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November 27 2011

Exhibition tells how Charles Dickens was spooked by ghost tale doppelganger

Bicentennial show at British Library says rival accused Dickens of plagiarism but author said he was amazed by story similarities

The spirits which terrorise and ultimately reform Scrooge in A Christmas Carol may have been due to a nightmare brought on, as the miser put it, by "an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese".

Now a new exhibition at the British Library marking the bicentenary in 2012 of Charles Dickens's birth suggests that the real-life mystery of another ghost story by the author may have had an equally prosaic beginning: a manuscript he allegedly stole from a rival.

Dickens wrote some of the best-loved spooky yarns in the English language – but he did not please one artist who accused him of plagiarising his apparition in a piece published in 1861.

The author and artist Thomas Heaphy bitterly accused Dickens of underhand dealing and blatantly ripping off his own story which he had sent to the printers.

Friend and biographer John Forster described Dickens as having "a hankering after ghosts".

But Andrea Lloyd, curator of the British Library exhibition, says the author was always careful to include a possible rational explanation in his ghostly writings.

He was fascinated by the occult, a genius at evoking eerie atmosphere and powerful, malign characters, and knew there was nothing like a spinechiller to boost circulation for magazines which published his novels in instalments.

In 1861 Dickens published a piece in his own All the Year Round magazine called Four Ghost Stories. One of the stories featured a beautiful young woman asking a portrait painter if he could remember her face well enough to paint it from memory months later.

The artist replied in puzzlement that he possibly could, but would much prefer conventional sittings.

"Impossible," she replied. "It could not be."

It transpires that she is already dead, and the portrait is needed to console her grieving father.

The story is hardly Dickens's finest effort, but it certainly caused a reaction in Heaphy, a now almost entirely forgotten Victorian artist. (Tate and the National Portrait Gallery both have works by his father in the collections, but nothing by him).

Heaphy wrote to Dickens in a rage, claiming that not only had he written up an identical story, ready for publication in the Christmas issue of a rival magazine, but that it had really happened to him – and on 13 September too, the very date Dickens had added in pencil in the margin of his own version.

There was never any explanation of the mystery: Dickens insisted that he was completely innocent of plagiarism, deliberate or psychic.

He called the episode, Forster wrote, "So very original, so very extraordinary, so very far beyond the version I have published that all other stories turn pale before it.

"Everything connected with it is amazing; but conceive this – the portrait painter had been engaged to write it elsewhere as a story for next Christmas and not unnaturally supposed when he saw himself anticipated in All the Year Round that there had been treachery at his printers."

The exhibition includes a very rare publication, a small booklet entitled A Wonderful Ghost Story Being Mr H's Own Narrative, which the artist published years later, giving his own version of the story.

Despite including in very large type "with unpublished Letters from Charles Dickens", it was not a success.

Although Dickens conducted a running battle with spiritualists over exposés in his magazines of fake mediums and seances, he did however believe in the so-called new science of mesmerism.

He was convinced he himself could heal others by putting them into a hypnotic trance.

Catherine, his long-suffering wife, pregnant by him for most of their 22 years together (10 of their children survived) before an acrimonious separation, made a rare protest when he devoted day after day of a holiday to gazing into the eyes of a beautiful young woman who claimed to be tormented by anxiety and insomnia.

In reference to this, the exhibition includes an indignant letter he wrote to Catherine years later, raking over the coals yet again.

There is also a copy of The Terrific Register, a "penny dreadful" weekly magazine which the teenage Dickens devoured, enthralled with and terrified by stories about murder, ghosts, incest and cannibalism.

Within five weeks of Dickens's death on 9 June 1870, spiritualists in America were claiming the last laugh. The spirit of the credulous sceptic, had been in touch, they insisted, and had dictated various messages through raps and knocks including the ending to his unfinished last book, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

A Hankering after Ghosts, Charles Dickens and the Supernatural, British Library, free entry, 29 November–4 March © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Christmas gifts 2011: which books will be under your tree?

