'Dickens and the Artists'
Green, Richard, British Art Journal
'Dickens and the Artists'
Watts Gallery, Compton
19 June-28 October 2012
Mark Bills, ed, with Pat Hardy, Leonee Ormond, Nicholas Penny and Hilary Underwood Dickens and the Artists
Yale University Press, New Haven and London, in association with Watts Gallery, Compton, 2012, 17.95 [pounds sterling], 200 pp, ills, ISBN 978-0-300-189889
Following a complete and sympathetic refurbishment, the Watts Gallery re-opened in June 2011 Now presenting its collection of works by George Frederic Watts to full advantage, the Gallery has also rapidly established itself as a venue for small-scale, closely focused exhibitions, some dealing with particular facets of Watts (for example, G.F. Watts: The Hall of Fame: Portraits of his Famous Contemporaries, held earlier in 2012), others examining aspects of the art of his time with which he may (or may not) have been associated. Just one of the Gallery's paintings, Song of the Shirt, illustrating Thomas Hood's poem of the same name and representing a brief period in the late 1840s when Watts concerned himself with social-realist themes, was given an appropriate place in Dickens and the Artists. This thoughtfully conceived exhibition, marking the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens's birth, benefited from several fortuitous circumstances, making crucial loans possible--the otherwise untimely closure of the Dickens Museum, London, during 2012, the fact that the Victoria and Albert Museum (holding the collection of Dickens's friend and biographer John Forster) was nor celebrating the bicentenary, and the proximity of Royal Holloway College, Egham. From Thomas Holloway's collection were lent William Powell Frith's The Railway Station and Luke Fildes's Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward which, together, anchored the second, larger, room of the show, devoted to the influence of Dickens on the work of his artist contemporaries.
The first room covered several inter-related themes, including Dickens's role as an art critic, his friendships with artists and his own art collection. Dickens did not write regularly about art, but one early piece of criticism has achieved notoriety, being referred to in virtually every account of Pre-Raphaelite painting, namely his vitriolic censure of John Everett Millais's Christ in the House of his Parents, when exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1850. It was the detailed, down-to-earth realism of the painting (represented here by a small replica by Rebecca Solomon, completed by Millais himself) that Dickens hated--ironically in view of his own approach to novel writing. The display nearby of a corrected page-proof of this review, for Household Words, demonstrated how Dickens seized the opportunity to intensify his invective. The child Jesus, who has 'received a poke in the hand from the stick of another boy with whom he has been playing in an adjacent gutter', previously appeared, less brutally, to have 'lost a game at cards, and to be holding up the ace of diamonds' (perhaps Dickens had in the meantime looked more closely at the painting); while, at the end of the same paragraph the addition of 'in a high state of varicose veins' cruelly reinforced the original description of the two 'almost naked' carpenters. Dickens's daughter Kate Perugini later sought to excuse this ferocity by suggesting that Millais's interpretation shocked her father because he would already have had a clear expectation of how the subject should be treated. However, Nicholas Penny in his 'Dickens and Philistinism', the first of five excellent essays in the accompanying publication, robustly denounces the review as 'deplorable', demonstrating merely that the writer had 'no understanding of the growing awareness of medieval or early Renaissance art across Europe, which was a precondition ... for the innovations of Millais and his friends.'
Although painters, notably Miss La Creevy in Nicholas Nickleby and Henry Gowan in Little Dorrit, feature only rarely in his novels, Dickens counted a good number of artists amongst his friends. …