The Daily Heller: Dickensian Cool

Posted inThe Daily Heller

Growing up reading Charles Dickens’ novels, I acquired a distaste for gruel (“Please, sir, I want some more”), a distrust of street urchins and a disgust for public beheadings. I did, however, learn to love the cadence of Dickens’ prose and exacting dialog, and a passion for Christmas past, present and future (“Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”). I also was enthralled by the line engravings used to illustrate many Dickensian novels and stories. As an art director, when illustrators emulated the style, I was sympathetic and threw a few job crumbs their way. I’ve been called old fashioned for my preference of cross-hatched line drawings to vector-based minimalist flat color art, but Dickensian art continues to have relevance in its to-the-point style.

Recently, I learned that Dr. Michael John Goodman is also a fan, and he has put his website where his fandom is. He just launched the Charles Dickens Illustrated Gallery. It contains all the original illustrations from Charles Dickens’ novels, and is free to use for everyone to download, share, create, remix, research, teach or do whatever they like with. (If you find it useful, you may also like his previous project, the Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive.) The Dickens gallery is a great resource, and Goodman discusses it below. Ultimately, we’ve run through revivals of so many 20th-century methods and manners, it’s possible Victorian Punk is right around the corner.

Nicholas Nickleby, illustrated by Phiz

Why did you become so interested in Charles Dickens and his many illustrators?
This project has been in the back of my mind now for several years. I’m fascinated with making [images] accessible and working with public domain material, and I’ve been constantly surprised that no one has created a website that brings together all the original illustrations from Dickens’ novels in a way that is both intuitive and user-friendly. Dickens’s illustrators, who very much capture visually what we think of when we envision the term ‘Dickensian,’ also, I feel, need celebrating—they form a significant part of book and illustration history (in many ways they were the pioneers of the form), and they have been ill-served by modern editions, where the publisher has either discarded the illustrations completely or reproduced them cheaply and poorly. I have always found Dickens’ novels to be wonderful, but they are actually multimedia objects where word and image intersect to create meaning.

Martin Chuzzlewit, illustrated by Phiz

Which of the artists captured Dickens’ words the best?
The artist who captured Dickens’ words the best is Hablot Knight Browne, who went by the pseudonym Phiz. Dickens was not a man who suffered fools gladly (especially when it came to his own work), and the fact that Browne and Dickens had a creative relationship which lasted for over 23 years is evidence that Dickens found Browne’s ability to visually capture his words both valuable and rewarding. Indeed, in Dickens’ later novels such as Bleak House and Little Dorrit, Browne develops a visual style that directly parallels Dickens’ thematic concerns in those novels with an experimental printing procedure known as the “Dark Plate” technique. These images, such as “Tom-all-Alone’s” and “A New Meaning in the Roman” from Bleak House and “Damocles” from Little Dorrit, are extraordinarily evocative and atmospheric. By focusing on location as opposed to character, they visually reflect Dickens’ preoccupations with the cruelness of the institutional structures that determine people’s lives and provide the reader with an almost meditative space to think through the societal implications of Dickens’ text.

Little Dorrit, illustrated by Phiz

Did Dickens have a major say in how his work was represented?
Dickens very much did have a say in how his work was represented, and in many ways this is why exploring the working relationships he had with his illustrators is so fascinating, because it reveals that (for better or worse) it was very much a creative collaboration. Sadly, Dickens and Browne destroyed much of their correspondence they had with each other, but we do know that every month Dickens would provide Browne with information (whether in the form of a chapter, or some other instructions) for what he wanted illustrated (remember, Dickens’ novels were originally published serially in parts). Browne would then go and prepare the drawings (two per part) and these would be sent back to Dickens, who would then either approve of them or make further suggestions.

Dickens very much had “final cut,” as we would say today, and he was highly concerned with how his novels were to be illustrated throughout his career. When he was writing Dombey and Son, he wrote to his friend John Forster, “the points for illustration, and the enormous care required, make me excessively anxious.” When Browne’s illustration for that novel, “Paul and Mrs Pipchin,” went to press before Dickens saw it, he wrote once again to Forster: “I am really distressed by the illustration of Mrs. Pipchin and Paul. It is so frightfully and wildly wide of the mark,” [noting] that he would “cheerfully have given a hundred pounds to have kept this illustration out of the book.”

At all times Dickens was concerned with how his work appeared both visually and materially. For example, even though the first edition of A Christmas Carol was a publishing sensation in 1843, the expensive production (such as the four famous colored woodcuts by illustrator John Leech) instigated by Dickens meant the author was disappointed with how much money he received from the book.

David Coperfield, illustrated by Phiz

It seems that the illustrators captured the ethos of the times as well as Dickens did, if not moreso. Am I leaning too much on the artists?
No, I think this is such a good point, Steven. The Victorians very much were living in a visual culture where images were everywhere. New printing techniques and technology meant that images could be produced and disseminated widely and cheaply. A consequence of this is that the visual material from the period reflects back to us the values and ideologies of that time in all its dynamism and complexity, revealing anxieties as well as aspirations. Dickens’ illustrators, embedded in this culture, cannot help but capture some of these concerns and desires.

Oliver Twist, illustrated by George Cruikshank

Are there different artists who covered the same books when they were originally published?
No, for each novel Dickens worked with a single illustrator (for his Christmas books he would collaborate with several). For example, for Oliver Twist, he worked with George Cruikshank, and for The Pickwick Papers he worked with Hablot Knight Browne, etc. Interestingly, Great Expectations was not illustrated when it was originally published in 1861 in the United Kingdom, but it was illustrated when it appeared serially in Harper’s Weekly in the USA by John McLenan. The first time Great Expectations was illustrated in the United Kingdom was with illustrations by Marcus Stone for the “Library Edition” of Dickens’ works about a year later. In 1871, Dickens’ publishers Chapman and Hall produced the “Household Edition” of Dickens’s works, and this is the first time new illustrations had been commissioned for the novels.

Oliver Twist, illustrated by George Cruikshank

Are you working with originals and reproductions?
For this project I have been working with reproductions of the original illustrations. The reason has been both financial and for accessibility purposes. First, obtaining the original novels where the illustrations appeared is highly expensive (!), and second, because I digitize the illustrations, the editions need to be robust enough to handle quite a bit of man-handling without worrying too much about if they get ripped, etc. (If I ended up destroying a first edition of, say, Oliver Twist, I don’t think I’d ever get over it!) The editions I’ve used for this project all come from the early part of the 20th century—they are in the goldilocks zone of being perfectly affordable, yet the reproductions of the illustrations are of a superbly high quality. Indeed, many of these editions were published at the time using the original plates.

A Christmas Carol, illustrated by John Leech

How difficult has it been to obtain the editions?
eBay really is a gift that keeps giving! That said, it was not as straightforward as all that, as I had to determine which editions to use, and this was a case of trial and error. I initially bought a complete set of Dickens novels from the 1930s, only to discover when opening up the (very large) box they arrived in that each novel only contained a handful of illustrations. So this would be no good. I then bought a single edition from the 1920s, but the reproduction of the illustrations were very poor. Finally, after much browsing and zooming in on images on eBay, I felt confident that “The Authentic Edition” from 1901–1906 could be the key to unlocking this project. I bought a couple of volumes, and they were, indeed, perfect for my purposes.

A Tale of Two Cities, illustrated by Phiz