Our critics choose the books they intend to give this Christmas, and the ones they hope to receive

What do you think are the best books of 2011? Take part in our open thread discussion here

Diana Athill
Editor and writer

I am crazy about Craig Taylor's Londoners (Granta £25), a brilliant collection of "voices" in the manner of Studs Terkel. It's quite long, but I wanted it to go on and on, and I can't imagine any lucky recipient not enjoying it. One I'm sure I'll enjoy myself when I get my hands on it is Claire Tomalin's biography of the most glorious of all Londoners, Charles Dickens: A Life (Viking £30).

Richard Eyre
Theatre director

I'd give Christopher Hitchens's collected essays, Arguably (Atlantic £30), in the hope that in return I'd be given John Updike's collected essays, Higher Gossip (Knopf £25). Hitchens is said to be the best British essayist since Orwell; anyone who doubts this, considering him a mere provocateur, will be convinced by this collection. Updike was the best novelist of his generation and also a prolific critic and essayist. His posthumous book is a distillation of his non-fiction writing over nearly six decades.

Russell T Davies
TV dramatist

It's too late to make a Christmas present out of How to Be a Woman (Ebury Press £11.99) by Caitlin Moran, because as soon as I'd finished it, I bought five more copies. One each for my two sisters and three nieces. I think this is the most important book they might read in their lives. Underneath beautiful, aching and hilarious memories of family life, it's a true polemic, arguing that women still eat, shave and dress entirely for the benefit of men. As for me, I'll have A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In (Bloomsbury £12.99) by Magnus Mills. For the title alone!

Tim Adams
Observer writer

Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow (Allen Lane £25) – a terrific unpicking of human rationality and irrationality – could hardly have been published at a better moment. Kahnemann is the godfather of behavioural economics, and this distillation of a lifetime's thinking about why we make bad decisions – about everything from money to love – is full of brilliant anecdote and wisdom. It is Kahnemann's belief that anyone who thinks they know exactly what is going on hasn't understood the question; as such it's the perfect gift for opinionated family members everywhere.

It would be interesting to know what Christopher Hitchens would make of Kahneman's faith in doubt; one of the many pleasures of reading our greatest contrarian over the years has been his ability to give the impression that he knows exactly what he thinks about almost every subject under the sun. Hitchens's collected essays, Arguably, is the book I'd most like to receive, for its bravura certainties, in spite of everything.

Joe Dunthorne

A recent issue of McSweeney's magazine included a severed head (opening that morning's post was like the final scene in the film Se7en), but the current edition, the 38th, focuses on what the magazine does best: great stories, both fiction and non-fiction. I would give it to anyone with a short, persistent commute.

For myself, I'd like House of Holes (Simon & Schuster £14.99) by Nicholson Baker. Although reviewers have been bewildered, I'm intrigued by Baker's transition from writing a (brilliant) low-key novel about a struggling poet to this one, which is, by all accounts, a cheerful porno odyssey. Not the sort of book to be seen buying for oneself, mind you.

Rachel Johnson
Editor and author

Whoever says women aren't funny should be tied to chairs and force-read Bossypants (Little Brown £16.99) by Tina Fey, a darkly hysterical monologue-memoir by the writer/actor about growing up with dark shin fur in the land where yellow hair is king, writing skits for Saturday Night Live, her aborted honeymoon cruise (the ship caught fire) and Kotex panty-pads.

Johnson's Life of London (Harper Collins £20), by Boris Johnson, is not only the book I want to receive, it's the only book I can guarantee I will be given, as the author gives only two things to his family as presents: condiments he's made himself and books he's written. I am looking forward to both as I have been assured by my brother that his book on London is every bit as good as his apple chutney.

Philip Hensher

I'm giving everyone Robert Harris's The Fear Index (Hutchinson £18.99) for Christmas, because everyone's already read Alan Hollinghurst's superb The Stranger's Child, and The Fear Index is a total ripsnorting Demon Seed-type romp through the bowels of high finance and whirring computer-cogs. In the usual way of things, people kept sending me copies of things such as Samuel Beckett's wildly boring letters (Volume 2) when what I really wanted was Tessa Hadley's excellent The London Train (Jonathan Cape £12.99).

