Michael Brown on the War Paintings of Charles Bell, Surgeon

Reposted from the Surgery & Emotion Blog

WARNING: CONTAINS GRAPHIC IMAGES OF WOUNDS AND INJURIES

Pity and Pride: Picturing the War Wounded in the Work of Charles Bell

November 2019

 

Dr Michael Brown of Roehampton University considers the emotional content of the famous war paintings of the surgeon Charles Bell.

I recently had an article accepted for publication by the Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies which explores the relationship of the Scottish surgical siblings John Bell (1763-1820) and Charles Bell (1774-1842) to war, especially their imaginative and professional investment in military surgery and their complex emotional reactions to the experience of treating the wounded. Drawing on Yuval Noah Harari’s argument that the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw war configured as an increasingly transcendent emotional event, it considers the difficulties of translating both professional identities and emotional experiences across a widening civil-military divide.[1]

In this regard, what is particularly interesting about both John and Charles Bell is that neither man was a military surgeon.  While Charles wrote in 1807 that ‘of all things I should like to be kept and sent to the armies as a surgeon’ and while John agitated for a role in the training of military surgeons, neither had served in the army or navy and neither had any direct experience of battle.[2]   And yet, in their work, both men imagined themselves as battlefield surgeons, harnessing the emotional and cultural capital of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars to shape their identities as surgeons.

While John Bell’s engagement with the war wounded is not especially well known outside of specialist circles, his younger brother’s experiences are far more widely discussed.  This derives, in part, from the emotionally expressive letters that he sent back to England from Brussels in the aftermath of Waterloo. Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) said that reading one of Charles’ letters to his brother George (1770-1843) ‘set me on fire’ and it served as inspiration both for his own trip to the Continent as well as his semi-fictional account of Waterloo, Paul’s Letters to his Kinsfolk (1816).[3] But even more than his letters, it is Charles’ paintings of the war wounded that have excited academic attention, and it is revealing that, outside of medical history, interest in Charles Bell has largely come from art historians such as Anthea Callan, Aris Sarafianos and, most notably of all, Philip Shaw.[4]

There is much more to be said about Charles’ experiences of the effects of war and how his emotional self-reflection fits within the wider affective cultures of what I call ‘Romantic surgery’.  This aspect, which is frequently overlooked by those who view him predominantly as an artist, rather than a surgeon, is what my article seeks to do.  But even in terms of his art, which has been subject to far greater critical scrutiny, there is still more to be said. In the main, scholars have been attracted to his images of the wounded of Waterloo and have emphasised his representation of pain and suffering, as well as his evocation of sublime pathos. By contrast, they have said rather less about his earlier paintings of the wounded from the Battle of Corunna (1809), men whom he encountered during his trip to Halsar Hospital in Gosport and, later, at York Hospital in Chelsea.

These paintings exhibit certain similarities to his later sketches from Brussels, particularly in their visceral quality.  This is certainly true of his images of gunshot wounds to the skull, thigh and testicles (Figs 1, 2 and 3).

Fig. 1 – Charles Bell, ‘Musket Ball Wound of Skull’ (1809). Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
Fig. 1 – Charles Bell, ‘Musket Ball Wound of Skull’ (1809). Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
Fig. 2 – Charles Bell, ‘Gunshot Wound of Thigh’ (1809). Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
Fig. 2 – Charles Bell, ‘Gunshot Wound of Thigh’ (1809). Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
Fig. 3 - Charles Bell, ‘Gunshot wound of testes’ (1809). Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
Fig. 3 – Charles Bell, ‘Gunshot wound of testes’ (1809). Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.

But, in other respects, they differ. For one thing, they are more obviously painterly, since they are finished in oils. For another, they are just as enamoured of male beauty as they are concerned with bodily disfigurement. Take, for example, his three images of chest and abdominal wounds (Figs 4, 5 and 6).

