Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Happy 200th, Dickens!

Today marks the bicentennial of Charles Dickens birth. I'm sure it will be noted with celebration and discussions of the author's outstanding body of work. However, many of us who love the Pre-Raphaelites balance out any appreciation of his writing (as outstanding as it may be) with confusion toward his passionate hatred toward the artists we so adore.

Dickens was extremely outspoken in his dislike toward the works of the Brotherhood at their inception. In fact, the outright hostility of his reaction seems to beg the question of just why they seemed to stir his ire so completely. It is hard to read his description of their work even today. In speaking of Millais' classic Christ in the House of His Parents, Dickens said:

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.

....Ouch. Very very ouch. It is hard to imagine any critic who would be willing to be quite so cruel in their expression of distaste for a modern piece. The only word to use for Dicken's distaste toward the Brotherhood is one I've already used: passionate. He hated their work passionately...so passionately that it truly does beg the question of whether Dickens was allowing some personal bias or reflection to cloud his professional and artistic judgment when he viewed the art of the Brotherhood.

The old saying goes that there's no such thing as bad publicity, but with no real advocate yet on the side of the Brotherhood, Dickens stinging words bit badly. Ruskin may have stepped in to save the day with his glowing review of the Pre-Raphaelites, but until that time, Dickens was the voice of God to the public, and his tainted words tainted their opinion of these beautiful works.

The members of the Brotherhood were also disappointed because they considered the works of Dickens to be an inspiration. Hunt's The Awakening Conscience was inspired by David Copperfield. Dickens painted word-images of modern England that had no other rival for their grit and authenticity. The Brotherhood sought to do the same with their artwork: Truth to nature.

Just a few short years later, Dickens had an opportunity to meet Millais in person, and showered him with praises for his "genius"...in fact, Dickens' own daughter, Kate Dickens Perugini, modeled for Millais' painting The Black Brunswicker.

And on the death of Dickens, Millais came "to do a death cast, but settled for a pencil drawing." How strange that such a passionate denial of their talent should transform into an enthusiastic friendship. Hunt and Millais both left memoirs in which they described Dickens as a great talent, great friend, and great pain-in-the-backside.

I truly wish there was a way to know for sure the source behind Dickens' initial vehement and passionate hatred for the Brotherhood. But as another famous author once said, "all's well that ends well." Happy 200th Birthday, Mr. Dickens. Thank you for a lifetime of writing masterpieces. And thank you for changing your mind about the Brotherhood.

(Many thanks to an article by Thomas J Tobin for much of the information in this post)


Pegasus said...

Dickens (and even his criticisms) is beyond criticism!
Hail to the man who once said:"We forge the chains we wear in life."

mathyld ▲ under the pyramids ▲ said...

Thank you for a heartfelt (and very complete) post !
Happy 200th, Mr D.

x x x

Myna said...

The criticism of the P.R.B. by notables, such as by Charles Dickens, comes from the depiction of religious themes in a thoroughly realistic setting, which was, at the time, considered sacrilegious. Because the Brotherhood kept their existence secret until the unveiling at the Royal Academy in 1849, those "in the know" were quite offended. The bottom line is, the P.R.B. upset the apple cart in style and Victorians could be very stodgy when it came to what was, and what was not, acceptable.

Wonderful blog. I have enjoyed following it for a long while and thought today I would add a note.

Grace said...

Pegasus, I mostly agree, though it's hard to hear his take on the Brotherhood all the same ;)

Mathyld, thanks so much!

Myna, excellent point about the realism of religious material. Thanks for commenting, and thanks for reading!!

Hilton said...

Have you read the biography of Burne-Jones written by Ms. MacCarthy, madam? (My copy should arrive tomorrow.)

" Slack and slumbering senses must be addressed with thunder and heavy fireworks. But the voice of beauty speaks gently: it speaks only to the most awakened souls."

Grace said...

I hope to order her book very soon! My husband bought me several other Pre-Raphaelite books for Christmas that I want to get through first, as I've heard Fiona's book is a heavy, if excellent, doorstop of a book. :) Please do let me know what you think of it!!

Hilton said...

Your husband must be a fine gentleman, then!

Have you read this review? (I must acquire the books referenced in the article.)


Sheila said...

I have the feeling that Dickens would gnash his teeth if he knew that I was going to 'eff up his birthday post you did here by saying that I attended The Cult of Beauty exhibit at The Legion of Honor last weekend! (<--- longest sentence ever?)

I thought of your blog while there! Getting to see the P.R.B.'s art in person was awesome. Waterhouse, Leighton.... amazing. Anthony Frederick Sandys' "Proud Maisie" (hair-biting drawing) was also there! The gift shop has so much Pre-Raphaelite stuff right now..... Auuuggghhh!

I actually went last weekend because it was the last weekend to see Bernini's Medusa on display. :) It's beautiful. I knew I had time to see The Cult of Beauty since it's running through June, but I still had to check it out, even though the museum was about to close. I plan on going back.

Will stop yelling and post this comment now!

Grace said...

Sheila, color me green with envy!! I especially would love to know what all goodies were in that gift shop!

Sheila said...

Imagine walking into a gift shop with all things Pre-Raphaelite and Victorian....*insert harp music here*. Books, prints, note cards, jewelry inspired by that time period, cups, plates, etc....the list goes on. They even have an exclusive book they've published titled "The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860-1900".

Here's a link to the gift shop that shows some of what I'm talking about....not all of it is available on the website, from what I'm seeing.... You might want to bury your credit card in the back yard first:


Hope that link ends up being clickable once I submit this comment....


Grace said...

Much drooling!