Dickens and the Artists @ The Watts Gallery

22 July 2012

The Watts Gallery in the little village of Compton, 3 miles west of Guildford, is dedicated to the memory of the Victorian artist George Frederic Watts (1817-1904). Originally built as a pottery workshop by his energetic wife during the 1890s, a long single-storey building with striking green tiled window arches, the building was converted into a gallery in the artist’s memory after his death. In the late noughties it was closed for a thorough restoration and reopened in June 2011.

Photo of the exterior of the Watts Gallery, Compton

As well as hosting a permanent collection of Watts’s paintings and sculpture the gallery puts on temporary exhibitions. All this summer, in the bicentenary year of Charles Dickens’ birth, it’s hosting an exhibition titled ‘Dickens and the Artists’ (on until 28 October).

First point is this exhibition does not include the illustrations to his novels. Shame. That would be a hilarious and fascinating and memory-jogging thing to see. Fascinating to see how the illustrations evolved and developed from Pickwick to Drood, to see the differences in style between the various illustrators; hilarious to be reminded of so many comic moments from the novels. But no…

Instead you get some of the many portraits of CD painted during his lifetime, a small number of paintings of scenes from his novels (of Little Nell, alone or with her grandfather) and two big, well-known paintings which represent Victorian taste for anecdote and social realism in painting – William Powell Frith’s Railway Station and Luke Fildes’ Applicants For Admission To A Casual Ward.

Various authorities are lined up to support the claim that Dickens’ work is uniquely painterly in concept and depiction. But I think this is wrong. a) Dickens had far more to do with the stage than with the static art of painting. Countless scenes from the novels owe everything to Victorian melodrama, especially the heightened scenes of terror and murder to be found in Oliver, Nickleby, Chuzzlewit. Dickens never painted anything but he was famous for putting on and starring in amateur theatricals throughout his life, and openly lamented not having become an actor. Dickens novels have far more to do with the Victorian stage in their gothic melodrama, sickening sentimentality, farcical humour and clunky plots. In fact, what the exhibition highlights is how few, how very few paintings any Victorian painter made of any scene from a Dickens novel. (The catalogue says there exist some 170 listed works from the start of his fame in about 1840 up till 1900 ie 3 a year. Not a lot given Dickens’s towering reputation). This is because the novels aren’t painterly; they are melodramatic in content and quintessentially verbal in their power.

b) The catalogue to the exhibition highlights various moments in his life when Dickens expressed opinions about art and it is crystal clear that his whole conception of art was very limited, almost incomprehensibly limited compared to a our 21st century view. In fact one of the main rewards of the exhibition is forcing you to drill back into the Victorian age’s idea of art, leaving behind the whole revolution of modern art, leaving behind conceptual art, installations, video art, modernism, expressionism, surrealism, impressionism, drilling right back to an era when all art was figurative and the main debating points were i) whether the artist had chosen an appropriate moment to depict from the well-known myth or historical incident or novel, and ii) having chosen it, whether they had depicted it with force and vividness. The combination of appropriate subject, properly handled, comprised Beauty. That’s it.

And when Dickens’ sense of what was a fitting subject or a fitting way to depict it was offended he became very upset indeed. His most famous comment on Victorian art is the article he wrote in 1850 denouncing pre-Raphaelite paintings included in that’s year’s Royal Academy show – ‘Old Lamps for New Ones‘:

“You come in this Royal Academy Exhibition, which is familiar with the works of WILKIE, COLLINS, ETTY, EASTLAKE, MULREADY, LESLIE, MACLISE, TURNER, STANFIELD, LANDSEER, ROBERTS, DANBY, CRESWICK, LEE, WEBSTER, HERBERT, DYCE, COPE, and others who would have been renowned as great masters in any age or country you come, in this place, to the contemplation of a Holy Family. You will have the goodness to discharge from your minds all Post-Raphael ideas, all religious aspirations, all elevating thoughts, all tender, awful, sorrowful, ennobling, sacred, graceful, or beautiful associations, and to prepare yourselves, as befits such a subject Pre-Raphaelly considered for the lowest depths of what is mean, odious, repulsive, and revolting. “

Dickens is incensed by John Everett Millais’ painting ‘Christ in the House of His Parents’.

Christ in the House of His Parents by John Everett Millais (1850)

“You behold the interior of a carpenter’s shop. In the foreground of that carpenter’s shop is a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy, in a bed-gown, who appears to have received a poke in the hand, from the stick of another boy with whom he has been playing in an adjacent gutter, and to be holding it up for the contemplation of a kneeling woman, so horrible in her ugliness, that (supposing it were possible for any human creature to exist for a moment with that dislocated throat) she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest ginshop in England. Two almost naked carpenters, master and journeyman, worthy companions of this agreeable female, are working at their trade; a boy, with some small flavor of humanity in him, is entering with a vessel of water; and nobody is paying any attention to a snuffy old woman who seems to have mistaken that shop for the tobacconist’s next door, and to be hopelessly waiting at the counter to be served with half an ounce of her favourite mixture. Wherever it is possible to express ugliness of feature, limb, or attitude, you have it expressed. Such men as the carpenters might be undressed in any hospital where dirty drunkards, in a high state of varicose veins, are received. Their very toes have walked out of Saint Giles’s.”

Because it is Dickens, the review is wonderfully spirited: all his tricks are here: pounding repetition, exuberant description, brilliant pen portraits, sarcasm and exaggeration. And then a hilarious flight of Swiftian satire looking forward to the launch of a Pre-Perspective Brotherhood which rejects the tedious convention of perspective,  to be followed by a Pre-Newtonian Brotherhood which rejects gravity, a Pre-Galileo Brotherhood which denies that the earth goes round the sun, and so on.

His demolition of Millais is entirely characteristic. It echoes the scorn he poured on the reams of religious art he saw in his Pictures From Italy a few years earlier, in 1846. In Art with a capital A he expected to see only the finest moments from religion, history or fiction depicted in an idealised manner. He considered the Hemicycle by Paul Delaroche to be “the greatest work of art in the world”.

Central section of the Hémicycle, 1841–1842 bu Paul Delaroche

Anything less than this Ideal of Beauty Dickens dismissed, sometimes angrily. And as to the connoisseurship and scholarship surrounding art, instead of exploring it, Dickens found it an entertaining target for his satire, or worse. As Nicholas Penny’s essay in the catalogue makes clear, when a Dickens character like art it is always a bad sign; an indication that they are too rich, too selfish and too introspective, like Sir Leicester Dedlock in Bleak House; or are a cold-hearted villain, like Carker in Dombey and Son. There is only one artist in all Dicken’s works, the bullying, spongeing, failed artist, Henry Gowan in Little Dorrit.

In a philistine age, Dickens was a philistine. As in his politics, so in his feelings about art, he shared the common tastes and prejudices of the time. Dickens’ characters inspired remarkably little serious art in their day (book illustrations by the thousand; paintings by ‘serious’ artists, not so many); Dickens himself liked mediocre Academy art and reacted badly to the new, innovatory movements of his day. He was much more at home with the book illustrators who made cartoons of his gargoyles and grotesques.

And Dickens’ work is not painterly; it is wonderfully, bountifully, exuberantly melodramatic, sentimental and above all verbal, literary, made of words.

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