There were not one but four illustrators, all eminent artists who might attract a still wider audience and at least, as Mrs. Leavis suggests, make each purchaser feel he had full value for his money. Leech provided five of the thirteen illustrations; Maclise, Stanfield, and Doyle the rest. The presence of these experienced artists lessened Leech's burden yet complicated it, for the added variety undermined visual cotinuity. His portrayal of Trotty Veck as a compact, genial figure with an oversized head . . . , for example, was distinctly at odds with Doyle's more youthful and conventional representation of him . . . . Moreover, Leech, always eager to please his friend, was also troubled by Dickens's absence abroad. The efforts of the various illustrators were coordinated by Forster, with whom Leech did not feel completely comfortable. [Cohen, 144]

decorated initial 'T'he question naturally arises, "Why did Dickens choose to have multiple illustrators, thereby inviting problems with consistency of approach, differing interpretations of characters, and visual continuity?" Dickens realized that he was working against time: just scarcely five weeks after the completion of the novella, it would be going to press. Moreover, since Leech was now very busy as a staff artist for Punch, Dickens realized that he could not give the project wholly over to him, excellent though hisd work on the first Christmas Book had been. Leech was definitely still "lead-artist," but Dickens (probably in dialogue with Forster) selected competent illustrators whose work would complement Leech's. In particular, Dickens trusted theatrical scene-painter and marine artist Clarkson Stanfield to provide appropriate architectural backdrops.

Ironically, it was Leech who gave Dickens causes for concern when he arrived back in London to supervise the publication of the book, for Leech's "Richard and Margaret" depicted the shabby labouring-man as if he were "an elderely behatted nightwatchman" (Cohen, 145) rather than a despondent and "disheveled victim of dissipation" (Cohen, 145). After breakfasting with Leech on Monday, 2 December, 1844, Dickens wrote his wife back in Genoa that he had succeeded by tactful diplomacy in persuading Leech to make (as he had said in his note sent to the artist the previous day) "a slight alteration" (Letters, 233); in fact, Dickens wanted Leech to re-do the woodblock so that Richard would appear the despondent, ill-kempt, prematurely aged figure whom he had originally envisaged in the scene. Working against time, with just days left before publication, Dickens succeeded in producing a modern classic with high-quality illustrations depicting time in a fluid, almost post-modern manner:

Dickens grasped an essential development in nineteenth-century fiction. Outside the super-natural world, personal meaning develops most clearly through time; and it is entirely appropriate that Dickens should show this through seasonal Christmas stories.

Then, just as the text often makes light of traditional concepts of time and space, so too do the illustrations. By means of "double" designs, the artists were able to achieve similar flexibility. In "Sir Joseph Bowley" (The Chimes), for example, Trotty is shown twice. In the bottom two-thirds of the design (Figure 1) he is walking toward door at the back of the room in which the Porter sits. In the top third he is handing Alderman Cute's letter to Sir Joseph. The time and place of each part is slightly different. Yet they form one unit, divided by a scarcely discernible curved line, Our expectations of pictorial art capturing a moment in time and space are somewhat distorted. Like the art of the ancient Egyptians, this technique was "not based on what the artist could see at a given moment, but rather on what he knew belonged to a person or a scene." In this case, the "scene" is Trotty's reception at Sir Joseph's. Perhaps more to the point is the way it shows a theatrical "scene." The illustration is framed by curtains pulled back at each side, and the artist has taken the same freedom as a dramatist. We accept the passage of time between scenes in a play and the transformation of characters in a pantomime. It is all part of the imaginative world in which we have agreed to take part. So too are we expected to accept the imaginative world of the text and its illustrations. (Solberg, 104)

Sir Joseph Bowley form The Chimes

Sir Joseph Bowlety from The Chimes. [Clock on thumbnail for larger image.]

The idea of dropping woodcuts into the text of a novel appears to have originated with Dickens himself when he was contemplating the publication format of Master Humphrey's Clock, which would contain both The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge (see "To George Cattermole," 13 January 1840). Since most of the illustrations for the Christmas Books were woodcuts, Dickens was able to reprise this innovative method of advancing the visual and textual narratives simultaneously. As Solberg notes, in A Christmas Carol Punch-illustrator John Leech, the sole artist involved in the project, provided four etchings and four wood-cuts; and in its sequel, The Chimes, steel-engreavings are very much in the minority, new illustrator Daniel Maclise having provided just two, "The Tower of The Chimes" and "The Spirit of The Chimes." The remaining eleven illustrations in The Chimes are woodcuts which combine small amounts of text with a neatly incorporated visual realisation of the narrative moment.

The spaces are usually too small to include more than part of a sentence. This lack of a stopping-point helps maintain the continuity and movement of the text. As the text becomes part of the picture, so too does the picture become part of the text. At a first reading, it is taken in rapidly, giving only a general impression of joy, despair, doubt, contentment, etc. It is only on a second reading, when we know the plot, that these mid-chapter designs can come in for closer scrutiny.

The rather different form of the Christmas book illustrations also affected the ways in which they related to the meaning of the words. The cuts were often more generalized than earlier designs. For sound technical reasons, they could not be so easily pin-pointed in time: that is to say they did not have to be dropped into a precise spot in the text. Their vertical nature also allowed for a bit more leeway in the text-picture relationship than had been possible in MHC [Master Humphrey's Clock]. Text could go above, beside, below or within the often nebulous confines of the design. Their smaller "gift-book" size also aided the relation ship of picture and text. The designs were not very large, but even then they dominated the page on which they were printed. Because the illustrations were vertical, they were not framed with large white spaces on each side, as they had been in MHC. So the picture became a unit not only with those words printed with it, but also with those of the page facing. With this sort of flexibility, it was relatively easy to place the cuts in positions not incongruous with the surrounding text. [Solberg, pp. 114-115]

One would like to be able to argue that Dickens and his Christmas book illustrators created an important word-picture relationship which has come down to us as a significant way in which the arts can be combined. Yet, striking as the effects we have noted sometimes were, it is remarkable that they were not carried on in any of Dickens' later work. And, because of their diminutive gift-book size, any special relationship they once had was lost in reprints. We see this, for example, in the Charles Dickens Edition, where the spaces for text are left blank, and in the New Oxford Illustrated Edition, where the whole page has been reproduced with scraps of the old text embedded in the illustrations; so that we are left with either incomplete pages of illustrations or a repeated text, thus making an absurdity of the idea that there is still any wedding of words and pictures. [Solberg, 115]

Related Material


Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990.

Bentley, Nicholas; Michael Slater and Nina Burgis. The Dickens Index. Oxford: Oxford U. P., 1988.

Cohen, Jane R. Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators. Columbus: Ohio State U. P., 1980.

Davis, Paul. Charles Dickens A to Z. The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts On File, 1998.

Kurata, Marilyn J. "Fantasy and Realism: A Defense of The Chimes." Dickens Studies Annual 13 (1984): 19-34.

The Letters of Charles Dickens. Ed. Kathleen Tillotson. The Pilgrim Edition. Vol. 4: 1844-1846. Oxford: Clarendon, 1965.

Schlicke, Paul, ed. Oxford Reader's Companion to Dickens. Oxford: Oxford U. P., 1999.

Solberg, Sarah A. "'Text Dropped into the Woodcuts': Dickens' Christmas Books." Dickens Studies Annual 8 (1980): 103-118.

Thomas, Deborah A. Dickens and The Short Story. Philadelphia: U. Pennsylvania Press, 1982.

Welsh, Alexander. "Time and the City in The Chimes." Dickensian 73, 1 (January 1977): 8-17.

Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol

Last Modified 16 January 2007