The Thieves' Kitchen. Oliver is Shown "How It Is Done" by Harry Furniss. Dickens's The Adventures of Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens Library Edition, volume 3, facing p. 64. Although Dickens himself selected for illustration by the house artist of Bentley's Miscellany the scene in which Charley Bates explain a "professional technicality" (hanging) for Oliver early in the December 1837 serial instalment, there is no correspondence unfortunately regarding the novelist's instructions regarding the initial appearance of Fagin. The phrase "had better settle the Illustration with you" ("To George Cruikshank," November 1837; Letters, I: 329) and similar passages in the other few surviving letters that Dickens sent the illustrator certainly suggest that Dickens actively directed the series of illustrations involving Fagin and his crew, and that he tended to propose scenes for Cruikshank throughout the periodical run of the picaresque novel. That author and illustrator settled on a "Thieves' Kitchen" scene in which Fagin is a provider rather than coach or teacher is significant in that the illustration implies that Oliver is looking for shelter, food, and a family, and that these boys with Mr. Fagin in loco parentis will be that family, replacing the temporary and uncertain boy society in which he found himself when he returned to the workhouse from Mrs. Mann's baby farm.

When one compares Harry Furniss's impressionistic style and dynamic modelling to the more static caricature of George Cruikshank in Oliver introduced to the respectable Old Gentleman (May 1837), one can better appreciate and revel in the sheer energy and fin de siecle Baroque exuberance with which the illustrator describes Fagin's pickpocketing "game" — which is in fact a training session for his latest corporate recruit, the naïve upcountry boy, Oliver. ​The reader, even if unaware of the story's trajectory at this point, can anticipate that Oliver is to enter an apprenticeship to become a common thief in a Hogarthian rather than Bunyanesque "progress" that can end only either in the Tyburn noose or in transportation for life.​ In Furniss's theatrical rendition of the scene, Oliver, an audience of one, appears to be delighted by the antics of Charley Bates and The Artful Dodger, and by Fagin's pretending to be an upper-middle-class "swell" ripe for the picking. By the time that the reader encounters the verbal equivalent of this image in the accompanying text, "this game had been played a great many times" (64) — ironically, Oliver does not comprehend its significance until the abortive robbery of Mr. Brownlow at a bookstall at The Green in the succeeding chapter. The illustration itself is positioned half-way through Chapter 9, and occurs just a page after the textual passage it realizes. 1910. lithograph. 9.0​ by 13.6​ cm vignetted.

Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.].

Passage Illustrated

When the breakfast was cleared away; the merry old gentleman and the two boys played at a very curious and uncommon game, which was performed in this way. The merry old gentleman, placing a snuff-box in one pocket of his trousers, a note-case in the other, and a watch in his waistcoat pocket, with a guard-chain round his neck, and sticking a mock diamond pin in his shirt: buttoned his coat tight round him, and putting his spectacle-case and handkerchief in his pockets, trotted up and down the room with a stick, in imitation of the manner in which old gentlemen walk about the streets any hour in the day. Sometimes he stopped at the fire-place, and sometimes at the door, making believe that he was staring with all his might into shop-windows. At such times, he would look constantly round him, for fear of thieves, and would keep slapping all his pockets in turn, to see that he hadn’t lost anything, in such a very funny and natural manner, that Oliver laughed till the tears ran down his face. All this time, the two boys followed him closely about: getting out of his sight, so nimbly, every time he turned round, that it was impossible to follow their motions. At last, the Dodger trod upon his toes, or ran upon his boot accidentally, while Charley Bates stumbled up against him behind; and in that one moment they took from him, with the most extraordinary rapidity, snuff-box, note-case, watch-guard, chain, shirt-pin, pocket-handkerchief, even the spectacle-case. If the old gentleman felt a hand in any one of his pockets, he cried out where it was; and then the game began all over again.

