The Plague Pit. Artist: John Franklin. Drawn and engraved by Franklin, 1841, reprinted 1847. Steel-plate etching, 3 ¾ x 5 ½ inches. An illustration for W. H. Ainsworth’s historical romance,Old St. Pauls: A Tale of the Plague and the Fire (London: Parry, Blenkharn & Co., 1847): facing p. 207.

Franklin’s design is a powerful (and accurate) representation of the primary Plague Pit in which thousands of victims were buried without ceremony. The artist stresses the horror of a moment when the dead are tipped into the ground. The central figure standing over the bodies is picked out in grotesque chiaroscuro, his face mask-like in the manner of Goya while also eerily prefiguring the expressionistic distortions of Modernist artists such as James Ensor and Emile Noldë.

The sense of strangeness and aberration is also inscribed in the vertiginous and unstable composition – with the cart tipping a diagonal from right to left – and even in the flattened shape of the cart-wheel. In the Plague, Franklin shows, nothing is ‘normal’; in Hamlet’s strange terms, it is quite literally ‘out of joint’.

The illustration, a steel-plate engraving, is a fine example of etching in the manner of a mezzotint, and may have been an influence on Phiz’s later designs for Dickens. Franklin drew and ‘bit’ his own plates, a talent he failed to develop in his later commissions.