Painting Dickens: New book and exhibition explores the great novelist’s relationship with art

William Powell Frith, The Crossing Sweeper (1893), oil on canvas

William Powell Frith, The Crossing Sweeper (1893), oil on canvas

Charles Dickens was a remarkably visual writer. Soon to be published by Yale, Dickens and the Artists is a unique exploration of the artistic tastes of this celebrated novelist, tracing the relationship between Dickens and visual art. Today we take a look at this exciting new title, which accompanies a comprehensive exhibition at the Watts Gallery. 

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) is one of the few writers whose very name defines not just a style of writing, but also a period in time. In historical terms, we can speak equally of the Dickensian period as we can of the Shakespearean age. However, the word ‘Dickensian’ also evokes striking visual images that continue to resonate in our society. Dickens’s novels are full of overcrowded streets sprawling with poverty, disease and civil unrest; corrupt and usually overfed caricatures of authority figures; and an opulent and oblivious upper class.

An extremely visual writer, Dickens emerged from a tradition where illustrations formed a significant part of both serial and book publishing, so it is hardly surprising that there is a strong visual identiy woven through his novels, and that Dickens himself has strong artistic opinions and connections.

Dickens admired artists (probably more than his fellow writers) and had long and close friendships with several, including Clarkson Stanfield, Daniel Maclise, Frank Stone and William Powell Frith (see paintings above and below). These painters depicted iconic scenes from his novels or drew inspiration from his subjects and characterizations that continue to influence our image of Dickensian England today. Dickens’s own taste in art and his views on art are manifest not only in his novels, but in his magazine Household Words where he publicly attacked Millais’ painting of Christ in the House of His Parents (1849-50). He was interested in both contemporary artists and the Old Masters, which he viewed and commented on in his tours of Europe.

“He had no doubt a strong natural instinct for art, and there are in many of his books descriptions … which only a writer with an innate feeling for artistic effect could possibly have described, and he had also a very just and accurate eye, and a judgement that was entirely his own…” - Kate Perugini, The artist daughter of Charles Dickens writing about her father.

At this bicentenary of his birth, The Watt’s Gallery’s new exhibition Dickens and the Artists (19 June – 28 October 2012) explores this fascinating and symbiotic relationship between the writer and art. The exhibition will be divided into two sections that reflect this symbiotic relationship : ‘Dickens as Art Critic’ and ‘The Influence of Dickens on Artists’. The first will explore Dickens’s tastes and artistic friendships; his strong like and dislikes; the second will explore the profound impact that Dickens made upon a generation of artists, not only who those drew upon his novels as a source for painting but those who created a painterly equivalent to his novels, rich visual narratives of the Dickensian world.

William Powell Frith, Night Haymarket (1862), oil study

William Powell Frith, Night Haymarket (1862), oil study

Dickens and the Artists

Dickens and the Artists

Accompanying this exhibition is Yale’s beautifully produced art book, which is divided into the two sections along the same lines as the exhibition. Written by Mark Bills (curator of the Watts Gallery and formerly senior curator of paintings, prints and drawings at the Museum of London). Dickens and the Artists features many beautiful reproductions of paintings from Dickens’s own collection as well as works that reflect and illustrate the Dickensian world, alongside fascinating essays from Bills and a host of other Dickens experts.

Truly, an exhibition not to be missed by both literature and art enthusiasts in this bicentenary of the great writer’s birth.

The Watts Gallery’s Dickens and the Artists exhibition runs from 19 June – 28 October 2012. Yale’s accompanying book Dickens and the Artists is available now to order from Yale University Press.

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