       [Chapter 9, "Containing Further Particulars Concerning the Pleasant Old Gentleman, and his Hopeful Pupils," p. 63]


This subject, like Oliver's asking for more and Oliver's narrowly escaping being apprenticed to a chimney-sweep, was likely one which Dickens directly proposed to his original illustrator George Cruikshank for​ Bentley's Miscellany as Oliver introduced to the respectable Old Gentleman (Part Four, May 1837). In this early illustration, Fagin is a surrogate father to five boys, including Charley Bates (right) and Jack Dawkins (centre). However, since he seems oblivious to the fact that two of the boys are smoking long, clayed pipes as he prepares supper with a gridiron, Fagin may be in middle-class terms an inadequate or inappropriate father figure. The multiply-pronged toasting fork he holds may even imply his fiendish machinations and Satanic powers, but literally it points towards his domestic supervisory capacity in the Thieves' Kitchen. At the end of the century for his Character Sketches from Dickens, celebrated and financially successful Dickens illustrator Kyd (J. Clayton Clarke) elected to depict Fagin not as the boys' instructor or tutor in the criminal arts, but as the boys' provider, toasting fork in hand, in Fagin, an image he reproduced for Player's Cigarette Card No. 2 in a series of fifty: a hideous, red-bearded, red-haired monster in tattered dressing-gown and slippers, with a toothy, atavistic smile. Other illustrators have kinder to the master-thief, and Furniss's initial illustration of Fagin, in top hat and tailcoat, and striding forward, cane in hand, is more flattering by far than Kyd's as it shows a dynamic, active, bustling teacher rather than a hideous troll with fangs ready to devour incautious children. Dark, menacing, unkempt, Fagin in Sol Eytinge's single Diamond Edition illustration is neither parent, nor tutor, nor yet a monster, but the quintessential miser who neglects even personal hygiene and adequate clothing in his pursuit of "personal property."

The character of Fagin is hardly a Dickens — or, for that matter, Cruikshank — original, for such thief-takers, fences, and master criminals were commonplace in London lore and street gazettes. Dickens may have based Fagin partly upon Peachum in John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1726) and partly upon such actual nefarious characters such as Ikey Solomon (1787-1850), born in the east end of London and notorious as a receiver of stolen goods. However, unlike Fagin, he was a practising Jew and successfully avoided capture on a number of occasions before giving up his freedom in the United States to join his wife, who had been sentenced to transportation to Tasmania (in those days, Van Diemen's Land). Thanks in part to Lionel Bart's West End production (1960) and David Merrick's Broadway (1963) musical Oliver! (perhaps based more on David Lean's 1948 cinematic adaptation rather than directly on Dickens's novel, and made into a widely circulated film in 1968, with Ron Moody starring as Fagin), like The Artful Dodger, Fagin is now part of our popular culture, and remains one of Dickens's most frequently illustrated and most recognizable characters.

As the present subject suggests, Dickens, realizing that Cruikshank excelled at depicting the sordid, grotesque criminal underworld of the metropolis, gave him a suitable subject. Cruikshank's organization of the dramatic scene is masterful, with each character in an appropriate pose, the juxtapositions of the four revealing their attitudes to one another, and the whole organized by the gestures and eye contact of the three principals: Fagin, juxtaposed with the cooking fire (left), the casual Dodger, indicating by his gesture the new-comer, and Oliver, curious and respectful (right). The moment, however, is static, like a theatrical tableau. In contrast, avoiding providing much detail for the backdrop, Furniss highlights the four figures as he gives us a "freeze-frame" in which he captures all four characters in motion; Oliver, no longer the victim, is being entertained as he seems to have found a home and family at last. That he is deluded in so thinking will become shortly apparent. An extension of this scene, which F. O. C. Darley provides in his 1888 Character Sketches from Dickens, is Oliver's trying out his own pickpocketing skills on a playful Fagin, a scene which perhaps undermines the naiveté with which Dickens invests Oliver in the Thieves' Kitchen.

Illustrations from the Serial (1837), the Diamond Edition (1867), the Household Edition (1871), and "Character Sketches" by Darley (1888) and Kyd (1910)

Left: George Cruikshank's original version of Oliver introduced to the respectable Old Gentleman. Middle: Sol Eytinge, Junior's Diamond Edition wood-engraving of the master thief examining his secret strongbox in Fagin (1867). Right: Kyd's widely-disseminated study of Fagin on a Player's cigarette card, Fagin (1910). [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Left: Felix Octavius Carr Darley's version of the same scene selected by Furniss, Fagan [sic] and Oliver Twist (1888). Right: James Mahoney's 1871 engraving of Fagin's chagrin when he learns that Charley and The Dodger have botched their pickpocketing expedition at The Green, and have lost Oliver, in "What's become of the boy?". [Click on the image to enlarge it.]


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Darley, Felix Octavius Carr. Character Sketches from Dickens. Philadelphia: Porter and Coates, 1888.

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Forster, John. "Oliver Twist 1838." The Life of Charles Dickens. Ed. B. W. Matz. The Memorial Edition. 2 vols. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1911. Vol. 1, book 2, chapter 3.

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Last modified 24 January 2015