Fig. 4 – Charles Bell, ‘Gunshot Wound of the Chest’ (1809). Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
Fig. 4 – Charles Bell, ‘Gunshot Wound of the Chest’ (1809). Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
Fig. 5 – Charles Bell, ‘Gunshot Wound of Abdomen’ (1809). Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
Fig. 5 – Charles Bell, ‘Gunshot Wound of Abdomen’ (1809). Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
Fig. 6 – Charles Bell, ‘Gunshot Wound of Chest’ (1809). Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
Fig. 6 – Charles Bell, ‘Gunshot Wound of Chest’ (1809). Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.

In Fig. 4, in particular, the pose, though no doubt calculated to display the wound, resonates with the poses of other male models, especially boxers, who were regular subjects of the anatomical and artistic gaze.   Meanwhile, in other instances, the men’s display of their wounds evokes the traditions of Christian iconography, notably the stigmata (Fig. 7) and religious ecstasy (Fig. 8), as well as contemporary neoclassical subjects such as Jacques Louis David’s Death of Marat (1793) (Fig. 9).

Fig. 7 – Giacomo Galli, Christ Displaying his Wounds (c.1630). Perth and Kinross Council.
Fig. 7 – Giacomo Galli, Christ Displaying his Wounds (c.1630). Perth and Kinross Council.
Fig. 8 – Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio, Mary Magdalen in Ecstasy (1606). Wikimedia Commons.
Fig. 8 – Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio, Mary Magdalen in Ecstasy (1606). Wikimedia Commons.
Fig. 9 – Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat (1793). Wikimedia Commons.
Fig. 9 – Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat (1793). Wikimedia Commons.

That Charles should have conceived of his sitters in this way is hardly surprising. He was well schooled in art theory, having published a book on the expression of emotion in painting (1806) and competed (unsuccessfully) for the chair of Anatomy at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1807. Moreover, his interest in the male form and its representation is well documented in his letters. In 1808, for example, he wrote to George that he ‘had been grumbling for some days that comparisons of the modern athletes and the antique had been making, and exhibitions of Jackson, the boxer, etc. without my presence [sic]’.  However, ‘On Saturday when I came home I found that Lord Elgin had called, and written a note requesting me to come and see an exhibition of the principal sparrers naked in his museum. I went, and was much pleased’.[5] Furthermore, when writing to his bother about the ‘his gun-shot men’, he told him how he sought to learn from the ‘best old masters’ how to convey a ‘faithful’ representation that is ‘full of character’, as opposed to the ‘modern’ style in which the individual was ‘shaded off and indistinct’.[6]

At the same time, the ambivalence of Charles’ Corunna paintings, torn as they are between beauty and horror, pride and pity, can be ascribed to Charles’s complex affective response to Haslar. As he wrote to George, concerning his experiences with the wounded, ‘I have muttered bitter curses and lamentations, have been delighted with the heroism and prowess of my countrymen, and shed tears of pity in the course of a few minutes’.[7] In this way, Charles’ paintings can be seen to exemplify a range of emotional responses that were utterly in keeping with contemporary cultural norms, namely the religious (‘bitter curses and lamentations’), the patriotic (‘heroism and prowess of my countrymen’) and the sentimental (‘tears of pity’).

Charles’ images of the Waterloo wounded share certain qualities with his earlier paintings. The faces of the men, in particular, speak to his interest in the representation of intense emotion, approaching on occasion to what Sarafianos and Shaw have identified as sublime pain.  But, in other respects, they are more ragged, less obviously aestheticized and perhaps more shocking.  No doubt, this owes something to the medium: watercolours after pencil sketches done at the bedside.  It also owes something to the severity of the wounds themselves, which in a number of cases are particularly extreme (Figs 10 and 11). But, as with his Corunna images, they also reflect Charles’ emotional experiences in Brussels.

Fig. 10 – Charles Bell, ‘(Upper extremity) Anonymous soldier’ (c.1815). Wikimedia Commons.
Fig. 10 – Charles Bell, ‘(Upper extremity) Anonymous soldier’ (c.1815). Wikimedia Commons.
Fig. 11 – Charles Bell, ‘(Upper extremity), Voultz, King’s German Legion’ (c.1815). Wikimedia Commons.
Fig. 11 – Charles Bell, ‘(Upper extremity), Voultz, King’s German Legion’ (c.1815). Wikimedia Commons.

