he eminent nineteenth-century British book illustrator Hablot Knight Browne was born on 10 July 1815, the ninth son in a middle-class London family that would eventually include ten sons and five daughters. According to Valerie, a lineal descendant of Phiz and author of a recent biography of him, Hablot Knight Browne was adopted by William Loder Browne and his wife Katherine, but was in fact the illegitimate son of their eldest daughter and Captain Nicholas Hablot of Napoleon's Imperial Guard. His adoptive father died in Philadelphia in 1855, but having left England when the boy was seven, he seems to have made but slight impression upon the the future artist and engraver, who was chiefly influenced in youth by his brother-in-law, Elhanan Bicknell, a self-made businessman and self-taught collector of the works of such modern artists as J. M. W. Turner.
According to Lester’s biography. (2004),
Bicknell, recognizing Browne's artistic potential, arranged for his apprenticeship under the brothers Finden, a firm of London engravers. However, Browne soon tired of the laborious task of engraving, and took to etching and watercolour painting. His proficiency as an etcher was recognized when he was awarded the Society of Arts' medal for his etching of "John Gilpin's Ride" (1833), which, though crude, shows his considerable skill in drawing horses (especially evident in his plates for Charles Lever's "horse-racious" and pugnacious Irish novels and Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities). In 1834, after numerous truancies (in fact, occasioned by frequent visits to the British Museum), Browne cancelled his indentures, and set up shop with Robert Young, a fellow Finden's apprentice, as an etcher, engraver, and illustrator.
Meantime, Charles Dickens, some three years older than Browne, was already a rising star in London literary circles. Dickens's first full-length book, Sketches by Boz (836-7), collected from periodical publications, was illustrated by noted artist George Cruikshank. In June, 1836, Browne received his first commission with Dickens, the pamphlet Sunday under Three Heads . Chapman and Hall, the publishers, then enlisted Dickens to write the text to accompany a comic series of illustrations on Cockney sporting subjects, after the manner of Pierce Egan in Life in London; or, The Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorne, Esq., and his Elegant Friend Corinthia Tom (1821, illustrated by the Cruikshank brothers), with four etchings per month produced by thirty-eight-year-old illustrator Robert Seymour. No sooner had Chapman and Hall started the monthly part-publication of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club begun, than young Dickens attempted to seize the reins of the enterprise, the result being Seymour's suicide. In 1836 Browne took over the illustrations when Dickens found the work of Robert W. Buss for The Pickwick Papers unsatisfactory, Browne's first two plates appearing in No. iv (July 1836). Browne was a relative unknown replacing Seymour, a well-known artist and a highly experienced periodical cartoonist who had sold satirical prints in his own right. At first, Browne adopted the pseudonym "N. E. M. O." (Latin for "Nobody," the nom de guerre adopted by Ulysses in the Cyclops episode of Homer's Odyssey). Soon, however, he became "Phiz," an artistic name well suited for the creator of "phizzes" — delightful, effervescent drafts of humour and caricature, as seen in the third plate of Pickwick . Despite a certain woodenness of his figures and a sameness about his characters' faces, by the seventh number Phiz had hit his stride with "Mr. Pickwick in the Pound." In the 1838 redesigned plates for Pickwick the calibre of Phiz's work improved enormously. He maintained this collaborative relationship with Dickens until the end of the 1850s, an artistic partnership which enhanced his reputation with such other novelists as William Harrison Ainsworth, Frank Smedley, Augustus Mayhew, and Charles Lever.
In the summer of 1837, Browne accompanied Charles and Catherine Dickens on a holiday trip to Belgium; by the end of the year, he and Dickens were at work on a new picaresque novel, Nicholas Nickleby , research for which required their on-site investigation of several notorious Yorkshire schools. Browne illustrated ten of Dickens's fifteen novels, notably Martin Chuzzlewit and David Copperfield, but not any of the Christmas Books, which were illustrated by Punch artist John Leech and other well-known artists of the 1840s.
