Dickens's A Child's History of England (1878)

Ralston's dramatic scene of the sole Christian braving the wrath of a roomful of brazen pagans: The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Danes.

John McLaren Ralston (1849-1883), who was born in Glasgow, contributed to the illustrated press in London (including the Illustrated London News). As well as illustrating Dickens's A Child's History, he provided Dinah Mulock Craik's The Little Lame Prince and his Travelling Cloak (1875) with twenty-three engraved illustrations. Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh mentions him in a letter praising the English Sixties' realist style. His usual signature was "J McL R." He was survived by his older brother, William Ralston (1841–1911), a noted Scottish designer. Ralston contributed to the Strahan  Pilgrim's Progress (1880), as did Fred Barnard and other Household Edition artists.

Although Ralston's monumental seriousness invests such noble illustrations as The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Danes, his designs apparently did not have the lasting impact of those of Barnard for so many of Dickens's works in the Household Edition; at least, Chapman and Hall, working in conjunction with Charles Scribner's in New York, did not use the Ralston wood-engravings for the 1910 Centenary Edition, preferring the more anecdotal and personal studies of such figures as King Alfred, Joan of Arc, and King Charles the First by Stone and Mahoney from the Illustrated Library Edition of 1862. Since only two of Dickens's possible sources — Sarah Trimmer's Set of Prints of English History (c. 1792) and Charles Knight's edition of Pictorial History of England (actually written by George L. Craig and Charles MacFarlane, 1838-44) — appeared with illustrations, and since Dickens's principal source, David Hume's History of Great Britain (1754-61) was unillustrated, Dickens may very well have composed his idiosyncratic, unabashedly biased history without any thought as to illustration.

The three-volume, 1853 edition of A Child's History of England, first published serially in thirty-nine weekly instalment in Household Words between 25 January 1851 and 10 December 1853, contained only title-page vignettes by Francis W. Topham. However, Dickens's latest discovery, the gifted young illustrator Marcus Stone, provided eight full-page wood-engravings for the 1862 Library Edition of the work. These were reissued by Chapman and Hall in 1865 for the People's Edition. The next significant edition occurred after Dickens's death, namely the Household Edition issued by Chapman and Hall. In this eighteenth volume in the twenty-two volume series (1871-1879), Scottish illustrator McLaren Ralston provided fifteen wood-engravings in the Sixties' style.

"The Household Edition illustrations provide, in the first instance, an historical insight into the popular reception of Dickens in the period roughly between 1870 and the outbreak of World War I. For those Victorian readers who came of age in the last third of the nineteenth century, this was their particular edition of Dickens" (Louttit, 150). From 1897 onward, after the illustrations of the Household Edition (1871-79) had shaped the reading of Dickens's works for over a generation, the Gadshill Edition of the Collected Works of Charles Dickens (1897-98) reinstated the original early- and mid-Victorian illustrations. The landmark thirty-volume Gadshill Edition employed the earlier illustrations of Phiz, Leech, Landseer, Maclise, Cattermole, Marcus and Frank Stone, and Cruikshank instead of the newer, Sixties' images of the Household Edition illustrators. And certainly the Centenary Edition (1910-12) demonstrates that the earlier illustrations of such series as the Illustrated Library Edition had made a decisive comeback. The decision to use the original illustrations rather than reproduce the Household Edition wood-engravings seems to have resided with the series editor, B. W. Matz, rather than the nominal editor, Andrew Lang, who merely wrote the prefaces to the Gadshill. Because the publisher of both the Gadshill and the Centenary Editions was Chapman and Hall, the editor of the new, completely edited edition had access to the original "duplicate" (unused) plates. Chapman and Hall reissued the Gadshill Edition as the Gadshill Edition de Luxe in 1903, and expanded it in 1908 to 38 volumes, which became the basis for the Centenary Edition. The Household Edition had enjoyed a singular advantage over these later editions: since it was available in monthly parts at a shilling each, even lower-middle-class readers could afford it. The 22-volume edition illustrated by various Sixties' artists led by Fred Barnard presents its 866 large-scale illustrations on quarto pages, with the plates generally integrated right into the text.

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Scanned images and text by Philip V. Allingham. [You may use the images 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.]


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Dickens, Charles. A Child's History of England. Household Edition. Illustrated by John McLaren Ralston. London: Chapman and Hall, 1878. XVII.

_______. A Child's History of England. Illustrated by Marcus Stone and J. Mahoney. Centenary Edition. London: Chapman and Hall; New York: Charles Scribner's Sons 1910 [rpt. of the 1862 illustrations].

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Louttit, Chris. Chapter 8: "Boz without Phiz: Reading Dickens with Different Illustrations." Reading Dickens Differently. Ed. Leon Litvac and Nathalie Vanfasse. London: John Wiley & Sons, 2020. 149-164.

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Scenes and Characters from the Works of Charles Dickens; being eight hundred and sixty-six drawings, by Fred Barnard, Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz); J. Mahoney; Charles Green; A. B. Frost; Gordon Thomson; J. McL. Ralston; H. French; E. G. Dalziel; F. A. Fraser, and Sir Luke Fildes; printed from the original woodblocks engraved for "The Household Edition." New York: Chapman and Hall, 1908. Copy in the Robarts Library, University of Toronto.

Created 7 March 2021