Much of Charles’s surgical work was with the French wounded, who had been ‘brought from the field after lying many days in the ground, many dying, many in the agony, many miserably racked with pain and spasms’.[8] While at Haslar his emotional equipoise had been tested, but in Brussels it was almost overwhelmed, as he was confronted by the ‘most shocking sights of woe’.[9] In this regard it is interesting that, where one might expect his French patients, or even those members of the King’s German Legion whom he treated, to be ‘othered’, his sketches largely preserve the names of his Waterloo subjects, whereas those of his British subjects from Corunna remain anonymous. Despite referring to the French troops as a fierce, cruel and bloodthirsty ‘race of banditti’, he was deeply moved by their ‘plaintive cries and declarations of suffering’.[10]  It is almost as if he wished to preserve, in their names, a testament to the humanity of those whose suffering he witnessed and sought to relieve (Fig. 12).

Fig. 12 – Charles Bell, ‘(Abdomen) Peltier, 3rd French Lancers’ (c.1815). Wikimedia Commons.
Fig. 12 – Charles Bell, ‘(Abdomen) Peltier, 3rd French Lancers’ (c.1815). Wikimedia Commons.

Indeed, Charles’ graphic images from Waterloo might even be regarded as a kind of emotional catharsis, an expression of sensations that were so intense as to defy language. After his return to London he wrote a letter to his friend, the Whig MP Francis Horner (1778-1817); following a lengthy description of his experiences, he apologised for ‘falling into the mistake of attempting to convey to you the feelings which took possession of me, amidst the miseries of Brussels’. Acknowledging the ineffability of what he had seen, he concluded by suggesting that ‘I must show you my notebooks, for as I took my notes of cases generally by sketching the object our remarks, it may convey an excuse for the excess of sentiment’.[11]

 

[1] Yuval Noah Harari, The Ultimate Experience: Battlefield Revelations and the Making of Modern War Culture, 1450-2000 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

[2] Letters of Charles Bell (London: 1870)  Charles to George Bell, 21st May 1807, p. 96.

[3] John Gibson Lockhart, Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, Bart, vol. 3 (Edinburgh: 1837), p. 347-50. See

[4] Anthea Callen, Looking at Men: Art, Anatomy and the Modern Male Body (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018); Aris Sarafianos, ‘Wounding realities and “painful excitements”: real sympathy, the imitation of suffering and the visual arts after Burke’s sublime’, in Thomas Macsotay, Corneils van der Haven and Karel Vanhaesebrouck (eds), The Hurt(ful) Body: Performing and Beholding Pain, 1600-1800 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017), 170-201; Philip Shaw, Suffering and Sentiment in Romantic Military Art (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2013). Shaw is not an art historian in the conventional sense, but his book is largely concerned with visual representation.

[5] Letters, Charles to George Bell, 26th July 1808, pp. 125-6.

[6] Ibid., Charles to George Bell, 23rd May 1809, pp. 147-8.

[7] Ibid., Charles to George Bell, 3rd February 1809, p. 139.

[8] Ibid., Charles to George Bell, 1st July 1815, p. 241.

[9] Ibid., Charles to Francis Horner, July 1815, p. 248.

[10] Ibid., Charles to George Bell, 1st July 1815, pp. 242-3.

[11] Ibid., Charles to Francis Horner, July 1815, p. 248.

Image of the Month: Caricature of Darwin and the crew of the Beagle

painting-depicting-charles-darwin

Lot 10, ‘English Literature, History, Childrens’ Books and Illustrations’ Sale, 15 December 2015, Sotheby’s London. Earle, Augustus (attrib.) CARICATURE GROUP PORTRAIT ON BOARD HMS BEAGLE Watercolour, entitled “Quarter Deck of a Man of War on Diskivery [sic] or interesting Scenes on an Interesting Voyage”, depicting Darwin together with ten other figures, all crew members of HMS Beagle, including Robert FitzRoy and three other officers, shipboard with fossils, botanical and mineralogical specimens, some with captions, several figures with nautical and surveying instruments, each figure with a speech bubble with words written above in black ink, single sheet (340 x 205 mm), watercolour and ink on paper (Whatman Mill watermark, undated), [Bahía Blanca, Argentina, on or around 24 September, 1832]; some creasing and light staining, mounted. http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2014/english-literature-history-childrens-books-illustrations-l15408/lot.10.html

Last month, Sotheby’s in London sold for £52,500 the only known painting of the naturalist Charles Darwin aboard the HMS Beagle.

