On the dark Road by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne). 4 ½ x 7 ½ inches (10.7 cm high by 19 cm wide), vignetted. Thirty-seventh illustration and Phiz's only dark plate for Dickens's Dombey and Son (March 1848, Part 18), Chapter 55, facing 592 (1880 edition: Ch. XXV, facing 399 in vol. 2). The illustration is unusual in that it is Phiz's fourth attempt at a vertical orientation, which he realised would enable him to select for illustration group scenes that were cramped by the usual horizontal orientation in which he had worked in  The Pickwick Papers ten years earlier. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

Passage Illustrated: Complementing Phiz's Atmospheric Masterpiece

"Monsieur has walked a long way in the dark midnight."

"No matter. Everyone to his task. Were there any other horses ordered at the Post-house?"

"A thousand devils!—and pardons! other horses? at this hour? No."

"Listen, my friend. I am much hurried. Let us see how fast we can travel! The faster, the more money there will be to drink. Off we go then! Quick!"

"Halloa! whoop! Halloa! Hi!" Away, at a gallop, over the black landscape, scattering the dust and dirt like spray!

The clatter and commotion echoed to the hurry and discordance of the fugitive's ideas. Nothing clear without, and nothing clear within. Objects flitting past, merging into one another, dimly descried, confusedly lost sight of, gone! Beyond the changing scraps of fence and cottage immediately upon the road, a lowering waste. Beyond the shifting images that rose up in his mind and vanished as they showed themselves, a black expanse of dread and rage and baffled villainy. Occasionally, a sigh of mountain air came from the distant Jura, fading along the plain. Sometimes that rush which was so furious and horrible, again came sweeping through his fancy, passed away, and left a chill upon his blood.

The lamps, gleaming on the medley of horses' heads, jumbled with the shadowy driver, and the fluttering of his cloak, made a thousand indistinct shapes, answering to his thoughts. Shadows of familiar people, stooping at their desks and books, in their remembered attitudes; strange apparitions of the man whom he was flying from, or of Edith; repetitions in the ringing bells and rolling wheels, of words that had been spoken; confusions of time and place, making last night a month ago, a month ago last night — home now distant beyond hope, now instantly accessible; commotion, discord, hurry, darkness, and confusion in his mind, and all around him. — Hallo! Hi! away at a gallop over the black landscape; dust and dirt flying like spray, the smoking horses snorting and plunging as if each of them were ridden by a demon, away in a frantic triumph on the dark road — whither? [Chapter LV, "Rob the Grinder loses his Place," 590-91; vol. II, 398-99]

Commentary: Phiz's Adaptation of the "Dark Plate" Technique

Detail of Carker, standing in the speeding carriage: On a Dark Road. (1848)

The illustration, "On the Dark Road," is a plate on which a tint  had first been placed by means of a ruling machine; and by a process of "stopping out" and "burnishing out" an effect equivalent to mezzotint was obtained. Notwithstanding the number of impressions taken from it, the plate is still in fair condition [as of 1884], and having been very carefully printed by Mr. Yates for this work, little or none of the beauty is gone. The original drawing, it should be mentioned, is very rough and crude, having only a mere indication of the design; the horses, however, are well drawn and clearer than the rest of the drawing. The subject is Carker in his flight from Dijon, after the meeting with Edith, when he thinks every sound tells of an avenger following close on his heels. "Shame, disappointment, and discomfiture gnawed at his heart; a constant apprehension of being overtaken oppressed him heavily." — David Croal Thomson,  p. 124.

According to Valerie Lester Browne, this was Phiz's first attempt at a classic 'dark plate', in this case to show the futility of the villainous Carker's trying to cheat death as he makes his way through France to Paris and thence to England. If he cannot escape Dombey on the Continent (where he fears Dombey can easily hire assassins), he rationalizes that it would be better to confront Dombey in a country less lawless. The March 1848 illustration, moreover, engages the viewer with the sharpness and vivacity of the figures and the prancing horses — horses having been from his earliest compositions one of Phiz's strengths. Better reproductions of this powerful illustration convey the aerial perspective through making clear the line of Lombardy poplars running off to the horizon, upper right.

For the illustration, On the Dark Road, Phiz turned the plate horizontally and used a ruling machine, which pushed a bank of needles across the wax ground on the plate, creating a background of narrow stripes, akin to mezzotinting. (The technique is sometimes referred to as 'machine tinting'.) He then drew into dark areas to make them blacker and produced a variety of greys by stopping-out other areas. To retain the dazzling whites, he burnished away the ruled lines and stopped out those areas completely on the first and all subsequent visits to the acid.

Phiz's use of a ruling machine was a divergence from the more popular aquatint method used by other etchers. He may have disliked aquatint's time-consuming use of resin, a messy substance which, if inhaled, could injure the lungs. With his ruling machine he created tones with less nuisance. (After his experiments on Lever's Roland Cashel (1850), he no longer used the ruling machine for light topics; the brights were never bright enough.)