Joan Bakewell
Journalist and broadcaster

The past shapes our lives today, and both of my choices throw light on our own times. Sebastian Barry's On Canaan's Side (Faber £16.99) – the book I'll be giving – takes up the story of the Dunne family, which he has told in several previous novels. Together, these works cover the time of Ireland's troubles, from within the Unionist protestant community. The gorgeous prose adds to the pleasure.

I would like to receive Amanda Foreman's epic A World on Fire (Penguin £12.99), which deals with the British/American relationship throughout the American civil war. Growing up near Lancashire, I have always known that American exports of raw cotton fed the cotton mills of Britain. But I have never understood what happened when the civil war broke out. This lavishly praised book will explain this and many other things. And at 1,000 pages, it will last the year!

Michael Palin
Actor and broadcaster

Colin Thubron's To a Mountain in Tibet (Chatto & Windus £16.99) is an absolutely terrific book. Thubron has perfect pitch. He uses the minimum of words for the maximum effect. His descriptions are fresh and acute and he can convey atmosphere and emotion on the head of a pin. The journey to Mount Kailash is enthralling and he keeps the reader right beside him every inch of the way.

The book I'd like in my stocking is Adam Macqueen's Private Eye: The First 50 Years (Private Eye Productions £25). The Eye has given me more consistent pleasure, pain and provocation than any other publication in my lifetime.

Rachel Cooke
Observer writer

What you need at Christmas is a novel that thoroughly muffles the sound of tired and overemotional relatives. So, I will be giving all of my girlfriends State of Wonder (Bloomsbury £12.99) by Ann Patchett, a sort of feminist Heart of Darkness. It has the barmiest plot ever – plucky scientist enters Brazilian jungle in search of her lost colleague and the secret of everlasting female fertility – but, honestly, it grips like a vice.

The book I would most like to receive is William Nicholson: Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings (Yale £95) by Patricia Reed, Wendy Baron and Merlin James. I can stare at a single Nicholson painting for long minutes at a time. He is just the best.

Fergus Henderson

Life is peculiar at the moment, but nothing could be as bad as Bernie Gunther's lot: prison camp to prison camp, interrogation after interrogation… Philip Kerr's battered hero in Field Gray: A Bernie Gunther Mystery (Quercus £17.99) is an ex-Berlin policeman who gets knocked around from Cuba to postwar Europe. When he finally gets his glass of German brandy I sighed a sigh of relief for the poor chap.

A very different kettle of fish – not much mention of the Gulag – is Sarah Winman's When God Was a Rabbit (Headline Review £12.99). I feel that at this point in life I'm ready to tackle a book about love, and Sarah Winman's charm will make her the perfect guide.

Chris Patten
Chairman of the BBC Trust

The most enjoyable new novel I have read this year is Snowdrops (Altantic £7.99) by AD Miller. It's a very well written page-turner that confirmed all my prejudices about Putin's Russia. I came to it after reading Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate, my number one discovery of the year, which to be fair to Mr Putin, does at least show how much worse things were under Stalin.

I have asked for David Gilmour's The Pursuit of Italy (Allen Lane £25) for Christmas. It may help me to understand rather better this heavenly country, which has given the world great buildings, cities, music and food, as well as Mr Berlusconi.

Mary Warnock

The book I'm going to give, specifically to people nostalgic for their childhood in the late 1960s and 70s (of whom I know many), is Nelson (Blank Slate £18.99), edited by Rob Davis and Woodrow Phoenix. I am fascinated by the comic strip format (like the excellent comic book versions of Shakespeare), by the different styles of each participating artist in this collaboration between 54 British comic artists, and by the way the central character develops under one's eyes as each year in her life unfolds. It is perfect for anyone without a great deal of reading time at Christmas.

The book I'd most like to get is one that I have already reluctantly given away, Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin. I'm not a Dickens fan, but Tomalin is the best biographer there is.

Julie Myerson

By far the most impressive novel I read this year was Jacqueline Yallop's Obedience (Atlantic £12.99). The prose is as intense, opaque yet elastic as its morally complex themes: guilt, sexuality and secrecy in a convent in wartime France. I'd give it to anyone who wants, as I do, to have their head and heart churned up by what they read.