The watercolour, painted by Augustus Earle (1793–1838) was offered in the English Literature, History, Children’s Books and Illustrations sale in London. Darwin (giving a long-winded description of an insect), Captain Robert Fitzroy, and various officers and sailors are all depicted: it captures the bustle of Darwin’s historic expedition, while the speech bubbles hint at in-jokes and standing jokes from the voyage. An officer, thought to be 1st Lt John Clements Wickham, complains: “There is no such thing as walking the deck for all these cursed specimens!”

zoomable digital image of the caricature is available on Sotheby’s website, along with an article on the caricature on Sotheby’s rare books blog Bibliofile.

 

 

Image of the Month: ‘Edward the Black Prince; or, the Battle of Poictiers’ (Mariana and Arnold) 1791

Illustration to William Shirley's 'Edward the Black Prince', scene 3, from Bell's 'British Theatre' series; at the door of a tent, a girl kneels in pleading with a knight turning from her to right, another girl standing behind in round frame with elaborate frame; sheet trimmed and pasted within platemark in imitation of an india proof. 1792. British Museum. Museum no. 1875,0710.3387 http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=3041464&partId=1&searchText=edward+the+black+prince&page=1

Illustration to William Shirley’s ‘Edward the Black Prince’, scene 3, from Bell’s ‘British Theatre’ series; sheet trimmed and pasted within platemark in imitation of an india proof. 1792.
British Museum.
Museum no.
1875,0710.3387
http://www.britishmuseum.org/ research/collection_online/ collection_object_details.aspx? objectId=3041464&partId= 1&searchText=edward+the +black+prince&page=1 Used under a Creative Commons License http://creativecommons.org/ licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/

This month, Anne Musset (PhD Candidate, History of Art, University of Warwick/Université Paris-Diderot) discusses an illustration to Bell’s British Theatre:

‘This image, engraved by Joseph Collyer after William Hamilton, is an illustration of William Shirley’s historical tragedy Edward the Black Prince; or, the Battle of Poictiers. It is taken from the 1791 edition of the play in the hugely popular series Bell’s British Theatre. Shirley’s play, “attempted after the Manner of Shakespear”, was first performed in 1750 and remained popular thanks to its combination of romance and heroic action.[1] It is based on the Battle of Poitiers (1356) and stages the Black Prince as a charismatic military leader and a tender friend. A second plot focuses on the tragic love between English knight Arnold and his French prisoner Mariana. The play afforded moments of heroism and of pathos, as well as opportunities for political parallelisms and medieval pageantry.

As an illustrator, Hamilton contributed to all the major literary and historical galleries of the period. In the 1780s and 1790s he realised several vignettes and portraits for Bell’s British Theatre. The passage illustrated takes place in Act III, when Mariana and Arnold have defected to the French camp, but Arnold feels remorse at betraying his country and the Prince’s friendship. He resolves to leave Mariana and return to the English camp. Mariana, whose violent passion constantly places her on the brink of madness, attempts to prevent his departure.

The costume in Hamilton’s scene evinces a combination of styles. Mariana’s dress is rather Baroque in style, but the high waists of the ladies’ dresses correspond to the fashion of the 1790s. The slashed sleeves and ruffled collar of Mariana’s attendant are historicising details commonly found in eighteenth-century theatrical costuming to signify an earlier historical period, from the Middle Ages to the seventeenth century.[2] For Hamilton, slashed sleeves seem to be a prerequisite to the illustration of the past. Arnold’s costume is inspired by seventeenth-century rather than medieval armour. By the end of the eighteenth century, few works on costume and armour had been published in Britain, and historical painters often sought inspiration from the armouries in the Tower of London – but none of the exhibits were older than the sixteenth century. What the image achieves is an evocation of the past as the background for the sentimental drama, rather than an archaeological reconstruction of the middle ages.

