Phiz and Little Nell, Spring 2005



Phiz and Little Nell, Spring 2005
Valerie Browne Lester explains why Phiz’s
images of Little Nell convey a story of
lechery, desire and sexual awakening
– and reveals that this may tell us more
about the first rocky year of the artist’s
marriage than about Dickens’s heroine
y great-great grandfather, Hablot
Knight Browne, better known
to the world as “Phiz”, was the
illustrator of 10 of the novels of
Charles Dickens. When I started
work on his biography, I became fascinated by studying his images through a magnifying glass and, paradoxically, learnt a great deal about his life as well as
his work. A case in point is what I deduced from his
images of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop. But,
first, let me set the scene.
Charles Dickens wisely decided to hire more than
one artist for Master Humphrey’s Clock, the weekly
miscellany in which The Old Curiosity Shop and
Barnaby Rudge appeared. Each issue had a grinding
two-week publication lead and required a minimum
of two illustrations. As principal illustrators, Dickens lined up Phiz and George Cattermole, and kept
Samuel Williams and Daniel Maclise waiting in the
wings; in the end the latter two drew only one image
each for the miscellany. It is hard to be exact about
the numbers produced by Phiz and Cattermole
– some of the images are unsigned and their subject
matter and styles occasionally overlap – but the best
estimate is 157 for Phiz and 39 for Cattermole.
George Cattermole (1800-68) was a distinguished
artist, 15 years older than Phiz, famous for watercolours, finely rendered architectural drawings and
illustrations for books by Walter Scott and Edward
Bulwer-Lytton. Dickens divided the work between
him and Phiz accordingly: Phiz was responsible for
people (especially low characters), active moments
and comic rascality, while Cattermole embarked on
lofty, antiquarian, angelic and architectural subjects.
Dickens was delighted with Cattermole’s designs,
but initially did not trust him to transfer them on
to the block. For this, he called in Phiz, who traced
Cattermole’s images before transferring them. With
his own designs, Phiz usually drew in reverse directly
on to the specially whitened end-grain of the boxwood block. He signed most of his images HKB or
HB, not Phiz, but a few are unsigned. On the title
page of the bound edition of Master Humphrey’s Clock,
his name is given as Hablot Browne. The public was
unaware that Phiz and Hablot Browne were one and
the same, and enjoyed comparing the “rival” artists.
Dickens made the expensive choice to use what he
referred to as “woodcuts”, which were actually wood
engravings cut into the end-grain of the wood rather
than on the plank. They had three great advantages
over etchings: they did not break down, even for print
runs of 100,000 copies; they were the same height as
the raised type face and could be inked and printed
simultaneously with the lettering (unlike etching
plates which must be wiped and then sent through
a rolling press and printed on individual dampened
pages); and they could be placed at the exact point in
the text to be illustrated and so retained the closest
relationship to the story.
With my loupe, I found that Phiz’s Nell breathed
a more vibrant breath than Dickens’s earnest “little
creature”. With that sexless phrase, which appears
twice on the third page of The Old Curiosity Shop,
Dickens denies Nell’s sexuality from the start. He
keeps her, like the memory of his deceased sisterin-law Mary Hogarth, innocent and immaculate,
although this does not prevent his characters – Quilp,
Dick Swiveller, Kit – from desiring her. In creating Nell, Dickens pickles Mary, immortalising her
purity. It is significant that Dickens consistently refers to Nell as “the child”, only rarely referring to her
as a “little girl”, and never as a “young woman”. Nell
is 14. My next door neighbour is 14 and she is not a
little girl; nor is she a child. She is a young woman.
But Phiz begs to differ with Dickens. As Michael
Steig says: Cattermole’s Nell “is either a wax doll or
barely visible, [while] Browne makes us believe in the
‘cherry-cheeked, red-lipped’ child Quilp describes so
lecherously.” Phiz’s Nell is a flesh-and-blood adolescent with what Diana Phillips calls “that twilight
look of half-comprehended sexuality” common to
Lewis Carroll’s photographs of young girls.