The book I'd most like to be given is anything bought at one of the two independent bookshops in Southwold, Suffolk. Except both have now closed down. Which makes membership of Southwold Library – now ludicrously also under threat – the best free gift you could give anyone there this Christmas.

Philip French
Observer film critic

A worthy Booker laureate of this or any other year, our most versatile novelist Julian Barnes paid tribute in his acceptance speech to Suzanne Dean, cover designer of The Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape £12.99). This makes it a perfect present in these last days of the book as singular object. The one I hope someone will send me is Brian Kellow's Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark (Viking $27.95). I read her for more than 30 years and wrote an introduction to her final collection.

Daljit Nagra

Tahmima Anam's The Good Muslim (Canongate £16.99) is a perfect page-turner for the festive period. It is a powerfully gripping story about the birth of Bangladesh. Subtle plotting and vivid dramatisation of characters allow Anam to explore the formation of national identity. CB Editions is an exciting new poetry press which has published JO Morgan's second collection, Long Cuts (£7.99), this year. For me, this would be an ideal gift as I loved his first collection, Natural Mechanical, and reviews suggest this one is even better.

Tristram Hunt
Historian and Labour MP

Maya Jasanoff's Liberty's Exiles (HarperPress £30) is going to be in the Christmas stocking for a number of nearest and dearest. Jasanoff is an exceptional scholar of British history in all its global dimensions, and her evocative chronicle of the loyalist diaspora from the American war of independence allows us to rethink the cultural legacy of the Thirteen Colonies' rebellion. And, in turn, I would like an equally big book on US history by another transatlantic female historian – Amanda Foreman's A World on Fire. British involvement in the American civil war is still under-appreciated, and Foreman's work, on the 150th anniversary, looks like a useful corrective.

Wendy Cope

I always enjoy Caitlin Moran's columns, so I read her How to Be a Woman as soon as it came out. Although I didn't agree with every word, it is spot on about most things, and very entertaining. If I hadn't already given my copy to my partner's daughter, I would buy it for her. Another 2011 favourite is Edgelands (Jonathan Cape £12.99) by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, which I will be giving as a Christmas present. My Christmas wish-list includes Death Comes to Pemberley (Faber £18.99) by PD James and Blue Monday (Michael Joseph £12.99) by Nicci French.

Curtis Sittenfeld

I thoroughly enjoyed The Oregon Experiment (Knopf $26.95) by Keith Scribner. Set in a college town in America's Pacific Northwest, it's a novel about – among other things – anarchists, adultery, new babies, hippies, and a woman with such a powerful sense of smell that it lets her discover secrets about other people. The book is just really smart and juicy. A novel I haven't yet read but have heard is wonderful is Love and Shame and Love (Little Brown $24.99) by Peter Orner. It's about a Chicagoan named Alexander Popper and his messy family – and I do always like family messiness!

Geoff Dyer
Novelist and essayist

The book I'd most like to receive this Christmas is Magnum Contact Sheets (Thames and Hudson £95), edited by Kristen Lubben: a collection of the pictures that were made either side of some of the famous images from the photojournalists' archive. The book is an exemplary bit of publishing in that it is stunningly beautiful – and huge, and expensive – but is full of the kind of material that might be considered the preserve of scholars or researchers. I'll be giving copies of Terry Castle's screamingly funny – and lethally sharp – collection of autobiographical essays, The Professor (Atlantic £20).

Marina Warner
Writer and academic

So much of what I read is in translation – from Alice Oswald's new reworking of the Iliad, Memorial, to Richard Hamilton's compendium of Marrakech stories, The Last Storytellers. Matthew Reynolds, in The Poetry of Translation: From Chaucer & Petrarch to Homer & Logue (Oxford £50), shows us what is at stake in these border crossings. Close looking is close reading's counterpart, and Deanna Petherbridge is one of its most impassioned advocates. If I don't find The Primacy of Drawing: Histories and Theories of Practice (Yale £55) under the tree, I'll buy it, gladly.

