Ignorance and Want
8.6 cm by 7 cm
Three-quarter-page wood-engraving for Dickens's Christmas Carol, Stave Three, "The Second of the Three Spirits," p. 119.
Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham.
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Leech's whimsical style, although it may be described as caricature verging at times on cartoon, was more rigorously realistic and less emblematic than Browne's; perhaps the finest example of his work in this vein for Dickens is "Ignorance and Want" in A Christmas Carol. The street urchins, although symbols of the forces unleashed by the factory system and the new capitalistic applications of Malthusian population theories, are shockingly real, while the desiccated trees and smoking factory chimneys in the background constitute a heightened realism amounting to visual commentary on Dickens's scene to reveal Scrooge as the exemplar of the entire upper-middle class. Undoubtedly, along with Fred Walker, an illustrator working in the manner of Daniel Vierge and other French illustrators of the mid-century, Leech was instrumental in shaping the new "Sixties'" style, of which George Du Maurier, Marcus Stone, and Fred Barnard were the leading exponents. As Steig remarks in Dickens and Phiz (1978),
Leech was never really comfortable in Browne's and Cruikshank's favorite technique, etching. He became known primarily as the designer of straightforward, humorous, wood-engraved cartoons — in our modern sense — for Punch. In turn, Leech's art influenced Punch artists and illustrators including Tenniel, Du Maurier, and Keene, while simultaneously the dominant mode of book illustration by these artists and such others as Marcus Stone, Fred Walker, and John Everett Millais became by the 1860s almost totally divorced from Browne's mode. Thus, wood engraving replaced etching, a quasi-caricatural way of drawing characters became a blander, rather idealized style, and emblem and allusion disappeared almost totally. It is not insignificant that some of these younger artists had pretensions to high art, nor that Millais in particular may have been slumming (though for very good pay) when he did illustrations for Trollope and others. [10-11]
In the cartoon "Substance and Shadow" (1843), Leech had criticized artists for ignoring social issues such as poverty. One may assume that his depiction of the allegorical but intensely realised figures of Ignorance and Want in A Christmas Carol (1843) is a graphic exemplar of how the artist with a social conscience may address such contentious issues. Resident artist at Punch, Leech perhaps had insufficient leisure to illustrate full-length Dickens novels; furthermore, he always had so many irons in the fire, so to speak, that he was notoriously unreliable when it came to delivering his drawing on time to publisher, a fact that may have deterred Phiz from agreeing to work with him on the illustrations for Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44).
A Note on the Industrial Backdrop
The question of whether the buildings in the background of "Ignorance and Want" are nineteenth-century factories with tall smokestacks or prisons and workhouses surrealistically grouped together is an interesting one since the backdrop may suggest that Leech felt empowered to extend the scene beyond its textual equivalent to deliver a visual indictment of capitalism and industrialism. In reality, such buildings as workhouses and prisons would not have been adjacent to one another in an urban setting.
Parenthetically, the blackened trees in "Ignorance and Want" may be "leafless" because the backdrop is a December scene, but they look blighted, withered, and dessicated, and to the smoke from the factory smokestack drifts down the right-hand margin of the vignetted edge towards the tree (plural), whose condition, like the condition of the children, is therefore a direct byproduct of the industrial factory, which contaminates society, implies the illustrator, as it does the environment.
Certainly the big blocks of building behind Scrooge and the Spirit of Christmas Present might be one of the 1830s Poor Law's "new" workhouses such as that at Southwell. However, even the rather rudimentary workhouse or refuge depicted in the Illustrated London News for December, 1843, would not have had the sort of industrial smokestack that Leech has made prominent in "Ignorance and Want." Textually it would make sense that the picture should reinforce the Spirit's rhetorical strategy of casting Scrooge's own words about prisons and workhouses back at him when he asks about what "resources" society is providing for the destitute children. One can discern a very slender chimney emanating from a stove used for heating the women's ward in a Refuge for the Destitute — Ward for Females from the Illustrated London News for 23 December 1843, but it looks nothing like Leech's chimney. Although the buildings in Leech's background look a bit like the new Pentonville Prison, the guard tower (the only structure that breaks the roofline of Pentonville) looks nothing like the factory chimneys in Pennel's sketch, or the factory chimney still standing at Chipping Norton, or that at the pump-house, Albert Dock. The typical Victorian factory not only had the enormous chimney for discharging smoke well away from the precincts, but was also well lit by a great many windows as in the Butcher Works, Sheffield.
In Preston, Lancashire, an industrial town noted for its numerous smokestacks of the type seen in Leech's illustration, the workers rioted and were attacked by the army just the year before Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol. The industrial smokestacks of a Preston factory in the background of Harry French's illustration of Gradgrind's Coketown (Preston) office in Hard Times suggest an industrial complex like that in Leech's illustration or the mill complex such at Salford. For the Chartists, industrial mills or factories were flashpoints for revolution because of their long hours and tedious working conditions; they were using the boycott strategy to force the government into adopting the principles of the Charter for parliamentary reform. In consequence, the appearance of industrial smokestacks in Leech's plate would have constituted a topical allusion that many of Dickens's readers would have immediately recognized.
Some twenty-five years later, the theme of the deleterious societal effects of "Want and Ignorance" struck realist illustrator Sol Eytinge, Junior, as timely in post-Civil War America, as he posited that substandard housing and urban blight (as suggested by the backdrop of his rendition of this narrative moment) were the direct concomitants of societal neglect of the poverty-stricken underclass represented by the two children in his wood-engraving. In place of Leech's blighted tree, emblematic of the consequences of the factory system, Eytinge has a bird of ill-omen haloed by the setting moon. In keeping with the serious subject of the illustration, Eytinge has given us a sombre Druid rather than "a jolly Giant, glorious to see." The implied movement of the 1868 "dark" plate is entirely upward and downward, with the pillar-like tenement blocks in the background complementing the pillar-like figures of Scrooge and his spirit-guide. Finally, as the chimes strike midnight, Leech's Spirit of Christmas Present is fading, even though the text does not so specify; rather, he vanishes utterly at the moment the bell strikes twelve, presumably on the night of the last of twelve days of Christmas. In contrast, Eytinge's leaden spirit clasps his collar with his left hand against the chill; his holly and berry head-dress, however, seems to have wilted if we compare it to its rendering in Eytinge's "The Spirit of Christmas Present" five plates earlier, and in the frontispiece, in which the crown is more luxuriant and the figure both more nimble, youthful, jolly, vigorous, and benign.
Cohen, Jane Rabb. "John Leech." Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio U. P., 1980. Pp. 141-151.
Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol in Prose being a Ghost Story of Christmas. Il. John Leech. London: Chapman and Hall, 1843.
Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol in Prose: being a ghost story of Christmas. Il. Sol Eytinge, Jr. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1868 (dated 1869).
Steig, Michael. Dickens and Phiz. Bloomington & London: Indiana U. P., 1978. [e-text in the Victorian Web.]
Last modified 10 July 2013