Illustrating 'The Old Curiosity Shop'

February 8, 2021

Christian Lehmann, Faculty of Literature at Bard High School Early College Cleveland, describes how The Old Curiosity Shop's illustrators maintained visual cohesion while playfully engaging one another across the weekly parts.



Well, hello there. My name is Christian Lehmann. On behalf of the Dickens Project and the Friends of the Dickens Project, and all of you, I want to welcome you to this installment of Dickens-to-Go, where I'll be talking about a certain phenomenon in almost all of Dickens's novels. I'm sure you've noticed it. If you're reading any novel, except for Great Expectations or Hard Times, you will encounter this. So, what am I talking about? I'm talking about Dickens and his illustrators.

Today I want to talk specifically about something really interesting that's happening in The Old Curiosity Shop. The Old Curiosity Shop, you may well remember, appeared in a weekly magazine that Dickens edited. It never really took off in the same way that his later magazines would, Household Words and All the Year Round. He was only ever the only contributor, and he kind of thought it would be a miscellany after kind of the model of Bentley's.However, that never really happened. And even though he tried interspersing things at the beginning, eventually he settled on just writing novels in it.

When it appeared, it looked like this. This is a facsimile. So, I do have some of the originals, but this one here is a facsimile because I want to treat it a little bit more roughly, but you could see it had a Phiz-designed frontispiece, advertisements, obviously in the front and back. And then the great phenomenon that Dickens was willing to pay more for, it had something called dropped-in woodcuts. So, what this means is that the woodcut illustration was placed in the middle of the text, and this is quite different from his practices that he uses later on where he has etched plates. And so, when you got an installment, you would open it up, and in the beginning, there would be two separate illustrations that you would see first, and that actually changes a lot of the way that you mediate text and image if you think about them together. But let's get into what might be happening with The Old Curiosity Shop.

So, here's just a glimpse of what life was like back when we were all together in Santa Cruz- actually gathered here discussing Middlemarch. So, it's a little bit of a betrayal to the Dickensian moment.

So, there were four illustrators of The Old Curiosity Shop. Hablot Knight Browne, whom you probably might recognize more as Phiz, is the nickname he took on. He did 61 woodcuts for this, as well as what are called the ornamentals or decorative capitals at the start of several chapters. And George Cattermole was the other principal illustrator, and he made 14 woodcuts. Two much more famous artists also contributed in small ways. Samuel Williams made one woodcut, but he also etched quite a few of them or engraved them. This is a better word. And Daniel Maclise also made one woodcut.

So, I keep using the word woodcut. What do I mean by that? Well, one of the ways these books would be illustrated is you have an illustrator, say Phiz, and he draws the image. So, he draws the picture, and then you have an engraver who takes that image and copies it onto a piece of soft boxwood, and then he carves it out, and then you have the printer that inks it and places it eventually to be printed. So, it's a long process. One of the things that I'm going to point out is how you can kind of gain an appreciation for recognizing when that's happening.

A couple of books that I'll be calling upon that are both readily available are Jane Cohen's seminal, Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators. And then Valerie Browne Lester's Phiz: The Man Who Drew Dickens. I would also encourage you to go to the Victorian Web, which is an online compendium of all things Victoriana, but they have the complete book by Stieg on Phiz and Dickens as well.

So let's get into things. One thing that these artists do is claim their art. So, take a second, maybe pause the video after I finish talking, and find George Cattermole's signature. Think you can do it? This one is not hard. So I have full faith in your ability to. Got it? Very good. No problem. You very quickly learn to recognize Cattermole's style. It's primarily architectural with this rusticated old, tiny British building kind of dilapidated and falling apart, but still with some ornate features, a lot of like the roundedness of rooftops and the clinging of ivies. It's kind of a signature for him.

How about here? Can you spot Hablot Knight Browne's signature from chapter eight? Again, some playfulness here as the young girl's foot is actually pointing us at that HB. Browne alternates between HKB and HB. Sometimes even Phiz, not as much in The Old Curiosity Shop, as he's practicing and playing around with these various things.