William Dalrymple
Historian and travel writer

I greatly enjoyed Sherard Cowper-Coles's brilliant account of how and why we are losing Britain's fourth war in Afghanistan. Cables from Kabul (HarperPress £25) is the most insightful record yet published of the diplomatic wrangling that has accompanied the slow military encirclement of western forces in the country. It is also the best account I have read of how post-colonial colonialism actually works.

A book I would love to be given is the fabulously illustrated catalogue accompanying the Masters of Indian Painting show at the Rietberg in Zurich this summer – unquestionably the most remarkable and ambitious exhibition of the Indian miniature tradition ever mounted. Masters of Indian Painting, 1100-1900 (Museum Rietberg £120) is a huge, two-volume affair, with essays by the three great historians of Indian art: BN Goswamy, Eberhard Fischer and Milo Cleveland Beach.

Mariella Frostrup
Observer writer and TV presenter

Robert Harris's fine new thriller, The Fear Index, is a must-have in every Christmas stocking. It's highly "readable" – the buzz word in literary circles this year – but more importantly, it manages to explain what a hedge fund actually is, using the example of lacy black lingerie. With our lives currently in turmoil thanks to the machinations of the financial markets, understanding how they work should be a priority, and Harris manages to combine such instruction with a fast-paced thriller.

I'd love to receive Marina Warner's epic study of the Arabian Nights, Stranger Magic (Chatto & Windus £28), a dissection of the myths in these enduring classics that promises to throw light on the countries from which the stories spring and the lives of women in them.

Hari Kunzru

To London friends I'll be giving festive copies of Laura Oldfield Ford's Savage Messiah (Verso £19.99), the seminal fanzine (now released in book form), which reveals, in photos, text and beautiful drawings, the abject underside of the regenerated city. The book I'm hoping to find under the tree is Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee's Poor Economics (Perseus £17.99), which apparently overturns many received ideas about what it's like to be very poor.

Shami Chakrabarti
Director of Liberty

Sometimes the most serious messages are best expressed with humour, and this Christmas should be a time to try to smile. The book I'd love to receive is Private Eye: The First 50 Years by Adam Macqueen. But because I would love the next 50 years to be better for women, I would most like to give Caitlin Moran's How to Be a Woman. I've already bought a spare copy for a female friend. I will give it in celebration of Moran's wit and wisdom and in loving memory of my mother – an unsung feminist.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft

No better history books were published this year than David Gilmour's wonderful The Pursuit of Italy and The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean (Allen Lane £30) by David Abulafia. Both tell riveting but melancholy stories. Gilmour shows that the "unification" of Italy 150 years ago has been a profound failure, while in the course of Abulafia's account his great sea ceases to be the centre of civilisation.

Bright Particular Stars (Atlantic £25) is the latest of David McKie's sesquipedal peregrinations. This "Gallery of Glorious British Eccentrics", some of whom are a good deal more eccentric than glorious, is unfailingly droll and will make a perfect stocking-filler.

Nicholas Hytner
Artistic director of the National Theatre

Anthea Bell's new translation of Stefan Zweig's Beware of Pity, published this year by Pushkin Press (£8.99), is the latest in a brilliant series of Zweig translations. A psychological thriller with an emotionally dense unreliable narrator, and a terrifyingly needy heroine, it is compulsively readable.

I hope I'm given Claire Tomalin's Charles Dickens: A Life. Her biography of Dickens's mistress, Nelly Ternan, is a phenomenal feat of literary reclamation, but I fear that her new book will do nothing to refute my long-held belief that the novels ascribed to Dickens could not possibly have been written by the son of a naval pay-office clerk who left school at the age of 12, and are plainly the work of the Duke of Wellington.

Kirsty Wark

If you want to make someone happy, lying on the sofa in front of the fire on Boxing Day, then you must give them Robert Harris's new thriller, The Fear Index. You might think you've had enough of the economic crisis – but this is the hugely entertaining version. Thinking of that same sofa, I'd like to receive Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child (Picador £20), which somehow eluded me this year. As an added extra, please may I have Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Veg Everyday! (Bloomsbury £25), which I know is a very good thing for us all. Go on Santa.

