Legendary writer, Charles Dickens, was born on 200 year ago. London, the city that he called his ‘magic lantern’, is at the heart of the international bicentenary celebrations.
Journalist, novelist, philanthropist, editor, showman- Charles Dickens was a man of many talents and phenomenal energy. ‘Dickens and London’ at the museum of London is the first major exhibition on the writer in UK since 1970. Examining the vital relationship between Dickens and the city that was his home and inspiration, it conjures up a city of great change and contrasts, of considerable opportunity and great disadvantage, of huge wealth and grinding poverty. Contemporary photographs and paintings of the 19th-century city show everything from its distinguished men of letters and destitute underclass to decaying tenements and the ground-breaking engineering projects like the railway and tube networks that transformed the city and still carry millions of passengers every day.
Dickens witnessed and even experienced the overwhelming vagaries and mischance of modern urban life in the throes of the industrial revolution. An idyllic early childhood in kent ended abruptly when financial problems caused his family to move to London. A young Charles had his education disrupted his father’s imprisonment for dept. He never forgot that destitution which, for many, was just a stroke of bad luck away. It was high great empathy with the poor and disadvantaged that enabled him to create entertaining and compelling stories that addressed pressing social problems and fascinated readers across the social spectrum.
MEMENTOS OF A MASTER
It’s not long into the exhibition before you meet the reality of London life in the 19th century. The Watchman’s Box, which stood outside the entrance to Furnival’s Inn in Holborn, where young Charles Dickens lived at Number 15 with his wife Catherine, reflects the life of an upwardly mobile couple in a city that requires watchfulness at all times. Nearby, is the forbidding iron door from Newgate Prison studded with rivets, bolts, locks and sliding panels which the hardened criminal or the simply unfortunate found closing behind them.
In another display, the clay pipes, broken china and fragmented cooking pots excavated from jacob’s Island in Rotherhithe, where Bill Sikes meets a terrible end in Oliver Twist, echo the impoverished and fractured lives that were lived there. George Scharf’s beautifully detailed and evocative watercolours of street advertisers and men wending their way to work depict the grinding and stoical existence of the ordinary working man.
A LITTERATEUR AND A SHOWMAN
Other highlights are Dickens’ handwritten manuscripts that fill the pages with tiny, sometimes indecipherable, often corrected, and apparently hastily written script, as hi next instalment pours on to the page.
In a Britain at the height of the industrial revolution, he was an early adopter of the least technology-whether crossing the country on stage coaches as a young reporter, making full use of the penny post, crossing the Atlantic by steamship or taking countless journeys on the new railways-all while finding the time to traverse the city on foot by night in his famous night walks.
THE ARTIST IN ART
At the smaller exhibition, ‘Charles Dickens: Life & Legacy’ is on display in Room 24. There, in the company of other eminent early Victorians, you will find a young, dashing Charles Dickens, which, if only familiar with the greying, bearded, older man, will come as something of a shock. Painted by his friendDaniel Maclise in 1839, it captures the handsome 26-year old writer enjoying his first taste of fame. The Pickwick papers had been published to great acclaim only three years before and of this portrait Dickens wrote in a letter, ‘Maclise has made another face of me , which all people say is astonishing’. In sharp contrast, two portrait photographs Herbert Watkins in 1858 show the older, more familiar Dickens.
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