The function of referring to the fourteenth century with more precision is devoted to the image’s frame: there we find direct allusions to France and England, in the form of an elaborate display of arms, armour and standards. The display has both a decorative and a narrative function. It features the banners of England and France along with a pike, a sword and a pair of gauntlets, on either side of a helmet crowned with the three ostrich feathers of the Prince of Wales and bearing his motto “Ich dien”. The frame firmly reinforces the political drama unfolding in the background, suggesting that the situation depicted originates in the political choices of monarchs, or conversely, that individual, private decisions can affect events in the political sphere. The hangings in the picture seem to merge with the armorial display of the frame, which reinforces the connection between the sentimental and the historical plots. The gauntlets on either side of the helmet appear to be holding the picture, as if presenting the image to the viewer, or exerting control over the scene. The slightly ominous gauntlets, shadow under the helmet and agitated clouds (which seem a continuation of the French standard) suggest that war will get the upper hand over the lovers.

An illustration of the historical tragedy, the image also participated in the construction of the genre of historical romance, balancing theatrical references and antiquarianism in a pathetic farewell scene. While the play claims to be staging historical fact, the illustration focuses on romance. At the same time, it retains a strong connection to the battle and the figure of the Prince of Wales thanks to its background and its highly decorative frame. Visually, the scene is reminiscent of other famous farewell scenes, such as Hector parting from Andromache or Regulus returning to Carthage – both subjects that had been regularly depicted by European artists in the second half of the century. Through such associations, the book illustration takes on aspects of history painting. As a consequence, Mariana, Arnold and British history are aligned with ancient Greek and Roman history, just as Shirley was aiming to align his own tragedy with the works of Shakespeare.’

Anne Musset
University of Warwick/Université Paris-Diderot

[1] See Jeffrey Kahan, Shakespeare Imitations, Parodies and Forgeries, 1710-1820 (Taylor & Francis, 2004), vol. 1.

[2] Diana De Marly, Costume on the Stage 1600-1940 (London: Batsford, 1982), pp.52-23.

Image of the Month: William Blake, Sealing the Stone and Setting a Watch (c.1800-1803).

Blake Sealing the Stone

William Blake, Sealing the Stone and Setting a Watch (c.1800-1803). Watercolor, with pen, in gray ink, black ink and graphite on moderately thick, slightly textured, wove paper. Yale Center for British Art, Yale Art Gallery Collection, Everett V. Meeks, B.A. 1901 Fund.

In an ‘Image of the Month’ in February, I wrote about Blake’s watercolour Mary Magdalen at the Sepulchre (c.1805). In this post, I’m jumping back a bit to another of Blake’s watercolour illustrations to the Bible, Sealing the Stone and Setting a Watch (c.1800-03), which depicts a moment slightly earlier in the biblical narrative, and was probably also produced several years earlier (the exact dates of these works are not known, but they have been assigned dates based on stylistic features).

The text illustrated is Matthew 27:66 which describes the sealing of Jesus’ tomb on the day after his death and burial. The chief priests and Pharisees had heard Jesus say that he would rise again on the third day, and they feared that the disciples would try to take away the body to fabricate a resurrection. They therefore asked Pilate to secure the tomb, so he sent a watch and instructed them make the tomb as sure as they could (27:62-65).

In Blake’s illustration, the task is being undertaken very diligently. At the centre of the design is a young man balancing on a ladder, holding a palette of cement and a knife. He is turning to his right, directed by a priest standing below who appears to be pointing out a gap in the cement for the young man to seal. There are two more priests to the left of the ladder, and five soldiers are standing guard.