Andrew Rawnsley
Observer political editor

For anyone you know who likes to be provoked to both laughter and thought, I can't think of a better stocking filler than Craig Brown's One On One (Fourth Estate £16.99), 101 ingeniously linked encounters between the famous and the infamous. As a great admirer of Max Hastings's military histories, I would be pleased to unwrap All Hell Let Loose (HarperCollins £30), his latest, much-praised volume on the second world war, focusing on the experiences of those at the sharp end of the conflict.

Kate Kellaway
Observer writer

There is one book that has bowled me over – on a subject close to my heart. The Story of Swimming (Dewi Lewis £25), by Susie Parr, not only looks ravishing (filled with unusual mermaids, avid modern swimmers and stunning photographs by the author's husband, Martin Parr) but is also a fascinating, idiosyncratic, beautifully written history. Readers will want to do far more than dip in – I intend to give it to all my amphibious friends. Meanwhile, the book I can't wait to read is Matthew Hollis's said-to-be-outstanding Now All Roads Lead to France (Faber £20), about the last years of Edward Thomas.

Peter Carey

I have twice given away David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Melville House £21.99), and Christmas will not change my habits. The book is more readable and entertaining than I can indicate in 100 words. It is a meditation on debt, tribute, gifts, religion and the false history of money. Graeber is a scholarly researcher, an activist and a public intellectual. His field is the whole history of social and economic transactions. He has been an important figure at Zuccotti Park and Occupy Wall Street. Here, he uses his own klieg lights to illuminate the pea and thimble mechanisms that have delivered the current debt crisis. Would someone, please, give me a copy this Christmas. I promise to keep it for myself.

Elizabeth Day
Observer writer

One of the most thought-provoking novels I read this year was Amy Waldman's The Submission (William Heinemann £12.99), an elegantly plotted debut that charts the fallout after a New York jury chooses a Muslim architect to design a memorial to 9/11. Waldman uses this central focal point to unravel the tensions and contradictions at work in modern America.

The book I'd most like to unwrap underneath the Christmas tree (hint, hint) is Claire Tomalin's new biography, Charles Dickens: A Life. I've read every biography Tomalin has produced and am in awe not only of her impeccable research but also of her real feeling for her subjects and her exquisite writing.

AN Wilson
Writer and columnist

The book that I am hoping to find in my Christmas stocking is Fiona MacCarthy's The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination (Faber £25). I have enjoyed all Fiona MacCarthy's biographies (Eric Gill, William Morris, Byron...) and I cannot believe that this will disappoint.

The book I shall be giving is Robert Douglas-Fairhurst's compelling critical biography, Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist (Harvard £20). If you only read one book on Dickens during the bicentenary year of 2012, it should be this. Every page illuminates the books and the genius who produced them.

Writer and cultural commentator

So many contenders, but I would share the incredible creative power and intense imagination of Alice Hoffman, whose novel The Dovekeepers (Simon & Schuster £16.99) shows just how far and deep historical fiction can go. I would love to receive Sarah Hall's short story collection, The Beautiful Indifference (Faber £12.99), which I expect to be as gripping and cerebral as a previous novel of hers – one of my favourites – The Carhullan Army.

Salley Vickers

The book I shall be giving for Christmas is Ronald Blythe's At the Yeoman's House (Enitharmon Press £15). The "house" is the mysteriously named "Bottengoms", once home of farmers and shepherds and rescued and restored by John Nash, for whom the author worked as a young man. The book is a quiet meditation on the nourishment to be found in the past. The book I most want to be given is Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. I'm a speedy thinker myself, so am hoping to be endorsed in that practice.

Robert McCrum
Associate editor of the Observer

Amanda Foreman's A World on Fire, an epic history of two nations divided by conflict, is an enthralling portrait of Britain and the US during the American civil war. It's a book that ought to be a natural Christmas present. Unfortunately, at 1,000 pages, the publishers have made it almost unreadable (ie impossible to hold in bed). This is a shame. To turn a brilliant narrative history into an infuriating doorstop is an insult to Foreman's work. Perhaps, for the gift market, Penguin should consider a two-volume paperback edition.

