This year’s bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens, who defined the era he lived in much as William Shakespeare did in his time, is being universally celebrated with a host of special events, exhibitions, performances, and festivals that highlight the novelist’s deep influence on the society and culture of the Victorian age. His impact on the visual arts was also significant, and is examined in a UK exhibition titled Dickens and the Artists, which runs through October at the Watts Gallery in Guildford, Surrey.

No less than Vincent van Gogh is credited with having said, in 1883, “There is no writer, in my opinion, who is so much a painter and a black-and-white artist as Dickens.” And his own daughter, herself an artist, commented that her father’s novels could only have been produced by “a writer with an innate feeling for artistic effect.”

Though not household names to us now, painters like William Powell Frith uniquely interpreted the richly textured world of Dickens’ imagination in tableaus inspired by the writer’s depictions of life on the streets of London. Frith’s Crossing Sweeper (1893), below right, is at immediate glance a microcosm of the Dickensian scenes we are all familiar with; other Frith works, like Night Haymarket (1862) are likewise awash in the moods, colors, and subtle pandemonium that so memorably permeate the Dickens oeuvre.

Dickens himself had a reputation as a savvy art critic, often outlining his thoughts in the magazine he edited, Household Words, and commenting on his interest in both contemporary artists, as well as the Old Masters, on his many tours of Europe. His passion for the theatre is often overlooked in light of his literary success.

In reality, Dickens was perhaps the quintessential Renaissance man, reborn in 19th-Century England. A newspaper article from 1892 noted:

“It has been confidently asserted that when Charles Dickens adopted literature as a profession, the stage lost one whose dramatic instinct would have made him a brilliant luminary in the theatrical world; and physiologists might assuredly contend that had his natural gift for art been specially cultivated and duly developed, he would probably have made an equally prominent name for himself as a wielder of the pencil and the brush.”

Little wonder his genius continues to resonate —  200 years on.

(Illustration/ top: Red Nose Studio)
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