This is a relatively unusual subject, which is perhaps unsurprising; illustrators of the New Testament have tended to focus on the acts of Jesus and his disciples, not on those of Jesus enemies. We cannot be certain whether the subject was chosen by Blake or by his patron, Thomas Butts; either way, its inclusion in the series of biblical illustrations emphasises that the tomb was firmly shut. Thus, when Blake added The Angels Hovering over the body of Christ in the Sepulchre (c.1805, V&A) to the series, he was giving the viewer privileged access to a scene inside the firmly-sealed tomb, and then in The Angel Rolling Away the Stone from the Sepulchre (c.1805, V&A) and The Resurrection (c.1805, Fogg Art Museum), Blake depicts Christ bursting that seal.

As a stand-alone design the subject may not have obvious appeal, but in a series of illustrations to the narrative of Jesus’ death and resurrection, Sealing the Stone and Setting a Watch plays a key role.

Naomi Billingsley (Manchester)

Image of the Month: William Blake, ‘Mary Magdalen at the Sepulchre’ (c.1805).

William Blake, 'Mary Magdalen at the Sepulchre' (c.1805). Watercolor with pen and ink on paper. 17 1/4 x 12 1/4 inches (43.8 x 31.1 cm). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.  http://collections.britishart.yale.edu/vufind/Record/1670856

William Blake, ‘Mary Magdalen at the Sepulchre’ (c.1805). Watercolor with pen and ink on paper. 17 1/4 x 12 1/4 inches (43.8 x 31.1 cm). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
http://collections.britishart.yale.edu/vufind/Record/1670856

February’s ‘Image of the Month’ comes from Naomi Billingsley, PhD Candidate in Religions and Theology, University of Manchester, and recipient of a Bibliographical Society Studentship to assist with attendance at the third RIN symposium, ‘Literary Galleries’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is one of approximately eighty watercolour illustrations to the Bible produced by William Blake for his loyal patron Thomas Butts (a civil servant) between 1800 and about 1805 (several designs were added after this date but the majority were completed in this five-year period).[1] It is not clear how these designs originally functioned as illustrations: they may have extra-illustrated a large Bible or they might have been kept in their own portfolio or volume as a Bible in pictures.[2]

The design is from c.1805 and depicts Mary Magdalene at the tomb (or sepulchre) of Jesus; it is probably an illustration to John 20, because in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, there are others with Mary when she goes to the tomb, and it is John that mentions Mary seeing ‘two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain’, which Blake has included in the design (v. 12). However, Blake has compressed several moments in the narrative together in a single frame: in John’s account Mary stays ‘without’ the tomb and stoops to look inside (v. 11); she then turns around and sees Jesus but mistakes him for a gardener (v. 14). Although Blake has placed Mary on the threshold of the tomb, she is at the bottom of a flight of steps leading down to it, and so she is not stooping; Jesus stands at the top of the steps above her.

Blake has probably chosen this arrangement for compositional reasons: the design’s symmetry is characteristic of Blake’s ‘gothic’ style in this period. Indeed, this watercolour is one of six similarly symmetrical and near-monochrome designs of the death and resurrection of Christ which seem to form a sub-group within the series of biblical watercolours (The Crucifixion and the following designs – not including #499 or #503 – viewable via the Blake Archive).

Blake’s use of composition may also make a theological point. Jesus and Mary are directly aligned in the central vertical portion of the design; their arm gestures are almost identical and there is eye contact between them (see the Blake Archive’s image enlargement). This may be an expression of Blake’s idea that every person is an embodiment of Jesus – as articulated, for example, in his statement to Henry Crabb Robinson that Jesus ‘Is the only God… And so am I and so are you’[3] and his aphorism ‘The Eternal Body of Man is The Imagination. that is God himself | ישע Jesus | The Divine Body | we are his Members’.[4] So we might read Mary Magdalene here as a member of Jesus’ Divine Body, making the design not only ‘mere’ illustration but also a vehicle for Blake’s own ideas.

Any readers in the New Haven (Connecticut, USA) area will be able to see this work in the exhibition ‘The Critique of Reason: Romantic Art, 1760-1860’ between 6 March and 26 July at the Yale University Art Gallery this year.

