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)