So you'll also probably notice here that there's another name over on the right side. We have Gray. And if you look back over at this Cattermole, you have Landalls. Landalls and Gray are the engravers. They're the people that are in charge of transferring Cattermole's and Phiz's art onto this piece of boxwood that then gets translated onto the page. So that's what those names mean when you see them on the illustrations.

Let's get things a little bit harder here. Spot the Cattermole. Herewith this marvelous illustration, right,  of Quilp in the background and the grandfather and Nell herself. Did you get it? Yes, it's right over there on the table leg. And once you start getting familiar with Cattermole, he loves to sign his work in this particular location. And so, you can kind of get an assist, an aid, by finding them there.

Let's see if Phiz also makes it harder. So here we have Kit and his mother. And you have it yet? There it is right there on the baby's basket, a little bit of HB secreted away. So, one of the things that this does is it lays claim to, the artist says, this is my work, but also it can create a really exciting, really interesting competition of sorts as the same figures get illustrated or then different size and different aspects of them. They become signatures in more than just the letters, but actually a signature of the art style. And throughout, what I really want to encourage you to do the next time you pick up a Dickens novel is spend time with the illustrations thinking about how they're working.

Because it's commonplace to say that like, especially Phiz and Dickens's relationship is one of a mutual betterment, where the better Dickens gets at describing things, the better Phiz gets at drawing them. And then the drawings actually act as interpretive lenses into Dickens's text, and then Dickens tries harder, and sort of together, they build off of each other.

I think the same thing happens here with The Old Curiosity Shop and art. And it's one of the few moments, right? Only really with this, and then with Barnaby Rudge, can we watch Phiz really learn his craft, I think, by observing Cattermole. I think you would not have the dark plates that you have in Bleak House, those architectural dark plates without having worked with and against Cattermole in the pages of Master Humphrey's Clock.

So here is a moment that I think is really fun. This is a number, so we're going to add like two weekly numbers here with Master Humphrey's Clock, number 34, which is chapter 52, and the number 35, which is chapter 54. So the reason I'm emphasizing the difference in the numbers is that they're not in the same weekly. So this means that Hablot Knight Browne had a chance to look at and read Cattermole's illustration first.

So, you can take a second to try to spot the names. And you have it? There they are. So, Cattermole places his on the chair. And then, in a moment of remarkable playful perversity, a lot of this discourse around, like our play with the idea of death, Hablot actually puts his initials on a tombstone. So, remember earlier we had his initials on the baby's basket, and now we have them on the tombstone, in a lot of ways, I think, Hablot is playing around with the ideas of life and death, youth and age that Dickens is also working with, especially here in these cemetery scenes.

And it seems to be a small prod at Cattermole being like, Hey, you're always putting your name in the same place, all these pieces of wood furniture, but what's that really contributing? I think there's a bit of nudging the other person in their side with the elbow.

What about, though, if we think of the other two illustrators Williams and Maclise. Well, all four of them actually illustrated Nell at various times. So here is the opening illustration. The first time you see Nell. Which is not actually at the beginning of Master Humphrey's Clock. It takes a few installments to get that when they can start picking up steam and deciding to switch to a full-time novel.

You can recognize this interior scene is quite Cattermolean. The confusion, the jumble capturing the different senses of the curiosity shop itself, you see Master Humphrey kind of in the back, and then Nell, a really extraordinary Nell. And the reason I want to emphasize her here is because of where we're going to end. So she has this kind of pointed toe, the pinafore dress, very, very youthful and her hair hanging partly down her neck and then the long hat on her back.

Looking again, at the end of this, later on, we have Samuel Williams's very influential Nell. And I'll talk about why it's influential in a bit. So, Williams here has shown her sleeping. You can kind of, you can see her face. You see her hands are stretched across her lap. Her hair is curled on the pillow, and she has a youthful resting face. Something though, quite marvelous, is also happening here. That's a playful feature of a lot of Victorian illustration, which is the placement of faces in the background. And here, what happens with all these faces, is it actually creates a circle around Nell. So, if you look closely, you'll see we have one there. We have these figures that are turned inward. Down here, we have the mask. And also, you probably have this crucifix. That's looking up, and you have another theatrical mask on the side. You have this figure looking down. So, you might even, we have this little guy up there. So, this is like the circle of viewers that are all looking at Nell as she sleeps, which of course, is what we are also doing.