[1] Cf. Martin Butlin, The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981): nos. 433-526.

[2] David Bindman, Blake as an Artist (Oxford: Phaidon, 1977): 144.

[3] William Blake to Henry Crabb Robinson, December 1825, in G. E. Bentley, Jr. Blake Records (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2nd Ed. 2004): 421.

[4] William Blake, ‘The Laocoön’, in David V. Erdman (ed.), The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (New York: Doubleday, 1988): 273 and available via the Blake Archive.

 

 

Image of the Month: Mutual undermining by “Boz” and Cruikshank?

Mutual undermining by “Boz” and Cruikshank?

Helen-Frances Pilkington (Birkbeck)

Mary L. Shannon’s paper, at the recent The Artist and the Writer RIN symposium, discussed how Dickens, in the guise of “Boz”, had used Cruikshank’s established visual persona to bolster his own. This led me to think about another “Boz” – Cruikshank relationship from August 1838 in Bentley’s Miscellany, where they had engaged in some mutual under-mining. The sketch in question was the ‘Full Report of the Second Meeting of the Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything’ which was ‘illustrated by George Cruikshank’.

Within this article is a discussion on the local beadle. “Boz” was given the chance to state his case first. Mr Sowster, the reader is informed, was a ‘fat man, with a more enlarged development of that peculiar conformation of countenance which is vulgarly termed a double chin.’ After some ‘unconstitutional proceedings’ in which Mr Sowster was employed as a bouncer for the Mudfog meeting, “Boz” announced that he had ‘procured a local artist to make a faithful sketch of the tyrant Sowster’. This likeness was ‘from the life, and complete in every respect. Even if I had been totally ignorant of the man’s real character, and had it been placed before me without remark, I should have shuddered involuntarily. There is an intense malignity of expression in the features, and a baleful ferocity of purpose in the ruffian’s eye, which appals and sickens. His whole air is rampant with cruelty, nor is the stomach less characteristic of his demoniac propensities.’ Such a description evokes terror, potentially comic, especially when considering the satirical trope of beadles.

As noted by Sally Ledger, one of the prototypes for Mr Bumble, the beadle in Oliver Twist (1837-1838), was Robert Seymour’s 1830 engraving ‘Heaven and Earth’ in which a beadle, in a cocked hat, flowing robes and staff, descends from the clouds to deny relief to starving paupers (Figure 1: bottom centre).

Figure 1: Robert Seymour, ‘Heaven & Earth’, 1830 © British Museum

Ledger noted that ‘this image of the Beadle as a pompously attired, self-important petty official that established a satirical genealogy upon which Dickens and Cruikshank would together build a few years later in Sketches by Boz and Oliver Twist‘. Given the “Boz”-ian text, the date and the article title proclaiming the Cruikshank illustrations, the expectation for the first readers would have been a continuation of this trope. However, the ‘faithful’ sketch by the ‘local artist’ in Bentley’s Miscellany turned out to be quite different (Figure 2):

Figure 2: George Cruikshank, 'The Tyrant Sowster', Bentley's Miscellany (1838) © Victoria and Albert Museum

Figure 2: George Cruikshank, ‘The Tyrant Sowster’, Bentley’s Miscellany (1838) © Victoria and Albert Museum

In Figure 2, Cruikshank has depicted Sowster as a benignly comic figure, all double-chin and belly with little arms and legs attached, rather than the ferocious tyrant per “Boz’s” description or the pompous petty official of the satirical stereotype. So who is right? Is the ‘local artist’ incapable of accurate sketching or has “Boz” been carried away by his rhetoric?

Helen-Frances Pilkington (Birkbeck)

Helen-Frances is a PhD student at Birkbeck focusing on hot air balloons and railways in the early nineteenth century

Sources:

Dickens, Charles; ‘The Second Report of the Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything’; Bentley’s Miscellany; 4; (August 1838); 209-227.

Ledger, Sally; ‘From Queen Caroline to Lady Deadlock: Dickens and the Popular Radical Imagination’; Victorian Literature and Culture; 32; (2004); 575-600.