I've followed Christopher Reid's poetry for years, and was delighted when he won the Costa prize with A Scattering. Now Faber has issued his Selected Poems (£14.99). This is high on my list of books to read at Christmas.

Fintan O'Toole
Journalist and author

The book I'll be giving is Tim Robinson's Connemara: A Little Gaelic Kingdom (Penguin £20). In an age of sundered specialisms, Robinson – mathematician, map-maker, naturalist, folklorist – is a marvel. This last volume of his wonderful trilogy on Connemara ranges through political history, music and topography, marking him as the supreme practitioner of geo-graphy, the writing of places. I'd like to receive Derek Mahon's New Collected Poems (Gallery £17.95). Mahon's combinations of savage indignation and ludic delight, of high formality and apparent ease, repay endless revisiting.

What do you think are the best books of 2011? Take part in our open thread discussion here © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 06 2011

Competition: shoot a cover for a new Vintage edition of Oliver Twist

Take a photograph that sums up Oliver Twist in 2012 and you could see it on the cover of a new edition of Dickens's classic novel

The Guardian, in association with Vintage Classics, is asking photographers of all ages to imagine and capture how Oliver Twist's world would look now. We will select the winning photograph to be the cover of a new edition of the novel published in March 2012. The image could be dramatic, dark, funny or touching, but it should be a modern twist on the spirit of the original story.

What would the Artful Dodger look like in 2012? Or Bill Sykes and his dog? What ­atmosphere do the backstreets of our cities have today? The picture can be black-and-white or ­colour. It could be a portrait, a landscape, or just a telling detail from the novel subtly ­updated – and it must have been taken ­specifically for this competition.

Notes for entering the competition

The best photographs we receive will be posted on a gallery at and a selection will be shown at Foyles bookshop in Charing Cross Road in London from Friday 17 February to Friday 2 March.

How to enter

1. Take a photograph that you feel illustrates the theme of Oliver Twist in 2012. The picture must be at least 300dpi and portrait format. You must only enter a photo that has been taken specifically for this assignment – please do not send in any photos that were taken before the assignment was announced.

3. Email a low-res version (preferably no more than 2MB in size) plus your name and a contact telephone number to us at by 11.59pm on 13 January 2012 in order to enter the competition.

Terms and Conditions

Entering the Competition

1. The Oliver Twist competition (the "Competition") is open to UK residents aged 18 and over ("You") subject to paragraph 2 below.

2. Employees or agencies of Guardian News & Media Limited ("GNM", "We") its group companies or their family members, or anyone else connected with the Competition may not enter the Competition.

3. By entering the Competition you are accepting these terms and conditions.

4. To enter the Competition, you must email your name, contact telephone number and photo (as described in these terms and conditions) to If You have any questions about how to enter or in connection with the Competition, please email us at with "Oliver Twist competition" in the subject line.

5. Photos submitted to this competition must be in portrait orientation, in one of the following file formats (.jpeg) and ideally no more than 2MB in size - so please send a low-res version. If your image is selected for the shortlist, you will need to provide a hi-res version of at least 300dpi. We will contact you by email to receive this.

6. You are responsible for the cost (if any) of sending your Competition entry to us.

7. Only one entry is permitted per person.

8. The closing date and time of the Competition is 11.59pm on 13 January 2012. Entries received after that date and time will not be considered.

9. You own the copyright to your Competition entry as its author.

10. By submitting an entry to the Competition, You grant GNM and the Random House Group Ltd:

a. Permission for your entry to be published on and a non-exclusive, irrevocable, royalty-free, worldwide, perpetual licence (with a right to sub-license), to use, republish, edit and/or modify your Competition entry in any/all media (including in electronic format and hard copy) for purposes connected with the Competition and as described in these terms and conditions; and

b. The right to use your name and town or city of residence for the sole purpose of identifying You as the author of your entry and/or as a winner of the Competition.

You also hereby waive all your moral rights in your entry.

11. Your entry must be your own work, must not be copied, must not contain any third-party materials and/or content that You do not have permission to use and must not otherwise be obscene, defamatory, inappropriate or in breach of any applicable legislation or regulations. It must have been taken specifically for this Competition.

