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Charles Dickens: Life and Legacy

The defining moments of ‘the most English of storytellers’

Written by . Published on November 14th 2011.

Charles Dickens: Life and Legacy

THE heart of the National Portrait Gallery’s Victorian collection covets a new collection of images. The images serve to document and celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of legendary nineteenth century writer, Charles Dickens. The display is quick to identify the fact that despite receiving erratic schooling and a troublesome upbringing, Dickens could not suppress his innate ability to write.

London responded to his messages of social conscience; he knew London better than London knew itself.

Few would argue that the writer is anything but ‘one of the most popularly acclaimed figures of the nineteenth century’ as the Gallery identifies him to be. Dickens rose to prominence as a journalist before the publication of The Pickwick Papers, in which his ‘mighty creative imagination’ was discovered. Whilst using the penname ‘Boz’, he conjured up social narratives based on a vortex of memories from his childhood, including his father’s stint in a debtors jail. His own unsavoury experiences provided the fuel he needed to create masterpieces in the form of some of literature’s best-loved characters. London responded to his messages of social conscience; he knew London better than London knew itself.

Perhaps it is the fact that Dickens sought to define the city in all its misery and glory that aligns him with Shakespeare. Or, perhaps it is because his fame intensified after his death. Either way, there is no denying that to know Shakespeare and Dickens is to have a crucial insight to the history of our capital. Dickens defines our perception of the Victorian age, which is why he is such an important addition to the gallery. 


The first albumen print, of the fifteen on display, is of ‘Dickens placing his first literary contribution in the editor’s box’, an image by George Herbert Watkins (1858). The image documents a crucial moment in the writer’s career. His stride and poise emulate unfaltering confidence, and quite rightly so. The two portrait photographs that follow demonstrate the dual aspect of Dickens’ career. In the first he is a reclusive writer, whilst in the second he recites his work to the public as a well-regarded celebrity. The display’s later photographs, taken by George Gardner Rockwood and Jeremiah Gurney & Son (1867), mimic the notion that Dickens was forced to adopt a two-sided personality in order to maintain his public reputation whilst creating literary works of art.

The central image of the display is, surprisingly, a stipple engraving of Catherine Dickens, published in 1890. Dickens married Catherine, the daughter of one of his first publishers, George Hogarth, in 1836. Her image fades into colourless, weightless dots; a youthful mirage of the older, stouter woman she had already become.

Despite having ten children together, he abruptly separated from her in 1858 after 22 years of marriage. The writer’s attitude as a husband conflicts greatly with his acclaimed devotion to social compassion, suggesting the underlying flaws of appropriating a dual personality in a bid to appeal to the public.

The images of Dickens amongst his friends and family unquestionably speak of his charisma and subsequent respect. He is central, the focal point, the only man your eyes go straight to. Even in the emblematic image of leading nineteenth century male writers he is elevated and enshrined. 

In 1842, Dickens travelled to America as a celebrity, where he had a cursory encounter with gothic revivalist, Edgar Allan Poe. The display includes an albumen cabinet card of Poe, taken by Friedrich Bruckmann in 1848. Popular belief has it that Dickens’ Raven, Grip, inspired Poe’s gothic poem The Raven. Although the idea is a myth, it represents the amount of public attention Dickens received and how closely he was linked with notions of success. In the words taken from none other than Great Expectations, ‘take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There's no better rule." What better way to approach gallery full of images?

Charles Dickens: Life & Legacy runs from 24 October 2011 until 22 April 2012 and is part of Dickens 2012, the international campaign to mark the 200th anniversary of the writer’s birth: www.Dickens2012.org

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