Posted by: melissayang | September 14, 2010

Portraits of Dickens

After all the discussions of portraiture during our first class, and after getting distracted in midst of bookmarking all the portraiture references in Bleak House (it’s been a while since I’ve tackled a Victorian novel and my short attention span has made it more of a challenge than I expected, but I will get back to it after I finish this post), I decided I wanted to do a visual exploration of Charles Dickens (1812-1870). Even if we may not all be familiar with his life story, I am sure all of us have seen portraits of the author at some point or another, whether or not we have given the image any conscious attention. In fact, Wilkie Glyde Wilkins, Dickens scholar, is quoted on the Victorian Web page of “Charles Dickens in Art and Photography” saying:

Probably no author ever lived of whom more portraits have been made, both during his lifetime and since his death, than Charles Dickens. There has perhaps never been an author whose features, from early youth to the time of his death, are so familiar to the reading public as those of this great author of the Victorian era. The writer has in his collection over four hundred portraits of Dickens, including steel engravings, etchings, lithographs, wood engravings and photographs. Of the latter there are one hundred and twenty in a variety of poses, — half lengths, three-quarter lengths and full length; some in sitting position and some standing; in some he is reading, some writing, some putting on his gIoves, some with hat in hand, with cane, and others with both hat and cane.

There are a number of galleries linked from the website which demonstrate Dickens’ ubiquitous image. For the purposes of this post, I will embed a number of the images from the galleries with brief biographical/historical notes to give these images some context.

Dickens was born on February 7, 1812. The following is a painted portrait of Dickens by  Irish painter Daniel Maclise in 1839 (of interest – the year photography was officially invented).

The following daguerreotype of Charles Dickens was taken by John Mayall, c. 1853

I am particularly intrigued by the patterns in the poses Dickens performs in each of these images – while, as Wilkins says, there are a number of images of Dickens doing different things, this does not change the fact that many of the portraits are, at least, rather similar, whether painted or photographed (though I wonder if some of the paintings were based on photographs?). In each of these, the viewer is confronted by a man gazing away, as if in thought, with a hand posed daintily on an elaborate, undoubtedly expensive chair. He is dressed in a suit, leaning into a comfortable though dignified pose. He is in control of his environment – it seems fairly typical of how a Victorian man might want to portray himself in a formal portrait – or perhaps how the public might want to see a popular author?

Here is yet another painted portrait similar in style. This one is by W. P. Frith in 1859.

Moving away from portraits of Dickens himself, one of my favorite images in the galleries is this one, which features Dickens with two of his daughters (he had ten children in all), in the rose garden. I suggest clicking on the image and reading the brief history that goes with the photograph.

From looking at the photograph, it appears that this exterior portrait is posed, and I find there is a feeling of closeness and familial support within the image, despite the artificiality of the composition and the rather formal, calm expressions on the faces of Dickens and his daughters. The pyramidal structure the subjects form adds another level of support to this photograph – the concentration of each of the subjects in the image is on the book, and it causes the viewer’s eyes to move directly to that central point. There is some display of wealth and leisure, as well as intellectual ability in this photograph, from my casual analysis to it, and there are probably a number of other layers I could tackle in its deconstruction. For some reason, I can’t seem to find many more Dickens’ family portraits, and the quiet (and probably faux) concentration of the characters/family here make this photograph particularly intriguing to me.

Moving back to images of Dickens alone, caricatures and cartoons of the popular author were also a huge part of how he appeared to the public. The idea of reproducibility of images and the cult of celebrity, as discussed in class, might be touched upon here – unlike daguerrotypes, which create a single, impossible-to-duplicate positive image, and paintings, which were also available to a limited audience, sketches, engravings, and such casual, printable, and reproducible images were ones many could find of Dickens.

Dickens himself found this particular sketch entertaining, and wrote in response to it: “It seems to me extraordinarily ludicrous, and much more like me than the grave portrait done in earnest.”

On that note, I think I will end a post that could probably go on for an infinite length, given how many pictorial depictions of Dickens exist, and just from his lifetime. By bringing it back to this final question and focus on portraiture and presentation – I am wondering how we can bring our discussions deconstructing portraiture to apply to these various depictions of the author. If you did not know these were images of the author, what would you think of the images? Are they typical of Victorian images? Is there anything you think makes them particularly different from the everyman Victorian’s portrait? These are just a few general questions I was thinking as I was putting together this post, and I would be interested in any feedback. Also, feel free to link your favorite images of Dickens in the comments, if you feel I’ve missed anything important!


  1. Melissa, Thank you so much for this post! I didn’t know that Dickens was so frequently represented in visual media, so I enjoyed looking at the different images that you presented. I wonder how our ability to recognize Dickens as a popular cultural figure influences our understanding of his novels…

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