Phiz (Hablot K. Browne)
Dickens's Pickwick Papers
November 1837 (double number)
Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham.
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Whereas Seymour had chosen as the subject of his frontispiece Pickwick standing on a chair and addressing the assembled twelve other members of the club, Phiz chose to focus on a relationship about which Seymour would have known nothing since he committed suicide in April 1836, just after he had completed the four plates for the May number — that between the faithful, street-wise Cockney servant Sam Weller and the naive retired merchant, Samuel Pickwick, a relationship which Dickens introduced in the tenth chapter. It is not difficult to interpret the frontispiece as a testimonial to iconic status of the two friends who become joint protagonists of the picaresque novel, and whom Phiz represents here as joint editors of the "posthumous papers" of the Pickwick Club.
Michael Steig notes the advance that Phiz's frontispiece represents over Seymour's, even though in construction it resembles Seymour's frontispiece for Hervey's The Book of Christmas:
If we take the title page to represent the novel's violently active comic side, the frontispiece is, with qualifications, the reverse: a scene of contemplative repose, observed and ridiculed, however, by a group of comic subversives. The basic structure of the frontispiece is like a proscenium stage, below which an imp points sardonically at three of the main actors in the novel who are absent from the stage, Tupman, Winkle, and Snodgrass. [Steig 38]
In the gothic niche composed of an ornate frame punctuated by gargoyles and surmounted by a goblin, Sam Weller, easily recognisable by his striped vest, and Mr. Pickwick are reviewing books in Mr. Pickwick's study. Sam, not introduced until the July 1836 number, and his master seem joined, as the oaken panel behind them contains equal figures in niches. Significantly, the globe is by Sam's side, implying his knowledge of the world, in contrast to Mr. Pickwick's comfortable, overstuffed chair and hassock, which represent a life of leisure and affluence.
If Browne was under the stylistic influence of Seymour in The Pickwick Papers, his use of iconographic methods for the purpose of genuine interpretation and expression go beyond anything Seymour displayed as an illustrator. [Steig 39-40]
The laughing goblins to the right (in a hat reminiscent of the goblin king's in Phiz's "The Goblin and the Sexton," January 1837) and left (dressed as a jester) draw back the curtains, implying that the narrative will reflect the period's dramatic forms: the farce, melodrama, and burletta. The cameos are of the Pickwick triad, waiting offstage and about to be introduced.
Robert Patten has demonstrated that this frontispiece, through its visual references to books and tale-telling, its pantomime imps (one of whom is the goblin of an earlier plate, "The Goblin and [38/39] the Sexton" [ch. 28B] . . . , its globe, helmet, and shield, epitomises the novel's use of the tale as a vehicle for conveying both experience and its evaluation (See Patten's "The Art of Pickwick's Interpolated Tales"). But in addition, the imps and goblins embody something of the tension in this novel between comedy as a moral vehicle and as a subversive force. Why, for example, is Gabriel Grub's goblin, whose function in the novel is to bring about the sexton's regeneration, here mocking Pickwick and Sam? And why is another such figure jeering at the Pickwickians?
The sources upon which Browne probably drew may throw some light on these questions. The stagelike frame has a long graphic tradition behind it, but Browne's most direct influence in its use seems to have been his predecessor, Robert Seymour. Though at first glance the frontispiece to Hervey's The Book of Christmas, "Christmas and His Children" (Illus. 25), does not obviously resemble Browne's design (Illus. 26), a moment's consideration reveals some parallels. In both, the central scene — intended to epitomize the book — is framed by a proscenium arch supported by Gothic columns. The stage is in each case revealed by a draped curtain, and both stages protrude into an apron. Below Seymour's stage is a satyr's head and below Browne's two, very similar to Seymour's. On either side in both pictures are stone brackets, occupied in Seymour's etching by a harper and Father Christmas and in Browne's by the imps and goblins. The goblin on the right points to the scene within, as does Father Christmas. There is also a possible link between this goblin and Seymour's Lord of Misrule (in both the frontispiece and a plate facing p. 213 of Hervey's book), and if this resemblance is more than accidental, the implication for Pickwick is that reason and reflection in Sam and Pickwick are mocked by mirth and unreason — which are themselves ritualistic and seasonal rather than uncontained or destructive. There are some further minor similarities between elements in the two books, but the basic parallels at the very least suggest the extent to which Phiz was working within current as well as eighteenth century graphic conventions. [Steig 38-39; full text of this book]
Cohen, Jane Rabb. Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators. Columbus: Ohio State U. P., 1980.
Dickens, Charles. Pickwick Papers (1836-37). London: Chapman & Hall.
Dickens, Charles. Pickwick Papers (1836-37). Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1867.
Hammerton, J. A. The Dickens Picture-Book. London: Educational Book Co., 1910.
Steig, Michael. Dickens and Phiz. Bloomington & London: Indiana U.P., 1978.
Last modified 10 January 2012