It was not until chapter six of The Old Curiosity
Shop that Phiz had a chance to draw Nell. Until then
he had been busy with images of Quilp, Dick Swiveller and other low types. By the time his chance
1 & 2 Phiz’s first
image of Nell
clearly shows her
fear of Quilp
3 Nell continues
to look anxious
when she meets
the schoolmaster
4 A change of
expression. Nell
in the schoolroom
starts to look
came, George Cattermole and Samuel Williams
had already made their mark. Cattermole complied
with Dickens; his Nell is a “little creature”, whom he
placed standing primly in the middle of a disturbing
but elegantly cluttered shop. Williams’s Nell, however, is distinctly red-lipped and exudes desirability
as she sleeps, her hair spread across the pillow.
Williams, an artist and engraver, was the only
illustrator of the four to both design and cut an image. This allowed him to achieve precisely the effect
he wished and makes “Nell Asleep” the most perfectly executed illustration in the book. All the other
images in Master Humphrey’s Clock were hostage to
what Phiz referred to as the “relays of woodcutters”:
Landells, Gray, Vasey and Williams (who also cut
four designs by the other artists).
The fourth illustrator, Daniel Maclise, provided
his sole image for The Old Curiosity Shop near the end
of the book. It is an arresting and complex picture of
Nell and the sexton by the well, much admired and
reproduced. The American illustrator Felix Darley
admired the Maclise Nell so much that he imported
her, complete with well but minus sexton, almost line
for line into his Dickens Little Folks series.
Phiz’s first image of Nell with Quilp (fig 1) is a
shocker after Williams’s gentle sleeper, and I believe
the design arose not merely out of Dickens’s text, but
from Phiz’s personal experience. On 28 March 1840,
just about the time Cattermole and Williams were
designing the first Nells, Phiz got married at Trinity Church, Marylebone, at the age of 25. Susannah
Reynolds, his 16-year-old bride, was an orphan, the
daughter of Abraham Reynolds, a Baptist minister
– and I confess to conflating Susannah with Phiz’s
Nell. Until I magnified the image (fig 2), I had been
mystified about why it took the Brownes nearly two
years to produce a child. Susannah later proved to be
extremely fertile and the Dickenses had their first
baby a mere nine months after their wedding. But
this picture suggests that in the first year of marriage
Susannah may have been terrified of sex. Look at the
distance between the two figures, the anxiety in the
face of the young woman and the coarseness of the
man. The image reeks with sexual allusion: Quilp’s
top hat, the umbrella, the empty drawer – and Nell’s
voluptuous mouth. Listen to Dickens’s words: “Mr
Quilp …[patted] her on the head. Such an application from any other hand might not have produced
a remarkable effect, but the child shrunk so quickly
from his touch and felt such an instinctive desire to
get out of his reach, that she rose directly and declared herself ready to return.” Did Susannah shrink
from Phiz this way early in their marriage?
Nell continues to look anxious in Phiz’s next three
images of her, and is particularly apprehensive when
she meets the schoolmaster (fig 3). But a change
occurs as she busies herself with embroidery in
the boisterous classroom; there she looks positively
coquettish (fig 4). Phiz must be making progress
with his wooing. But her anxious look returns in the
next image, and then things become much worse.
“Quilp at the Gateway” (fig 5) is arguably the most
peculiar image in The Old Curiosity Shop, and with
5 ‘Quilp at the
gateway’ is
arguably the
most peculiar
image in The Old
Curiosity Shop
6 & 7 In ‘Nell and
the waxworks’
and ‘Nell and the
gamblers’ she
starts to look
foxy and curious
8 Dickens
describes Nell at
Miss Monflathers’
school as crying,
but here she
looks gorgeous
“Nell exists in
two forms: as
Dickens’s and
wan little
creature, and
as Quilp’s and
Phiz’s cherrycheeked,
vibrant young
good reason. It is not signed and it is tricky to discern which artist executed it because, in a sense, they
both did. Dickens wrote to Cattermole that the scene
was intended “expressly with a view to your illustrious pencil”, presumably because of its architectural
interest. But somehow the work landed on Phiz’s
desk, although Cattermole prepared a preliminary
sketch. (Phiz frequently picked up after Cattermole
if the latter was hors de combat as a result of sickness
or foot-dragging when asked to tackle a subject that
did not appeal, such as the raven in Barnaby Rudge.)