The professional rift between Browne and Dickens probably owes something to way in which Dickens issued the weekly numbers of Household Words and its successor All the Year Round, for these tuppeny pulp journals were without illustration (Valerie Lester  suggests a number of other reasons for the breakup). However, as the artist's son, Edgar Browne, says of A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens "also issued it independently in the usual green-covered monthly parts, with two illustrations by Hablot K. Browne. The two issues ran concurrently" (Phiz and Dickens, 22), the monthly part costing a shilling. "When assembled as a monthly part, the pictures were tipped into the episode ahead of the text" (Cayzer, 4). In the closing double number, the reader would find two more illustrations, the Frontispiece and the Title-page. "Placed here they allow him to reflect upon what he has read. Later, placed at the front of a bound copy of the novel, they also announce the main themes and concerns of the book" (36). Cayzer's remarks, of course, could be applied to any previous Dickens novel that Browne had illustrated, including the most recent, Little Dorrit (1857). The exceptions are The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge, both of which were illustrated by wood engravings dropped into the text of Master Humphrey's Clock. One naturally wonders what went so wrong with the illustrations for A Tale of Two Cities that prompted Dickens to terminate so abruptly a collaborative relationship that had lasted over two decades.
From the momentous time when the monthly parts of Pickwick revolutionized British publishing, Dickens had customarily collaborated with such artists as Seymour, Cruikshank, Browne, and Cattermole on the illustrations of his works. However, when it came to the weekly serialisation of his shorter novels Hard Times (1854), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), and Great Expectations (1860-61) in his own periodicals there was no such collaboration. Aware that his friend's work was becoming somewhat old-fashioned, Dickens severed an artistic relationship that had resulted in more than five hundred wrapper designs, title vignettes, and full-page illustrations for ten novels.
Since Dickens and Browne had collaborated for twenty-three years, the artist was much upset at "Dickens's strangely silent manner of breaking the connection." Writing to his friend and assistant, Robert Young, shortly before the publication of Great Expectations in late 1860), the artist remarks that
Marcus [Stone] is no doubt to do Dickens. I have been a 'good boy' I believe. The plates in hand are all in good time, so that I do not know what's 'up' any more than you. Dickens probably thinks a new hand would give his old puppets a fresh look, or perhaps he does not like my illustrating Trollope neck-and-neck with him — though, by Jingo, he need have no rivalry there! Confound all authors and publishers, I say. There is no pleasing one or t'other. I wish I had never had anything to do with the lot." [quoted in Hammerton, 42]
Ironically, although subsequent editions of A Tale of Two Cities were illustrated by 'new hands' (Marcus Stone and Fred Barnard in Great Britain, John McLenan in the Harper's Weekly serial in America), it is still Phiz's plates that have been most commonly chosen to accompany the text, as in the cases of The Penguin English Library Edition (1970) and The Oxford Illustrated Dickens (1948), "remarkably tame and lacking in dramatic spirit" (Hammerton, 430) as some, including paratextual Dickensian Michael Steig, may find them. The note of bitterness about all publishers and novelists in the closing of his letter to Young indicates that Browne sensed he was near the end of his career as an illustrator; in fact, he was already approaching the end of his working life, for in 1867 he suffered a stroke which limited his ability to produce illustrations of the quantity and quality that he had heretofore turned out, although he did not die until 12 July 1882.
