The Charles Dickens Illustrated Gallery: A New Online Collection Presents All of the Original Illustrations from Charles Dickens’ Novels

At the height of his fame, Charles Dick­ens could have com­mand­ed any illus­tra­tor he liked for his nov­els. But at the begin­ning of his lit­er­ary career, it was he who was charged with accom­pa­ny­ing the artist, not the oth­er way around. His first seri­al­ized nov­el The Posthu­mous Papers of the Pick­wick Club, bet­ter known as The Pick­wick Papers, began as a series of com­i­cal “cock­ney sport­ing plates” by  Robert Sey­mour. Hon­est enough to admit his igno­rance of the cock­ney sport­ing life but shrewd enough to know an oppor­tu­ni­ty when he saw one, the young Dick­ens accept­ed the pub­lish­er’s request for sto­ries meant to elab­o­rate on the images.

Even then, Dick­ens pos­sessed irre­press­ible tal­ent as a pop­u­lar sto­ry­teller, and it was his writ­ing — which evi­denced scant inter­est in adher­ence to the exist­ing art — that made The Pick­wick Papers into a great suc­cess, a mass-cul­tur­al phe­nom­e­non com­pa­ra­ble to a hit sit­com avant la let­tre.

187 years lat­er there remains a whiff of scan­dal around this chap­ter of lit­er­ary his­to­ry, Sey­mour hav­ing com­mit­ted sui­cide ear­ly in the seri­al­iza­tion process the day after an argu­ment with Dick­ens. Even­tu­al­ly the author found a per­ma­nent replace­ment for Sey­mour in Hablot Knight Browne, or Phiz, who would go on to pro­vide the art­work for most of his nov­els.

You can see all of Phiz’s work for Dick­ens at the Charles Dick­ens Illus­trat­ed Gallery, a project of Michael John Good­man, whom we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture for his Vic­to­ri­an Illus­trat­ed Shake­speare Archive (and his col­lec­tion of AI-gen­er­at­ed Shake­speare art). “The world of Dick­ens illus­tra­tion is beset with poor repro­duc­tions of the source mate­r­i­al, so for this project I have searched out what I con­sid­er to be some of the best edi­tions that fea­ture the orig­i­nal illus­tra­tions print­ed to a decent qual­i­ty,” Good­man writes on his pro­jec­t’s About page. These tend to date from the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry and come with “col­ored fron­tispieces (which the orig­i­nal nov­els did not have).”

One such fron­tispiece appears at the top of this post, depict­ing the first appear­ance of The Pick­wick Papers’ most beloved char­ac­ter, the cock­ney valet Samuel Weller (who over­took the title char­ac­ter in pop­u­lar­i­ty in much the same man­ner as Dick­ens’ writ­ing over­took the illus­tra­tions). The Charles Dick­ens Illus­trat­ed Gallery con­tains numer­ous plates from that book, as well as from all the rest: Oliv­er Twist (a col­lab­o­ra­tion with not Phiz but George Cruik­shank), A Christ­mas Car­ol (with John Leech), Bleak House (its grim atmos­phere height­ened by Phiz’s “dark plates”), even the nev­er-fin­ished The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood. Today’s read­ers are like­ly to dis­miss these illus­tra­tions, how­ev­er well-ren­dered, as extra­ne­ous to the text. But we must bear in mind that most were seen and approved by Dick­ens him­self, who knew what he want­ed — and even more so, what his read­ers want­ed.

Enter the The Charles Dick­ens Illus­trat­ed Gallery here.

Relat­ed con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Charles Dick­ens’ Life & Lit­er­ary Works

An Oscar-Win­ning Ani­ma­tion of Charles Dick­ens’ Clas­sic Tale, A Christ­mas Car­ol (1971)

The Code of Charles Dick­ens’ Short­hand Has Been Cracked by Com­put­er Pro­gram­mers, Solv­ing a 160-Year-Old Mys­tery

Behold Illus­tra­tions of Every Shake­speare Play Cre­at­ed by Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence

3,000 Illus­tra­tions of Shakespeare’s Com­plete Works from Vic­to­ri­an Eng­land, Neat­ly Pre­sent­ed in a New Dig­i­tal Archive

A Free Shake­speare Col­or­ing Book: While Away the Hours Col­or­ing in Illus­tra­tions of 35 Clas­sic Plays

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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