In all likelihood, the series of four "Scenes on Board an Australian Emigrant Ship" in The Illustrated London News for 20 January 1849 influenced Phiz's second illustration for the eighteenth monthly number, issued in October 1850, of the monthly serialized novel David Copperfield, The Emigrants. The Phiz illustration of twenty months later, containing some twenty-five figures, more than simply realizes the farewell scene on board the emigrant vessel about to depart from the Thames estuary at Gravesend for the antipodes. Although Hablot Knight Browne focuses on the figures of Wilkens Micawber, Dan'l Peggotty, and David Copperfield (representatives of the broad English middle class) as they shake hands, he assimilates both the novelist's description of "crowded groups of people, making new friendships, taking leave of one another, talking, laughing, crying, eating and drinking" (vol. 2, 453) and the interior illustrations "Dinner in the Forecastle" and "Night. — Tracing the Vessel's Progress" (ILN 41). On the other hand, the subsequent ILN plates representing the humble life of these settlers in the 'land of opportunity' — "Settler's Hut in Australia" and "Interior of Settler's Hut in Australia" (ILN 17 March 1849, 184) — are not reflected in either Dickens's Port Middlebay scenes in the inset narrative or Phiz's narrative-pictorial sequence for David Copperfield. The latter pair of illustrations by Skinner Prout, who also provided the scenes on board ship in the 20 January 1849 number, were drawn on the spot, in the Outback ("the Bush," the very same expression used by Dickens throughout the latter stages of the novel) twelve miles from the port of embarkation. The week following, the ILN (No. 363. — Vol. XIV [24 March 1849]) ran as its lead story "The Increase of Pauperism" concerning the alarming rise in the number of poverty-stricken among the laboring classes of Great Britain and Ireland, the latter in particular having become "a hotbed of beggary": in the past two years, i. e., 1847-49, reports the journal,
there has been such a formidable active pauperism, as to excite very serious alarm in the minds of those who look before them, and shadows of an approaching danger. From the Poor-law Commissioners to the House of Commons the pauperism of 1846 amounted to 1,471,133, . . . [whereas that] of 1848 amounted . . . to 1,876,541; showing an increase of no less than a number equalling the population . . . of the largest cities. . . with the sole exception of the capital. 
The Reverend Malthus's "surplus population," a phrase from Principles of Population (1798) that had found its way into the mouth of miser Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol six years earlier, amounted to nearly two million souls in Great Britain alone, and must have dominated the mean streets of Liverpool and Glasgow. Accordingly, in "A Bundle of Emigrant Letters" (Household Words, 30 March 1850), a textual complement to Skinner Prout's ILN pictures), Dickens supported the Australian "assisted emigration" scheme advocated by Mrs. Caroline Chisholm, the founder of the Family Colonisation Loan Society. Skinner Prout's sketches and journal depict both the voyage and life in the Bush are more than bearable, particularly for settlers who have known considerable privation in the Old Country. Almost as if he is acting as a publicity agent for Australian emigration schemes, Prout romanticizes the whole experience, dwelling on the carefree mood of these Europeans privileged to escape the grim cities for an existence in close proximity to nature, and elaborating in particular on the beauty of the marine life and the exotic nature of the environment 'down under'.
The article's opening emphasizes the ease of the recent voyage, for what took the original eighteenth-century colonists eight months and one week is now a mere matter of "four months' sojourn" (p. 39):
Hark! old Ocean's tongue of thunder,
Hoarsely calling, bids you speed,
To the shores he held asunder
Only for these times of need.
Now, upon his friendly surges,
Ever, ever roaring, come
All the sons of hope he urges
To a new, a richer home! — Martin F. Tupper.
The relationship between these shipboard illustrations and Phiz's "The Emigrants" in the October, 1850, number of David Copperfield is as much one of contrast as of similarity, given the very different intentions of each graphic artist and the significant difference in their ability to draw and dispose of human figures in a commercial illustration. Then, too, Phiz had to concoct his scene from experience and an imaginative reading of Dickens's text, whereas Skinner Prout was sketching from direct observation of middle-class emigrants. Part of that "experience," however, may well have been such emigrant scenes in the popular press of the late 1840s, in particular "Night. — Tracing the Vessel's Progress" (20 January 1849). Although both are, so to speak, textual accompaniments, the chief difference between the two is the crowded and highly energized life of the family quarters in "The Emigrants" as opposed to an almost total absence of such drama in "Night."