Michael Steig in Dickens and Phiz notes that, while Browne's early Dickens plates are characterized by the artist's "use of iconographic techniques developed by Hogarth and his followers, especially emblematic detail" these diminish after David Copperfield, "disappearing entirely from the sixteen illustrations for A Tale of Two Cities" (3). From 1836 until 1859, Browne served as illustrator-in-chief of Dickens's writings, ten of the novels (as noted above) being illustrated by him in etching or in wood-engraving, besides various "extra illustrations," and numerous duplicate etchings. In the series of plates for A Tale of Two Cities, Steig notes a falling off in clarity and expressiveness, but recent research (Philip V. Allingham to David Parker, Professor Emeritus, Kingston University, London) has shown that Chapman and Hall, after the monthly serial run, substituted poorly bitten lithographs for Phiz's original etchings. Steig, however, attributes the breakup of the collaboration to Dickens's quest for a more contemporary "feel" in the illustrations for his later works:
A Tale of Two Cities . . . was the last of the novels upon which he was engaged, but there was no rupture in the friendship which had so long subsisted between him and Dickens, and we can only attribute the change to the very natural desire of the author to have his fiction illustrated by an artist of the younger school, whom he found in the son of his old friend, Frank Stone, A. R. A. [Hammerton, 10]
However, as Valerie Lester points out, Dickens appears to have felt put out by Phiz's unwillingness to discuss the illustrations as the pair had been accustomed to do. In "To Edward Chapman, 6 Oct. 1859," Dickens complains to his publisher: "I have not yet seen any sketches from Mr. Browne for No. 6 [to be published 31 Oct. 1859]. Will you see to this, without loss of time" (Letters IX 36). The Pilgrim editors note that Dickens "May have felt that Browne was dilatory and have resented the fact that he was simultaneously providing numerous illustrations for Once a Week. When the book was published as a volume, CD had his own copy bound without the plates." The rival weekly was one of the new, illustrated sort, and the other serialised novel on which Phiz had been working was Charles Lever's Davenport Dunn (1857-59), the plates for which Steig pronounces "more interesting than those for Dickens' novel" because of their incisive lines, "greater attention to detail, and a depiction of human figures which is charged with life and energy" (32). Thus, Dickens may well have felt that Phiz's superior work for Once a Week was preventing the illustrator from adhering to Chapman and Hall's publishing deadlines for the monthly numbers of A Tale of Two Cities, and that Phiz was failing to clear his conceptions at the draft stage with the novelist, who valued the opportunity to propose alterations and adjustments in the narrative-pictorial sequence in order to render it a more effective complement to his text.
Dickens failed to adapt his works to this new form, and seems for a time to have lost his former interest in illustration — for the first volume edition ofGreat Expectations (1861), for example, there were no illustrations at all. Only for the Library Edition of 1862 did Dickens decide that his curious story of Pip and the convict needed such embellishment, to be provided by one of the new generation of illustrators, Marcus Stone (all other illustrations for authorized British editions of Great Expectations were not executed until after Dickens's death, although American graphic artist John McLenan supplied a series of 40 illustrations for the novel's serial run in Harper's Weekly in the United States, 34 of which were subsequently reproduced in the T. B. Peterson single-volume edition of 1861). How strange was this apparent neglect in Dickens, who in producing the Christmas Books in the 1840s had worked so closely with such notable illustrators as John Leech, Clarkson Stanfield, John Tenniel, Richard Doyle, Daniel Maclise, Frank Stone, and Edward Landseer, developing the innovative technique of dropping the plates into the text. By 1862, however, Dickens was again considering artistic collaboration with some of the bright, young artists who were working on the new illustrated magazines, especially Luke Fildes, the "fanciful man" who served as the illustrator of his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870). Peter Ackroyd, author of a best-selling biography of Dickens, notes that the quality ofBrowne's work for Dickens had been falling off prior to 1859, and feels that Browne's "illustrations for A Tale of Two Cities were woefully sketchy and undramatic" (4).
The really important fact remains, however, that the particular symbiotic relationship between writer and artist had nowdisappeared; Dickens no longer needed Browne to give visual strength to his imaginative conceptions, and Browne had ceased to develop and enlarge his range in response to Dickens's own progress as an artist. [141-42]
The termination of the Dickens-Phiz collaboration coincided with the close of the Romantic period of nineteenth-century book-illustration (1820-60), which was both exotic and Gothic. However, there was no marked falling off in Phiz's productivity until the stroke he suffered in 1867 partially paralyzed his right arm. His most prolific year was 1857, when he illustrated ten books, including two each by Fielding, Smollett, and Lever, as well as works by Dickens (Little Dorrit), Halse, Mayhew, and Ainsworth. In contrast, from 1867 to 1882 he provided illustrations for only one or two books annually. After 1878, he was assisted by an annuity from the Royal Academy.
