ward figured prominently in the upper echelons of Victorian society. In 1874, he joined the Arts Club in Hanover Square, whose members at the time included Punch cartoonists John Tenniel and Charles Keene. He later became a member of the Orleans Club, the Lotus Club and the Pelican Club. In 1876, he became one of the original members of the Beefsteak Club, a bohemian club founded by Archibald Stuart Wortley. He was elected an honorary member of the Lyric Club, and also joined the newly opened Fielding Club and the Gallery Club, held on Sunday nights at the Grosvenor Galleries. In July 1880, he was invited on a cruise aboard the HMS Hercules by the Duke of Edinburgh, who had seen and admired his caricature of the Admiral Sir Reginald MacDonald, which had appeared in Vanity Fair. In 1890, he was given the honour of a sitting by the Prince of Wales at Marlborough House.
After many years as a bachelor, Leslie Ward married in 1899 to society hostess Judith Topham-Watney, the only daughter of Major Richard Topham, of the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars. They had initially courted some years earlier, only for her parents to block their engagement on the grounds that Ward was financially unworthy. However, in 1899 they happened to meet again on a train journey, their relationship was rekindled and they were married a few months later at St Michael’s Church in Chester Square. Settling down together in Elizabeth Street, Belgravia, they had one daughter, Sidney.
In 1911, Leslie Ward resigned from Vanity Fair, ending an association with the paper that had lasted almost 40 years. He was soon approached by the paper, The World, who offered him not only the same pay that he received at Vanity Fair, but also permission to retain the rights of his original drawings. As a result, he was able to send a collection of his works to the Turin Exhibition at the request of Sir Isidore Spielmann, for which he received a Grand Prix. He also occasionally produced portraits for Mayfair, which Ward described as ‘the only Society journal that I can recall having succeeded in any way on the lines of Vanity Fair’ [Forty Years of ‘Spy’, page 337]. In 1914, he was commissioned by the staff of the Pall Mall Gazette and The Observer to produce a portrait of their editor, James Louis Garvin.
In 1915, Leslie Ward published his autobiography, Forty Years of ‘Spy’. He was knighted in 1918. He died suddenly of heart failure at 4 Dorset Square, London, on 15 May 1922.
His work is represented in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery.
Peter Mellini, ‘Ward, Sir Leslie [pseud. Spy] (1851-1922)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, Volume 57, pages 325-326 Leslie Ward, Forty Years of ‘Spy’, London: Chatto & Windus, 1915