At first glance the architecture appears to be pure
Cattermole, but on closer inspection Phiz swims
into focus. No rolling-eyed, tongue-out, monstrous
statues appear in Cattermole’s sketch, no dwarf, no
boy, no cowering Nell. This is Phiz’s territory.
If the engraving represents a chapter in Phiz’s
sexual wooing of Susannah, he has had a serious
set-back. Nell’s eyes are wide with fear, her back is
turned to Quilp, she clutches the stonework with a
grossly out-of-proportion hand, and her bent and
presumably trembling legs are visible through her
skirt. The distance between her and Quilp is great,
the same distance as in Phiz’s first picture of them.
Quilp raises his stick, even though the text has him
leaning on it. Phiz expressing frustration?
As in “Quilp at the Gateway”, Phiz’s next two
images of Nell, “Nell and the Waxworks” (fig 6)
and “Nell and the Gamblers” (fig 7), have her back
squarely turned to the men in the pictures, but she
does not look frightened any more. In the first (appallingly cut by Landells) she sports a certain foxiness; in the second, curiosity. Things are looking up.
Tony Bareham (a specialist in the works of Charles
Lever, the Irish author for whom Phiz illustrated 17
books) once remarked that he saw a subcurrent of
strong sexuality in Phiz’s work and that Phiz managed to turn even Little Nell into a sexpot. I believe
he was thinking of this image (fig 8), for here Nell
looks absolutely gorgeous. In Dickens’s text she
appears at Miss Monflathers’ school where she soon
becomes the victim of that lady’s harsh tongue. Dickens describes Nell as crying, but Phiz casts her eyes
9 Nell faints
from shock and
exhaustion, but
Phiz depicts her
more suggestively
10 Phiz carves
his initials in the
tombstone and
writes ‘Aetat 16’
– perhaps a sign
that Nell (like
his wife) has
grown up
down and gives her an expression more self-confident than teary. This Nell is a ripe-for-the-picking
young woman, radiating half-comprehended sexuality. Susannah, facing forward, is coming round.
But what is happening in fig 9? In the text, Nell
faints from a combination of exhaustion and the
shock of seeing the schoolmaster again. Phiz pictures
the moment after the schoolmaster has taken her in
his arms and carried her to the warmth of the inn.
He leans over her, his arms protecting her, his mouth
close to hers. Nell lies back stunned, gazing at him,
her lips pursed as for a kiss, her knees wide apart.
In Phiz’s last rendering of Nell (fig 10), she is
seated with her grandfather in the cemetery. The old
man strokes her head and holds her hand, while her
dainty ankle peeks from under her transparent skirt.
He mutters to her that “she grew stronger every day,
and would be a woman soon”. In the background,
Phiz has signed his initials on one of the tombstones,
and on the other he has written “AETAT 16.” I take
this to be a message that his 16 year-old bride has
“died” and become a woman.
You may feel that this essay is subjective and selfindulgent, but eight years of living in a biographer’s
straitjacket followed by the liberation of publication
have driven me to it. So here’s my conclusion: by
magnifying Phiz’s images of Little Nell and studying the clues, it is possible to infer that Phiz’s young
wife, in a year, moved from being a terrified virgin to
a coquette, suffered a reversal of affection, and at last
consummated her marriage – an act that I believe
occurred just before Phiz drew his astonishingly triumphant, phallic image of the death of Quilp.
Phiz and Susannah were happily married for 42
years and produced 12 children before Phiz died in
1882. Little Nell lives for ever, of course, but she is
immortal in two forms: as Dickens’s and Cattermole’s wan little creature, and as Quilp’s and Phiz’s
cherry-cheeked, red-lipped, vibrant young woman.
——• 1 •——
Valerie Browne Lester is the author of Phiz: The Man Who
Drew Dickens, Chatto & Windus, 2004