Dickens and the Artists is at home at the Watts Gallery

By Richard Moss | 20 June 2012
a painting depciting destitute Victorians queueing in an alleyway
Sir Samuel Luke Fildes, Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward (1874)© Royal Holloway, University of London
Exhibition: Dickens and the Artists, Watts Gallery, Compton, until October 28 2012

When it comes to painting, Charles Dickens may be famous for the roasting he gave the Pre-Raphaelites in the pages of his tu’penny magazine Household Words, but he was also a great patron of the arts.

An avid collector of Hogarths, which filled a room of his house at Gad's Hill, and a regular visitor to the Royal Academy, he was passionate about painting.

He knew what he liked and also what he didn’t – as John Everett Millais found to his cost when the author savagely attacked his Christ in the House of his Parents, and described Millais’ Mary as something “from in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest gin shop in England”.

Watts Gallery curator Mark Bills has cheekily acquired a version of this great painting to open this exhibition, which cleverly moves from Dickens’ tastes and opinions to explore the way his famously painterly prose influenced some of the greatest and most popular artists of the age.

And like a Dickens novel, there are stories, characters, and tales of human endeavour and despair rich enough to grace any 19th century narrative.

There are some illustrious Victorian tableaux to be enjoyed too, including one of the most famous paintings by art luminary William Powell Frith, but fans of painting from this period will also enjoy the chance to see works by some lesser known artists of the era.

Among them are treasures drawn from our great Victorian collections, including Robert Braithwaite Martineau’s Kit’s Writing Lesson, which has the vibrant glow of Holman Hunt in his prime. Similarly, James Lobley’s luminescent Little Nell Leaving the Church (The Old Curiosity Shop) makes a case just as compelling as any Pre-Raphaelite painting.

Intriguingly, Hunt’s own attempt at Little Nell and her Grandfather pales next to these two, and has none of the hyper-realism and layered symbolism he later mastered – and which Dickens abhorred.

a painting of a girl illuminated by sunlight streaming in from a churchyard at the entrance to a church
James Lobley, Little Nell Leaving the Church (The Old Curiosity Shop) (1867). Oil on canvas© Bradford Museums and Galleries
Portrayals of Dickensian characters were commonplace in the Victorian period, and by the 1850s they could be regularly found adorning the walls of the Royal Academy.

Writing in his autobiography, Frith recalled: “There were some pictures in the exhibition illustrating ‘Dombey and Son’. I told Dickens of them. 'Yes', he said, 'I know there are; just go and see them, and tell me what they are like. I don’t like to be caught looking at them myself.'”

But it was the rich descriptions of London and its populous streets that were to inspire a fresh generation of Victorian painters, who did their utmost to complement the power and pathos of the novels.

Dickens’ highly pictorial writing was a gift to artists like Frith, George Elgar Hicks and John Ritchie who began to depict the Dickensian capital with a new eagerness and energy.

“One of the greatest difficulties besetting me has always been my choice of subject,” recalled Frith.

“My inclination being strongly towards the illustration of modern life, I had read the works of Dickens in the hope of finding any material for the exercise of any talent I might possess.”

The spectacular results can be seen here with some thrilling large scale narratives in oil. It’s Dickensian storytelling compacted, yet writ large across huge canvasses .

One of the most famous is Frith’s The Railway Station. With its bustling family groups mingling beneath the vast canopy of Paddington Station with criminals, policemen, taxi drivers, soldiers and recruiting sergeants. It is a perfect tableaux of Victorian life and as rich as any Dickens novel.

In its day, it drew large crowds to a London gallery and made a fortune for its owner, the dealer Louis Victor Flatow. 

Like Dickens, Frith was a populist interested in storytelling and physiognomy. Each face in this and indeed the other great paintings on show here has its individual character.

Luke Fields’ panoramic canvass, Admission to the Casual Ward, is similarly rich in human drama and full of the cloying smog and bleakness of Victorian London. It’s a much gloomier work than The Railway Station but equally rewarding.

The question here, I suppose, is whether this is social realism or a vision of Victorian England that even Dickens’ daughter, the portrait painter Kate Perguini, described as “excessive realism”. Today it seems like the epitome of Dickensian, Victorian London. 

Experiencing the narrative sweep of these paintings is reason enough to visit, but to see them in the context of the Watts Gallery is a joy.

A year since their highly successful, £11 million refurbishment, Dickens and the Artists signals the start of an exciting series exploring the wider ocean of Victorian Art. 

And there is even a Dickensian resolution to the flow of art that neatly bookends this first non-Watts exhibition.

A small, rarely seen sketch by Millais depicts Dickens on his death bed. Fittingly encased in a kind of devotional, hinged bookcase, it attests to a reconciliation between painter and author and is a tender and humanistic portrayal of the kind that Dickens would surely have approved.

  • The exhibition is accompanied by a lavishly illustrated book, Dickens and the Artists, exploring the themes in the exhibition. See the Watts Gallery online shop for more details.

More pictures:

a wide panoramic scene showing Victorian people in a busy railway station
William Powell Frith, The Railway Station, 1862, Oil on Canvas.© Royal Holloway, University of London
a painting of a ruddy cheek'd boy writing with a quill overlooked by a girl darning a shirt
Robert Braithwaite Martineau, Kit’s Writing Lesson (1852). Oil on canvas© Tate, London
a portrait of a bearded Charles Dickens in his study sat on chair next to a desk
William Powell Frith, Charles Dickens in his Study (1859). Oil on canvas© Victoria and Albert Museum
a painting depicting a busy Victorian scene outside a Post Office as Newspaper sellers collect bundles of newspapers and groups of people with letters try to force their way through the crowds
George Elgar Hicks, The General Post Office, Once Minute to Six (1860). Oil on canvas© Museum of London
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