Let's look now at a Phiz version, a Hablot version of Nell. This, we see the Nell characteristic, the foot, and we have the angelic face wearing the hat as well with the soft curls and that kind of pinafore that's happening.

Daniel Maclise gives us his only contribution, which is a quite striking, quite beautiful Nell where it's one of the largest images that we have, especially the way that she's offset with the sexton here. But you'll notice that she has a book in her left hand. She's got those soft curls that are falling. She also has a key. Part of this language of the daughter of the house, the angel of the house, being the guardian of the keys.

And then we have Nell's death. Sorry, we have some spoilers there. Nell is lying on this bed, and you should recognize not only the book that we had from Maclise but also some reminiscent, it's a very strong reminiscence of Samuel Williams's sleeping Nell. In particular, though, I want to point to this architectural feature in the back. So, this is a bed, and the bed itself has carving on it. This bed would have been made out of wood. And so, on a wood engraving, we have wood sculpture being shown. So, it's almost like an etching or an engraving in an engraving, in engraving. And so, we're looking at almost one that's two steps removed.

More of these different elements of playfulness are happening here with the illustrators. I won't share my personal opinion about this particular Nell. I will let you all admire it if admiring is what you want to do to this particular image.

But I think something very exciting happens as a result of it. So, this is at the beginning of the end of The Old Curiosity Shop. The very end of Old Curiosity Shop features the final engraving by Cattermole. Oops. We're not going to get there yet. First, we have this early January 30th. So that's what I was showing to make the comparison between the two.

So Hablot Knight Browne actually comes along, and in February, he makes a frontispiece for the second volume of Master Humphrey's Clock that's being released in its complete form. And you'll see that he actually adds his own version of this final scene. We have Nell in the bed. We have the carved bedstead. Pointing to these various elements that are getting combined—at the shifting of the angle of Nell's body, giving us the Williams memory as well.

So, part of what I think is happening here with Phiz is he's also playing off of another phenomenon, which is the very end of Master Humphrey's Clock. Cattermole made this image of angels kind of welcoming baby Nell. And so, he gives us that transition from that happening. All of which is kind of Mary and the Jesus and the cherubs looking down at her.

So, a final really wonderful moment happens, because you probably have forgotten Maclise a little bit by now. But never forget Maclise. Many of you know that in Barnaby Rudge, the other novel that's published in Master Humphrey's Clock, Dickens gives us a marvelous raven as a character. Well, he also had his own raven, Grip. But Grip died in March of 1841. And Dickens's friend, Daniel Maclise, sent him a letter in which he included an illustration. That illustration was the apotheosis of Grip. And something that I think is happening here is that Maclise is joining in the fun of pointing out the shared experience of illustrating different figures, specifically the death of Nell. So, he's illustrating Grip as Nell here. So, I'm not sure if I'll persuade you that this is what's happening, but if we look at them all together, I wonder if some of you might see just a little bit of similarity between those.

I want to thank all of you for spending the last few minutes with me, as we talked through some of the playful qualities of looking at the illustrations of Dickens and The Old Curiosity Shop. Keep well, stay healthy, and I hope we'll all be in touch.



christian-lehmann-portraitChristian Lehmann got his Ph.D. in Classics from the University of Southern California. He currently teaches at Bard High School Early College in Cleveland and is a member of the teaching faculty at the Dickens Universe. Feel free to get in touch with Christian on Twitter @BuffyAntiqua.








Dickens-to-Go is a weekly program of short videos designed to whet the viewers' appetite for "more" of their favorite author. You can join Dickens Project faculty, friends, and students as they share a favorite passage from Dickens and say a few words about why they selected it.

What are your favorite passages? We hope you will make a video too! Email Courtney Mahaney for video submission guidelines.