Last in the long line of Dickens's illustrators was another young man, Luke Fildes, then aged twenty-five, whose work was introduced to Dickens by Millais. Dickens was impressed by it, and, when they met, by Fildes's insistence that he was not a comic artist. For the story Dickens had in mind this was an advantage. It was The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870). Though Fildes, like [Marcus] Stone [who had illustrated Great Expectations for the 1862 Library Edition], was to make his name as an Academic painter, it was as the illustrator of Dickens's last novel that he first became known. His illustrations, however, partly owing to technical difficulties in their reproduction, do less justice to the assurance and sensibility of his preliminary drawings, which are as near to the somber mood of the novel as the drawings of Phiz to the jubilant spirit of Pickwick. [E. W. F. Tomlin, p. 22]
After a three-decade long professional and personal relationship with Hablot Knight Browne ("Phiz") which amounted to a visual/textual collaboration, Dickens sought his illustrators among the so-called "new men" of the sixties: the son of his old friend, Marcus Stone (who illustrated Great Expectations for the first volume edition), his ailing son-in-law, Charles Collins (who designed the monthly wrapper for The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and finally Luke Fildes (who designed the initial six illustrations for Drood). Although in a celebrated article in Household Words in 1850 Dickens, perhaps at Frank Stone's instigation, had ridiculed the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood; twenty years later, at the suggestion of John Everett Millais (whose "Christ in the Carpenter's Shop" he had so virulently attacked), Dickens offered the commission for The Mystery of Edwin Drood to the 25-year-old:
Charles Collins, having sketched out the cover, found that he could no longer draw without weakening his health. Some other artist had to be found at once and Dickens went up to London in order to consult with Frederick Chapman. In the event he discovered a young artist, Like Fildes. Or, rather, it was John Everett Millais who found him for Dickens--the painter, who was staying at Gad's Hill Place, went into Dickens's study one morning and showed him the first issue of The Graphic. "I've got him! " he shouted and then pointed out to his host an illustration, "Houseless and Hungry", which Fildes had executed. It was exactly the kind of realistic and detailed examination of social misery which would have appealed to Dickens, and he wrote to the young artist asking to see other specimens of his work. These, too, proved satisfactory and so he gave him the commission, an extraordinary honour and indeed opportunity for so young an artist. . . . [Peter Ackroyd, Dickens, pp. 1056-7]
Meantime, Charles Dickens was in desperate want of a new illustrator in November 1869, with only four months of Chapman and Hall's serial publication of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Dickens enlisted the aid of both John Everett Millais and William Powell Frith (1819-1909) to find him a new illustrator. The result was, as we have seen above, Millais's recommending former Royal Academy student Luke Fildes, whose work to the Pre-Raphaelite "seemed to combine the aesthetic ideals of the new school of black-and-white illustrators and the social consciousness of the older generation" (Cohen 221), that is, Cruikshank, Seymour, and Hablot Knight Browne. At the novelist's request, Fildes provided Dickens with specimen drawings of Little Em'ly and Peggotty (from David Copperfield) to demonstrate his ability to draw pretty heroines. When he discussed them with Dickens, he was hired on the spot. Since Dickens's son-in-law had already designed the wrapper, Fildes felt that he had to be guided in his illustrations by the figures and settings that appeared in its vignettes; however, he read the Dickens-supplied proofs scrupulously and followed carefully what Dickens told him about the characters and situations. So successful was Fildes in gaining Dickens's trust that he was even able to persuade the novelist out of having a particular scene illustrated.
In the fourth number, apparently, Dickens wanted him to show Jasper mounting the dark gatehouse steps with a murderous expression on his face and a neckerchief wound twice around his throat (XIV, 162). Frustrated by not knowing the significance of such details, the artist asked why Jasper's usual small black tie should be so conspicuously replaced. Dickens, worried that he was revealing too much of his mystery too soon, reluctantly disclosed that Jasper would use the neck scarf to strangle Edwin. Fildes then dissuaded the author from having the subject illustrated at all. He convincingly argued that the gatehouse stairs would require demystifying illumination: the obvious change in neck wear would be a giveaway; and the scene was so powerfully described in words that further elucidation was unnecessary. Dickens, in another rare change of mind, yielded to Fildes's logical and tactful appeal. [Cohen 224]
Utilizing landmarks from London and Rochester (the "Cloisterham" of the novel), Fildes provided considerable detail in his sketches, which he then transferred by the new photographic process to woodblocks, which were then engraved by his friend Charles Roberts at his particular request, rather than with Dickens's usual engravers, the Dalziel brothers. By the time of Dickens's death on 8 June 1870, Dickens had written enough for six numbers (although the last proved to be about two pages short), and Fildes had completed only six illustrations for the novel, although he subsequently supplied a further half-dozen for what of the manuscript was yet to be published.
Fildes had his work cut out for him, even with Dickens's avuncular advice and cooperation, because, as Jane Rabb Cohen points out, such issues as "divided personalities, mesmerism, death, and resurrection" (223) and the psychological aspect of the novel are not easily rendered visually. Finally, in a mystery the artist must be as careful as the writer himself not to provide the solution too early lest suspense be undermined. These considerations are doubly important in the visual complement to the narrative of The Mystery of Edwin Drood since Dickens leaves the reader uncertain as to the cause of Drood's disappearance:
The main action of the narrative, the probable murder of Drood, could be anticipated but not depicted. Actions, such as Crisparkle's morning swim or Neville's arrest, were not important enough to need graphic reinforcement. [Cohen 223]
Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990.
Bentley, Nicolas. "Dickens and His Illustrators." Charles Dickens 1812-1870: A Centenary Volume. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969.
Cohen, Jane R. Chapter 18. Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators. Columbus: Ohio State U. P., 1980.
"Fildes, Luke." http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/Jfildes.htm
"Luke Fildes (1844-1927)." http://www.fidnet.com/~dap1955/dickens/illustrations.html#fildes
Mitchell, Sally, ed. Victorian Britain: An Encyclopedia. London and New York: Garland, 1988.
Schlicke, Paul, ed. Oxford Reader's Companion to Dickens. Oxford: Oxford Up. P., 1999.
Tomlin, E. W. F. "The Illustrators." Charles Dickens 1812-1870: A Centenary Volume. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969.
Last modified 11 April 2005