On the Dark Road is one of the most completely successful of all Phiz's images. A long, slow diagonal slices down from receding poplar trees in the upper right to the coach and standing figure of windswept Carker, and moves on down through the coachman (who provides an opposing diagonal with his whip) to the four horses racing towards the bottom left of the picture. Phiz took enormous technical care with the plate, and its atmosphere of menace is enhanced by the addition of details: a black bird, a dark pool, a lowering sky, a leaning finger-post, and the rolling eyes and hot breath of the horses. [Lester, 135-136]

The dark plate becomes ubiquitous among Browne's etchings in the late forties and through the fifties, and it is as well to explain the technique at this point. In its most basic form it provides a way of adding mechanically ruled, very closely spaced lines to the steel in order to produce a "tint," a grayish shading of the plate. It is this simple method that Browne occasionally used for authors other than Dickens. But in general he made more subtle and complex use of the dark plate. . . . . The highlights, areas which were to remain white, would be stopped out with varnish, and then the biting could commence. Those areas which were to be lightest in tint would be stopped out after a short bite, the next lightest after a longer bite, and so on down to the very blackest areas — which would never, except where wholly exposed by the needle, become totally black, but would shimmer with the tiny lights of the unexposed bits between the ruled lines; the darkest sky in On the Dark Road has these little lights, while the dark parts of the puddle have none, apparently having been exposed to the acid by the needle rather than the ruling machine. [Steig, 106-107]

An ominous and menacing atmosphere surrounds the open carriage or barouche as the early morning darkness which Carker anxiously regards (suggesting fear of pursuit) implies his sense of impending doom. in this earliest Phiz dark plate, the illustrator creates a tense atmosphere through contrasting the vigorous galloping of the horses, sharply delineated, and the oppressive darkness behind. Phiz's four steeds are hardly heavy carriage-horses, but rather spirited racing stallions in harness, passing rapidly through theFrench countryside. Phiz has individualised the horses to heighten the drama of Carker's nocturnal flight from Dijon. Phiz has the open coach rapidly approaching the viewer, with an apparent break in the clouds (right) throwing the face of the standing figure, the lead horse, the body of the postillion's horse, and the vegetation at the side of the road (lower right) into fleeting sunlight in a powerful chiaroscuro that contributes to the melodramatic effect of the illustration as a whole as dark and light compete for dominance in the plate, in which Carker's head (turned, as it were, towards the past rather than the unknown future) is the pinnacle of the pyramid.

The other four vertically oriented, full-width plates in Dombey and Son:

Related Material, including Other Illustrated Editions of Dombey and Son

Image scan, caption, and commentary 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.]


Dickens, Charles. Dombey and Son. With illustrations by  H. K. Browne. The illustrated library Edition. 2 vols. London: Chapman and Hall, c. 1880. Vol. II.

__________. Dombey and Son. Illustrated by Hablot Knight Browne ("Phiz"). The London Edition, Volume 4. London: Caxton & Ballantyne, 1901.

__________. Dombey and Son. Illustrated by Hablot K. Browne ("Phiz"). 8 coloured plates. London and Edinburgh: Caxton and Ballantyne, Hanson, 1910.

__________. Dombey and Son. Illustrated by Hablot K. Browne ("Phiz"). The Clarendon Edition, ed. Alan Horsman. Oxford: Clarendon, 1974.

__________. Dombey and Son. Illustrated by Sol Eytinge, Jr., and engraved by A. V. S. Anthony. 14 vols. Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1867. III.

__________. Dombey and Son. Illustrated by Fred Barnard. 61 wood-engravings. The Household Edition. 22 vols. London: Chapman and Hall, 1877. XV.

_________. Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail, and for Exportation. Illustrated by Harry Furniss. The Charles Dickens Library Edition. London: Educational Book Company, 1910. IX.

Hammerton, J. A. "Chapter 16: Dombey and Son."The Dickens Picture-Book. The Charles Dickens Library Edition.Illustrated by Harry Furniss. 18 vols. London: Educational Book Co., 1910. Vol. 17, 294-337.

Kitton, Frederic George. Dickens and His Illustrators: Cruikshank, Seymour, Buss, "Phiz," Cattermole, Leech, Doyle, Stanfield, Maclise, Tenniel, Frank Stone, Landseer, Palmer, Topham, Marcus Stone, and Luke Fildes. Amsterdam: S. Emmering, 1972. Re-print of the London (1899) edition.

Lester, Valerie Browne. Ch. 12, "Work, Work, Work." Phiz: The Man Who Drew Dickens. London: Chatto and Windus, 2004, pp. 128-160.

Steig, Michael. Chapter 4. "Dombey and Son: Iconography of Social and Sexual Satire." Dickens and Phiz. Bloomington & London: Indiana U. P., 1978. 86-112.

Thomson, David Croal. Life and Labours of Hablot Knight Browne — "Phiz.". London: Chapman and Hall, 1884.

Vann, J. Don. Chapter 4. "Dombey and Son, twenty parts in nineteen monthly installments, October 1846-April 1848." Victorian Novels in Serial. New York: Modern Language Association, 1985. 67-68.

Created 13 June 2016

Last modified 31 January 2020