November 2012

Leah Triplett


Dickens and the Artists

Somehow, I made it through college without ever reading Charles Dickens for a course. Surprising, I know, but the omission has served me well -- a Dickens novel, to me, was never a foreboding inclusion on a hefty syllabus, never an ominous threat of breakneck, frantic reading through midterms. I only read Dickens for pleasure, haphazardly, and usually because I'm intrigued.

Similarly, what we know of Dickens's opinions about art -- both of his day, and of anything before -- is essentially random, the sum of conjectures made from close reading of his novels, or the writing of one of his daughters, Kate Dickens, or his relationships with fine artists and the Royal Academy, and from the very few pieces of criticism that he wrote. Scholars and readers alike have long called him "a visual writer," and he wrote at a time when illustrations were a necessary element to any novel, but his bonds to visual art have long been ignored by academics, until this year, bicentennial of his birth. Mark Bills, curator of the Watts Gallery, with contributions by Pat Hardy, Leonee Ormond, Nicholas Penny, and Hilary Underwood, has produced Dickens and the Artists, a catalogue that accompanied a Watts exhibition of the same title. The catalogue and exhibition seek to explore Dickens's thoughts on art, how those thoughts informed his writing, and how his writing shaped nineteenth century British painting. Separated into two parts, "Dickens as Art Critic" and "The Influence of Dickens on the Artists," the catalogue's essays, coupled with the prints, drawings, archival photographs, and paintings, describe a world just at the precipice of early modernism, when the camera was a technology unimaginable to the general public, when people read in serial, and when realism began to be realized as a theme and style in writing as well as painting.

My favorite essay presented here is Nicholas Penny's "Dickens and Philistinism," the first in "Dickens as Art Critic," and a piece that I suspect would have given a more egalitarian title had it been the work of an American art historian. Penny, the director of the National Gallery in London, references 1835's Cross-readings at Charing-cross: A View of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, a political cartoon of sorts that pictures a few raucous figures fighting and protesting in front of the National Gallery when it was being built. "The print implies that cultural institutions, and especially the National Gallery, are detached from the sordid realities of modern urban life, although... common people flocked to the Gallery, which, unlike the Royal Academy, did not charge for admission." Penny observes that although we know that Dickens visited the Royal Academy in the summer of 1838, then in the east wing of the building, along with the rest of cosmopolitan London, we can only assume that he also visited the National Gallery, housed in the west wing, as he never wrote about the masterworks therein. Dickens had published Nicholas Nickleby that year, a novel that includes one of the only instances of an artist as a character, Miss La Creevy, in his works.

Closely reading such portrayals, as well as descriptions of other characters' environs, Penny clarifies the politics of London's National Gallery and Royal Academy, and how their collections, and attitudes toward who can and should see them, contoured how Dickens would have understood public museums (then basically a revolutionary idea), as well as what their collections should contain. For instance, Dickens valued illustration, and was angered by the Royal Academy's refusal to collect (and therefore preserve and institutionalize) examples of it. As Bills writes in his introduction, "Dickens developed a very personal taste in art that reflected his own writing and is nowhere better illustrated than in the control that he exerted over the illustrators who created plates for his novels... Dickens expresses his attitude that great illustration is on par with great art and writes of the absurdity of their exclusion from the Royal Academy." Dickens was snubbed by the Royal Academy in 1840, and Nicholas Nickleby's Miss La Creevy disdains that it contained "beautiful shiny portraits of gentlemen in black velvet waistcoats." Dickens obliquely ridicules the principles of connoisseurship behind the Royal Academy administration in his 1846 Pictures from Italy, which, as Penny writes, "seeks to gratify middlebrow readers by its impatience with the pretensions of connoisseurship and the mindless reverence of guidebooks." In Pictures from Italy, Dickens takes on the great masters, but doesn't relate the Old Master paintings that his London audience could see at the National Gallery. Later, in 1856, he included an art review by an anonymous contributor to Household Worlds (none other than Wilkie Collins) that attacks the idea that taste is to be policed by an academy or museum. Collins's father was a painter that Dickens admired, and who supported the National Gallery, but in his article "To Think, or Be Thought for?" the younger Collins asserts that everyone could enjoy art and beauty, and that rich patrons who create markets for artists and then donate these works to institutions, do so not out of benevolence, but patronization.

Dickens apparently agreed that art should be for all, which is unsurprising, given his themes in his fiction. For instance, we can read the descriptions of paintings, furniture, and objects in certain pieces of his writing as equating art as decorative or "accessories," and thus commercial and only fully available to the wealthy. Penny and the other contributors do fascinating work of telling us how Dickens's contemporaries might have read passages of interior description. The catalogue purports that Dickens was a "visual writer," but I wish that was more fully fleshed out. Does being "visual" in writing have the same connotation as it did in the nineteenth century? Probably not. Penny does suggest Dickens's works are cinematographic, but his contemporaries wouldn't have thought that way.

Few examples of Dickens's own art writing exist, but the most notorious is Dickens's 1850 "Old Lamps for New Ones," a review of John Everett Millais's Christ in the House of His Parents (1849-1850) at the 1850 Royal Academy Exhibition. The painting brought notoriety to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, or PRB, a group of artist and writers who championed realism over ornamentation, and beckoned return pre-Mannerist painting styles. Though Dickens would eventually become friends with Millais, and his daughter would marry Charles Collins, also a Pre-Raphaelite and brother of Wilkie Collins, Dickens repudiated the PRB for their perceived rejection of beauty and artistic innovation. Dickens's daughter Kate, an artist, married Charles Collins, younger brother to Wilkie and a PRB member in 1860. Dickens disapproved. Dickens had many artist friends, and some of the most absorbing passages of the catalogue describe his sometimes fraught, but usually close, relationships with them. Unfortunately, much of Dickens's correspondence with these artists, in particular Daniel Maclise, has been destroyed, relegating the art and writing they discussed to supposition. Dickens was contradictory in his art writing, and ultimately wrong about the PRB -- their work and achievements heralded a new era in art making, one that advocated authenticity and truthfulness of vision, elements that culminated in Impressionism. Beautifully illustrated with artworks owned by Dickens, as well as works done by his friends, Dickens and the Artists presents clues and vivid context that rescues Dickens's thoughts on art from disregard, but ultimately, delightfully, reiterates that the truth of his feelings will always be mysterious.