Four drawings by Skinner Prout — from left to right: Emigrants on Deck. "Tea Water!" Soup Time. Dinner in the Forecastle
Three of Prout's four ILN plates are set above deck, the most neutral and public of places aboard the emigrant sailing vessel Hope, and focus on daily events of communal food consumption from noon through the evening: "Soup Time," "Dinner in the Forecastle," and "Tea Water!" Not much of a hand at drawing convincing and interesting human figures, Prout seems as concerned with such realistic background details as the ship's bell and cannon, rigging and spars, and a horse in his stall on deck; Phiz, on the other hand, captures a moment in the frenzied action that whirls around the vortex of the lantern and the three principal figures. Both "Night" and "The Emigrants" are structured around the activity of a small group below decks, the scenes compositionally connected by the presence of supporting beams and the lantern, which is almost sacramental in the former scene. Dickens's principal illustrator from 1836 through 1859 is here engaged by the sheer variety of emigrants in the family quarters and in depicting their range of emotional responses to leaving the known, the Mother Country, for the unknown southern continent so many months and miles from home.
Addressing the broad, middle-class readership of The Illustrated London News at the close of a decade of widespread suffering and technological advances, "The Hungry Forties" and "The Age of Steam" (exemplified by the paddle steamer on the Thames in the left-hand register of the journal's weekly header) Prout depicts his fellow passengers' calm enjoyment of shipboard routines, focusing on relatively small family groupings from half-a-dozen to to a dozen figures, the exception being the introductory plate "Emigrants on Deck," which contains twenty-seven figures in listless poses, some reading (centre), many conversing, and some few simply observing — in this woodcut, as opposed to Phiz's theatrical steel engraving, there is no unifying activity or emotion other than passing the time. In the left-hand margin, Prout may even have drawn himself as the observer of the chart-watchers in "Night." The keynotes of the latter scene are three-dimensional, mundane realism and nocturnal tranquility, anticipating Van Gogh's early socialistic oil painting "The Potato Eaters" (1885). Compared to Phiz's kinetic, finely realized figures caught in vigorous action, Prout's are somewhat wooden and static.
And yet, in both pictures the viewer senses the momentous nature of the emigrant experience, which Prout implies by the religious solemnity of "Night" and Phiz suggests by the stolid trio who serve as the focal point of his composition. The excessive emotionalism surrounding David Copperfield, who will remain, and emigrants Dan'l Peggotty and Wilkens Micawber, the founding fathers of a new Australian middle class engages us by the stark emotional contrasts between the static trio and the kinetic secondary characters, filling us with a sense of expectation that, at least for the hapless Micawbers, something significant has finally "turned up." In Prout's below-decks illustration the phlegmatic demeanour of the family must have impressed the ILN's readers in a rather different way: for those contemplating undertaking such a step into the unknown themselves as for those who have friends or relatives who have undertaken (or are about to undertake) such a journey and so massive a relocation, the very mundaneness of the scene must have been comforting. Phiz's scene, in contrast, is disquieting in its depiction of the outset of the emigrants' journey, an effect only counteracted by the newspaper account of the Micawbers' new life in Port Middlebay later in the novel.
- A Transcription of Skinner Prout's "Scenes on Board an Australian Emigrant Ship" and "Australian Hut" (20 January & 17 March 1849)
Dickens, Charles. The Personal History of David Copperfield, il. Hablot Knight Browne ("Phiz"). The Centenary Edition. 2 vols. London & New York: Chapman & Hall, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1911.
Prout, Skinner. "Scenes on Board an Australian Emigrant Ship" and "Australian Hut" [six images plus accompanying excerpts from his journal]. The Illustrated London News. 20 January and 17 March 1849. Pp. 39-41 and 184.
Last modified 6 July 2010