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Senate House Library

Dickens and his Illustrators


Written by
Leila Kassir, Co-Curator 'Childhood in Dickensian London' & Academic Librarian

Explore some of the Illustrators that worked with Dickens to visualise his stories and characters...

Our exhibition Childhood in Dickensian London explores aspects of 19th century childhood in Charles Dickens’s novels alongside a range of non-fiction & texts by leading campaigners of the time.  

During the 19th century advances in printing technology, such as steel or wood engraving and lithography, allowed for the inclusion in mass-produced books of good quality illustrations. Book illustrations complemented the writing by providing the reader with another layer of interpretation, a visual depiction of a character or scene. 

Charles Dickens worked closely with several artists who produced illustrations for his novels and other prose writing, providing them with overviews of his storylines and directions regarding which episodes to illustrate, and occasionally criticisms of their interpretations. 

In the exhibition, we showcase some of the book illustrations, emphasising key scenes within their stories and Dickens’s most well-known fictional children, such as Oliver Twist, Paul Dombey and Little Nell. This blog highlights a small selection of illustrations of Charles Dickens’s fictional children and their illustrators, all of which – and many more – are on display in our exhibition

George Cruikshank, Oliver Twist, and ‘the Cancelled Plate’

Oliver Twist or, the Parish Boy’s Progress was originally published in serial form between 1837-1839 in the periodical Bentley’s Miscellany. The story is accompanied by 24 illustrations by the artist George Cruikshank, who was already famous as a satirical caricaturist and earlier worked with Dickens on Sketches by Boz.

The first illustration here portrays Oliver in what is probably the novel’s most famous scene, in the workhouse daring to ask for more food. Cruikshank’s depiction of the “pale thin child, somewhat diminutive in stature, and decidedly small in circumference” was such a defining image that it was used as the frontispiece (the illustration facing the title page) in the first complete book edition published in 1839.

The ‘Rose Maylie and Oliver’ plate illustrates the final passages of the novel when Oliver is united with his long-lost family, and highlights how authors and artists don’t always concur on how to depict text. Cruikshank’s original drawing portrayed Oliver, Rose and the family gathered around a fireplace, in an idyllic Victorian family scene. Dickens, however, did not respond positively to this conventional depiction and requested Cruikshank alter it. This fireside illustration is referred to as ‘the cancelled plate’ and was replaced in all except the earliest impressions of the book by this church scene.

John Leech and the Children of Ignorance and Want

John Leech was a caricaturist famous for his work in the weekly satirical magazine Punch. Between 1843 and 1848 Charles Dickens wrote an annual Christmas book, and Leech was amongst a few illustrators who contributed drawings to the final four of these books.

The first and most famous Christmas book, A Christmas Carol, contained nine illustrations solely produced by Leech. This illustration depicts the moment when the children of Ignorance and Want (“This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want”) are revealed to Ebenezer Scrooge by the Ghost of Christmas Present and shows how an illustrator can incorporate textual themes and meanings within a single drawing.

During the story, when requested to donate money to the poor, Scrooge refers instead to the Poor Law and the existence of prisons and workhouses. Leech has chosen to depict these "wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable” children against a stark industrial background. The trees are blackened and withered, and dark buildings with smoking chimneys loom behind, appearing to allude to the prisons and workhouses referred to earlier by Scrooge.

Hablot Knight Browne aka ‘Phiz’, the '‘Green Covers’, and Paul and Mrs Pipchin

The illustrator with the longest connection to Dickens was Hablot Knight Browne, whose pseudonym was Phiz, and who illustrated ten of Dickens’s novels over a period of more than two decades. 

As was usual with Dickens’s novels, they were first published in serial form. Browne’s illustrations needed to keep pace not only with Dickens’s writing but also the serial’s publishing schedule. Each serial part contained an instalment of the story plus several advertisements and was wrapped in an illustrated, green cover. By first publishing his novels in parts, Dickens’s works were more affordable to a wider audience than the outright cost of an entire novel. Once the parts had been completed, they were then published as a complete book.

Two of Browne’s illustrations from Dombey and Son, which was published over a period of 18 months from 1846 to 1848, are shown here. Browne’s cover illustration is filled with details of characters, scenes and symbols. As the cover was seen first by the prospective reader, the illustrator needed to ensure it depicted enough elements of the plot to make it enticing without giving too much away.

Despite Dickens and Browne’s close working relationship the ‘Paul and Mrs. Pipchin’ illustration was another instance where Dickens was dissatisfied with the visual interpretation. Dickens felt that Mrs. Pipchin’s age and the style of Paul’s chair were depicted incorrectly and that they did not accurately represent his text. Unlike Cruikshank’s ‘cancelled plate’, however, this illustration remained in the book. 

Frederick W. Pailthorpe and the Extra-illustrated Great Expectations

In the UK, Great Expectations was first published in serial form in the periodical All the Year Round that was co-owned by Charles Dickens. Unusually for Dickens the novel was published without illustrations; his only other novel published in this manner was Hard Times.

Despite the lack of illustrations in the UK serial and first book publication, there have been numerous illustrated editions published since its first appearance in late 1860. The US magazine Harper’s Weekly published the serialisation at almost the same time as the UK run, and included illustrations by John McLenan. 

The copy of Great Expectations in our exhibition is the first book edition of the novel published in 1861 by Chapman and Hall, without illustrations. This copy, however, is an example of an extra-illustrated book. During the 18th and 19th centuries, readers would customise and personalise published books by inserting illustrations from other sources, a process known as extra-illustration.

In this instance, illustrations by the artist Frederick W. Pailthorpe, from the 1885 Robson & Kerslake edition of Great Expectations, have been inserted into the copy of the 1861 text. There is, therefore, a gap of almost 25 years between the book’s publication and the inclusion of this illustration showing Pip meeting Magwitch for the first time.

You can find out more about the history of book illustration and printing in our Book Studies collection and when the Library is open again, on the 4th floor (beginning at classmark 096). 

Leila Kassir, Co-curator of 'Childhood in Dickensian London' and Academic Librarian: English Literature