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Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators

Jane R. Cohen

“A major work of scholarship that will inevitably take its place on the Dickens shelf beside the Pilgrim Letters and the Clarendon novels.” —Robert L. Patten, Nineteenth-Century Fiction

Even casual readers of Charles Dickens have always recognized Mr. Pickwick, Fagin, and Scrooge when they see them in pictures, though they may not know the names of the artists who first portrayed them. For better or worse, consciously or unconsciously, our conception of Dickens’s work seems ineluctably tied to the representations of his characters and scenes by the eighteen draftsmen with whom he variously and closely worked.

In undertaking to treat systematically comprehensively for the first time in this century Dickens’s personal and professional relations with the first illustrators of his books, Dr. Cohen proceeds on the basis of her conviction that knowledge of these artists and their special contributions is essential to a rounded understanding of the novelist’s life and works and argues that the indivisible blend of historical, psychological, aesthetic, and technical facts that shaped representative illustrations serves best to elucidate them.

As Dr. Cohen demonstrates, Dickens himself left abundant testimony to his intense involvement in most of the nearly nine hundred original illustrations to his books, and the drawings were a part of the initial publication of nearly all of his major works from Sketches by Boz of 1836 to The Mystery of Edwin Drood of 1870. He had close personal as well as professional relationships with many of the eighteen artists who worked with him. He was highly susceptible to being disappointed in the illustrations to his books, but even when his reputation had become secure, his sales steady, and his audience sufficiently literate to permit him to publish his texts unadorned (as some critics urged him to do), he usually retained the pictorial format—clearly convinced, despite the difficulties of coordinating pictures and text, of the advantages to himself, to his publishers, to a lesser extent to his illustrators, and above all to his readers. Dickens had, in fact, revolutionized the publication of new fiction between 1836 and 1870 when he issued The Pickwick Papers in illustrated serial form—an enormously successful commercial venture that caused other authors and publishers to rush to emulate it.

But though Dickens’s abiding preoccupation with illustrations was to some extent motivated by economic considerations, they apparently served the far more important function of providing a necessary outlet for the rich overflow of his remarkably visual imagination. He once explained the process by which his fiction was created: “I don’t invent it—really do not—but see it and write it down.” And his instructions to his artists do indeed confirm that he visualized very thoroughly and in a multiplicity and wealth of detail the scenes that he wished to see depicted.

It was, in fact, as much the force of Dickens’s personality and pictorial imagination that assured the success of his illustrations as it was the talent of the artists he employed. He managed quickly to reverse the traditional roles that subordinated author to artist, and though the less complacent and more famous among them must have resisted this, the illustrators of Dickens fared better than most of the colleagues at a time when they were to painters as novelists were to poets—the less prestigious, though usually more popular, practitioners of their craft. If George Cruikshank and Robert Seymour assisted Dickens in his rise to fame, they, in turn, have been assured of immortality by virtue of their work for him. Hablot Browne’s stature as an artist rested almost exclusively on his illustrations for Dickens. John Leech’s name on the title pages of the Christmas books consolidated his reputation as a talented satirist, and John Tenniel’s byline led to his work for Punch and his collaboration with Lewis Carroll. Some of the artists were already respected painters when they went to work for Dickens; others became so as a result of the association. Many, like Edwin Landseer and Samuel Palmer, have earned a place in art history not dependent on their Dickens illustrations, but with few exceptions, until the recent revival of interest in Victoriana, most were better remembered for their illustrations of Dickens than for their ambitious canvases. At a time when scholars have begun to recognize that the major achievement in the graphic arts of the Victorian era may have been in the field of book illustration, those who labored to illustrate Dickens are deserving of renewed attention. Certainly, his modern readers owe it to Dickens to accord to his artists some measure of the serious consideration he lavished on their efforts to embellish in pictures the pages that he wrote.

Jane R. Cohen teaches in the Radcliffe Seminars Program at Radcliffe College.

1980   295 pp.   over 200 illustrations This title is no longer available in a traditional print edition. Click here for free access to the book’s full text.