Phiz did no further etchings after his debilitating illness of 1867. Despite the partial paralysis caused by the stroke, however, he continued to produce illustrations for the publishing trade, providing designs for his seven of own books from 1868 to 1882. Moreover, during the last seven years of his life, he completed all the program of pictorial accompaniment for the 31-volume "Harry Lorrequer" Edition of Charles Lever's novels (1876-1878), plates for George Halse's A Salad of Stray Leaves. Since his illustrations which accompanied a complete edition of Shakespeare in 1882 are etchings, Valerie Browne Lester has concluded that the publisher had the plates on hand from a much earlier commission. With the renwed interest in Browne's work that occurred shortly after his death, the publisher (she theorizes) "remembered the plates and included them in an edition of Shakespeare" (private communication 11 June 2006) that was already planned.
Although he had refused throughout his life to work on Sundays, in his prime he etched four steels in ten working days — i. e., about ten per month or 120 per year. Amazingly, between his 1867 stroke and his death in 1882 he produced approximately one thousand drawings, including 57 new cuts for The Pickwick Papers in the 1874 Household Edition of Dickens's works. Many other artists, notably Fred Barnard, supplied the illustrations for the other volumes in that Chapman and Hall edition, which contains a total of 866 plates.
He continued working until his death in Brighton on 8 July 1882, just short of his sixty-seventh birthday, but after Dickens's death in 1870 Hablot Knight Browne was very much a relic of an earlier artistic era. In the 1860s, a new form of serialisation had developed as the old method of part-publication (separate monthly instalments) was replaced by instalment publication in unillustrated literary journals, which were in turn replaced in the 1870s by such premium illustrated weekly magazines as Once A Week, and Good Words, and the prestigious monthly The Cornhill. A satirist and caricaturist, Browne belonged to the school of Gilray and ultimately of Hogarth. Despite the fact that illustrators such as John McLenan in America continued to work in this mode, this humorous style suddenly looked outdated, especially in contrast to High Art of "The New Men of the Sixties," younger illustrators such as Marcus Stone and Luke Fildes, whose work shows the influence of the Pre-Raphaelite conception of beauty.
Among the authors whose works that Browne illustrated, aside from the novelists already highlighted — W. H. Ainsworth, Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett, and Charles Dickens — there were numerous minor writers, including Henry Winkles, Edward Caswall, James Grant, Stephen Oliver, R. S. Surtees, J. P. Robertson, G. W. M. Reynolds, G . H. Rodwell, W. J. Neale, Cornelius Mathews, G. T. Miller, Charles Rowcroft, J. C. Maitland, and F. E. Smedley, and a handful of major writers, including Sir Edward G. D. Bulwer-Lytton, Sir Walter Scott, Sheridan Le Fanu, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Maria Edgeworth, and George Gordon, Lord Byron.
Valerie Browne Lester’s recent biography of her great-great-grandfather lists eight works without definite date that Phiz illustrated in his twilight years, and, under the heading "Posthumous" (pp. 228-29) indicates that between 1883 and 1890 seven further works illustrated by the indefatigible Phiz appeared in print. Among the periodicals for which at one time or another he worked she gives the following among "occasional contributions": The New Monthly Magazine, Tinsley's Magazine, London Society, St. James's Magazine, The Illustrated Gazette, The Sporting Times, and The Welcome Guest. The following are the periodicals to which he was a more regular contributor:
- New Sporting Magazine, 1839-1843
- London Magazine, 1840
- Punch, 1842-1844; 1861-1869
- Great Gun, 1844
- Illustrated London News, 1844-1861
- Ainsworth's Magazine, 1844
- Illuminated Magazine, 1843-1845
- Sharpe's London Magazine, 1845-1847
- Union Magazine, 1846
- Man in the Moon, 1847
- Life, 1850
- Illustrated London Magazine, 1853-1855
- Illustrated Times, 1855-1856
- Once a Week, 1859-1865
- Autograph Mirror, 1865-1866
- Judy, 1869-1882. (page 229)
With an artistic career spanning the period 1836 to 1882, Phiz was a practising illustrator for some 47 years — in other words, approximately a decade longer than Charles Dickens was a professional writer.
In closing, I wish to acknowledge the assistance of Valerie Browne Lester in rooting out certain misconceptions about Phiz that had crept into my original Victorian Web biographical sketch of her great-great grandfather. [PVA]
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Last modified 29 December 2020