Mr.Pickwick sitting for his portrait by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne). Household Edition (1874) of Dickens's Pickwick Papers, p. 297. Engraved by one of the Dalziels. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Although Dickens, aged 25 at the time he wrote about Pickwick's incarceration for debt, is not likely to have mentioned his own family's involvement in just such an issue some dozen years earlier, the serial writer undoubtedly impressed upon Phiz the importance to the novel's plot of the Fleet Prison scenes in monthly parts 14, 15, 16, and 17 (that is, the instalments for May, July, August, and September, 1837). Thus, in the original serial for chapters 40 through 46, of the pertinent eight illustrations five are set in the Fleet Prison, and four feature Pickwick prominently.


Mr. Pickwick sits for his Portrait — Phiz's 1837 version of the scene.

Redrafting many of his original steel engravings for the woodcuts of the Household Edition, Phiz took "Mr. Pickwick sits for his Portrait" as the basis for the first of seven prison scenes (numbers 41 through 47), four of which concern Pickwick, but four of which feature Sam Weller prominently (both appear in the forty-seventh illustration, "Mrs. Bardell screamed violently; Tommy roared; Mrs. Cluppins shrunk within herself; and Mrs. Sanders made off without more ado", p. 337). Thus, even though the Household Edition gave Phiz an opportunity to expand his range of subjects, he elected not to devote more scenes to the Fleet, but did elect to make Sam Weller and Samuel Pickwick joint protagonists in his narrative-pictorial sequence. The passage that Phiz twice realised is this:

Here [at the opening of the Fleet Prison proper] they stopped, while the tipstaff delivered his papers; and here Mr. Pickwick was apprised that he would remain, until he had undergone the ceremony, known to the initiated as "sitting for your portrait."

"Sitting for my portrait?" said Mr. Pickwick.

"Having your likeness taken, sir," replied the stout turnkey. "We're capital hands at likenesses here. Take 'em in no time, and always exact. Walk in, sir, and make yourself at home."

Mr. Pickwick complied with the invitation, and sat himself down; when Mr. Weller, who stationed himself at the back of the chair, whispered that the sitting was merely another term for undergoing an inspection by the different turnkeys, in order that they might know prisoners from visitors.

"Well, Sam," said Mr. Pickwick, "then I wish the artists would come. This is rather a public place."

"They von't be long, Sir, I des-say," replied Sam. "There's a Dutch clock, sir."

"So I see," observed Mr. Pickwick.

"And a bird-cage, sir," says Sam. "Veels vithin veels, a prison in a prison. Ain't it, Sir?"

As Mr. Weller made this philosophical remark, Mr. Pickwick was aware that his sitting had commenced. The stout turnkey having been relieved from the lock, sat down, and looked at him carelessly, from time to time, while a long thin man who had relieved him, thrust his hands beneath his coat tails, and planting himself opposite, took a good long view of him. A third rather surly-looking gentleman, who had apparently been disturbed at his tea, for he was disposing of the last remnant of a crust and butter when he came in, stationed himself close to Mr. Pickwick; and, resting his hands on his hips, inspected him narrowly; while two others mixed with the group, and studied his features with most intent and thoughtful faces. Mr. Pickwick winced a good deal under the operation, and appeared to sit very uneasily in his chair; but he made no remark to anybody while it was being performed, not even to Sam, who reclined upon the back of the chair, reflecting, partly on the situation of his master, and partly on the great satisfaction it would have afforded him to make a fierce assault upon all the turnkeys there assembled, one after the other, if it were lawful and peaceable so to do.

At length the likeness was completed, and Mr. Pickwick was informed that he might now proceed into the prison. [end of chapter 40, p. 285 of the Chapman & Hall Household Edition]

Since the new picture has a horizontal orientation, Phiz had the opportunity to add several turnkeys, for whereas he could conveniently fit only six prison officers into the May 1837 engraving, he included eight in his 1873 redrafting, moving Pickwick and Sam to the left margin so that they are no longer surrounded by jailers. The Dutch clock is still in evidence, but the symbolic birdcage has disappeared. Whereas three of the original jailers look somewhat alike, Phiz organises the look-alikes into three groups: the pair, dimly apprehended, behind Pickwick; the John Bull pair in the centre; and the trio with almost identical faces to the right. Dickens describes the majority of the turnkeys as "stout" and "surly-looking," but lists only five as present at for Pickwick's "sitting." Phiz has disposed of the figures in similar poses and juxtapositions in both illustrations, except that the smoker (left rear) has disappeared and the "long, thin man" with his hands beneath his coat-tails, who is to the extreme left in the 1837 (one of just two turnkeys distinguished by their lacking any sort of hat), is now sitting on a stool, down centre, studying Pickwick. Whereas the earlier illustration gives prominence to the barred widows, the later illustration emphasises a heavy, iron-studded door (right), behind one of the larger jailors. More significantly, Pickwick seems more relaxed and less nervous in the 1873 woodcut, holding his hat jauntily on one knee and maintaining the sort of erect posture one would expect of a person sitting for a portrait. The overall effect of the 1873 revision is Pickwick's occipying a less constricted space, and not being studied quite so closely, for only the rio to the right actually focus on him. Sam, as ever, is quite sanguine, perhaps because he knows that at any time Pickwick can elect to pay his fine and leave the confines of the Fleet Prison.

Built in 1197, the notorious prison on the eastern bank of the Fleet River, London, was in continuous use until 1844. Although it was destroyed and rebuilt a number of times (in 1381, during Wat Tyler's Peasants' Revolt; on the third day of the Great Fire of London in 1666; and during the Gordon Riots of 1780), it was not finally demolished until 1846. During the eighteenth century, the Fleet Prison was generally reserved for debtors and bankrupts, often housing about 300 prisoners and even their families. Among the prison's most famous inmates were Metaphysical poet John Donne and American colonizer William Penn. Perhaps as a result of Dickens's use of the Fleet as a setting for Pickwick, William Makepeace Thackeray in 1844 consigned the anti-hero of The Luck of Barry Lyndon there for the last nineteen years of his life, the most famous literary inmate prior to the early nineteenth century being Shakespeare's braggard knight Sir John falstaff in Henry the Fourth, Part Two. For Dickens, the Shakespeare association was probably paramount, but he significantly avoided using as the setting London's chief debtors' prison, the Marshalsea, in which his own father had been incarcerated in 1824, although he did make use of the Marshalsea as one of the settings for the interpolated Pickwick short story in chapter 21, "The Old Man's Tale of the Queer Client" (Part 8, November 1836).

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Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham. Formatting by George P. Landow. [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. Pickwick Papers. The Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1874; New York: Harpers, 1874.

Last modified 10 March 2012