O'Hea, John Fergus (c.1838–1922), political cartoonist and illustrator, was born at Kilkerran, near Kinsale, Co. Cork, son of James O'Hea (1809–82), a barrister of nationalist sympathies, who acted as an advisor to a controversial Young Ireland conference in 1846, and later served as crown prosecutor for Cork city and county (1849–82), and for Co. Limerick (1860–82). In 1850 John began to attend the Cork School of Design, where he won an award for a medal in 1857. He spent much time sketching the areas around Cork harbour with his friend and fellow art student Henry Albert Hartland (1840–93), and exhibited a watercolour after a painting by Karl Heggat at the school of design in 1858. O'Hea designed three trade-union banners, of the stonecutters, victuallers, and oddfellows, for the Cork parade of 1864. His painting ‘Punchestown in 1868’, commissioned by a Dublin businessman to commemorate the visit of the prince of Wales to the horse racing at Punchestown, combined portrait likenesses of the royal party, celebrated jockeys, and patrons of the turf, with genre vignettes; it became a familiar image for many years throughout Ireland owing to the wide circulation of prints. In 1870 he was employed by A. M. Sullivan (qv) as chief artist for Zozimus, a humorous magazine that derived its name from the agnomen of the famous Dublin ballad singer Michael Moran (qv). One of the main features of the paper was ‘Our niche’, in which O'Hea rendered a series of portrait sketches of notable Irish personages, such as Isaac Butt (qv) and Sir William Wilde (qv). After the magazine's demise in 1872, O'Hea went to London for a brief while, where he worked for the short-lived Tomahawk newspaper. Returning to Dublin, he was employed as an artist for Ireland's Eye (1874–5), signing his name ‘Spex’, a pseudonym he would continue to use for much of his later work. In 1875 he contributed banners for the stonecutters and victuallers to the Cork parade. He worked (1876–8) for the weekly newspaper Zoz, edited by Edwin Hamilton (qv), but was asked to tone down his portrayal of national politics and to concentrate on illustrations of Dublin society figures. He provided topographical illustrations to The history of the county of Monaghan (1879) by Evelyn Philip Shirley (qv), including a plan of the town of Monaghan at the time of James I.
In 1879 O'Hea and Hamilton founded Pat, a three-penny satirical weekly. In illustrations alluding to his pro-home-rule convictions, O'Hea challenged English stereotypes of the Irish, as is evident in his cartoon ‘Setting down in malice’ (1881). He reversed the degrading portrayals of the Irish by London cartoonists with his humorous images of English figures, such as policemen and Dublin Castle officials; an example is ‘Reciprocity’, showing the ‘representative Englishman’, which appeared in Pat in 1880. Depicting home-rule supporters as angelic, O'Hea supported the ongoing Parnellite campaign in his colour cartoons. Pat ceased publication temporarily in 1880, but was revived in 1881, when O'Hea took on a young cartoonist, Thomas Fitzpatrick (1860–1912), in collaboration with whom he expressed what he saw as the failure of liberal policy and the need for Irish independence in a series of provocative but persuasive political cartoons.
After Pat's financial collapse in 1883, O'Hea was employed for a time as manager of the pictorial department in the Evening Telegraph; he also designed chromolithographs for Christmas numbers of magazines, such as Young Ireland and Sunshine. He contributed fifteen illustrations to Irish pleasantry and fun (1882), a selection of humorous tales by William Carleton (qv), Samuel Lover (qv), and Charles Lever (qv). In 1883 he completed a banner for the masons at the Cork procession. During the 1880s O'Hea was commissioned by Edmund Dwyer Gray (qv) of the Freeman's Journal to draw a large coloured political cartoon published regularly as a single-sheet supplement to the Weekly Freeman. Many of these illustrations depicted the allegorical figure of ‘Erin’, expressing a sense of her dignity and newly found political strength. His cartoon ‘On the ass's back’ (1886) was a stereotype of the Irish landlord. One of his best known drawings depicted Thomas Davis (qv), Charles Gavan Duffy (qv), and John Blake Dillon (qv) seated under a tree in Dublin's Phoenix Park on the evening in 1842 that they decided to found The Nation newspaper. Terminating his association with the Freeman after the Parnell split (1891), O'Hea moved to London, where he had many friends in artistic circles. Some of his drawings appeared in Punch, but his later work indicated a decline in standard from that of his Dublin years. He collaborated with Fitzpatrick to produce cartoons for the Irish Figaro (1898–1901), a weekly penny magazine. His illustrations, including a drawing of Thomas Moore (qv), were printed in Gem selection: songs of Ireland (1900). In 1914–15 he contributed drawings to a satirical magazine, The Lepracaun, such as ‘The cat's-paw’, which portrayed John Bull in the guise of a monkey; he drew cartoons for The Quiz in 1915.
A deft and original caricaturist, O'Hea was one of the most prolific Irish political cartoonists of the nineteenth century. Remembered for his great personal charm and skills as a raconteur, during his Dublin career he moved within a large and diverse social circle; he keenly felt the vicissitudes that forced his permanent departure from the city. After a long illness he died 2 September 1922 at 11 Lisgar Terrace, West Kensington, London.