You must also ensure you have the permission of anyone who appears in the photo. If anyone who appears in the photo is under 18, you must have the permission of that person's parent or legal guardian. You must not endanger yourself or others, or take any unnecessary risks in order to produce or make any entry to be submitted to this competition. You are solely responsible for any expenses incurred in the creation and/or submission of your entry to this Competition. If We have reason to believe your entry is not your own work or otherwise breaches these terms and conditions, then We may not consider it.

f We have reason to believe your entry is not your own work or otherwise breaches this paragraph 10, then We may not consider it.

Picking the shortlist of finalists and the winner

12. A panel of judges including Simon Callow, Random House Creative Director Suzanne Dean, and Simon Larbalestier (photographer of the other books in Dickens Vintage Classics series), will choose one winning entry from a shortlist of finalists from all Competition entries. Further details of the judging process and the judges are available on request to

13. When choosing the winners, the judges will be looking for the photos that are the most striking in terms of photographic quality and best illustrate and/or depict a modern representation of any aspect of the novel "Oliver Twist".

13. The judges' decision of who the winner is will be made on or before 2 March 2012. The judges' decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into.

The Prize

15. One winner will have his/her photograph printed on the cover of Vintage Classics' new edition of the novel "Oliver Twist", which is expected to be published in March 2012. However, please note that the exact publish date is to be confirmed and may be changed.

16. Please note that the licence You grant under paragraph 10 of these terms and conditions means that you will not be entitled to receive any royalties or any other kind of payment in the event that your photo is selected as the winner and is used for the cover of the "Oliver Twist" novel as referred to in this terms and conditions.

17. The winner will be notified by GNM by email on or before 2 March 2012. If a winner does not respond to GNM within seven days of being notified by GNM, then the winner's prize may be forfeited and GNM shall be entitled to select another winner (and that winner will have to respond to the phone call or email from GNM within seven days or else they may also forfeit their prize). If a winner rejects their prize, then the winner's prize will be forfeited and GNM shall be entitled but not obliged to select another winner.

18. Details of the shortlist of finalists, the winner, the short list of finalists' entries and the winning entry may also be published in an online gallery on the Guardian website at as well as areas on other websites under the control of the Promoter.

19. The prize cannot be exchanged or transferred by You and cannot be redeemed by You for cash or any other prize. You must pay all other costs associated with the prize and not specifically included in the prize.

20. We retain the right to substitute the prize with another prize of similar value in the event that the original prize offered is not available.

Some other rules

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23. Details of the winner can be obtained by sending a stamped addressed envelope to the following address: Oliver Twist competition, Culture desk, Guardian News & Media Limited, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU.

24. No purchase is necessary.

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26. The Promoter of the Competition is Guardian News & Media Limited whose address is Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU. Any complaints regarding the Competition should be sent to this address.

27. Nothing in these Terms and Conditions shall exclude the liability of GNM for death, personal injury, fraud or fraudulent misrepresentation as a result of its negligence.

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29. GNM reserves the right at any time and from time to time to modify or discontinue, temporarily or permanently, this Competition with or without prior notice due to reasons outside its control (including, without limitation, in the case of anticipated, suspected or actual fraud). The decision of GNM in all matters under its control is final and binding.

30. GNM shall not be liable for any failure to comply with its obligations where the failure is caused by something outside its reasonable control. Such circumstances shall include, but not be limited to, weather conditions, fire, flood, hurricane, strike, industrial dispute, war, hostilities, political unrest, riots, civil commotion, inevitable accidents, supervening legislation or any other circumstances amounting to force majeure.

31. The Competition will be governed by English law. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

An Oliver Twist for our times

Could you create a cover for a new edition of Oliver Twist? As we launch a competition, Simon Callow reflects on why Dickens's novel still talks to us today

• See here for full terms and conditions

The success of a book like Oliver Twist – both in itself and in its subsequent incarnations in film and on stage, one of the most successful novels of all time – is its own enemy, in that success renders familiar what was very deliberately planned to shock. We feel we know Fagin, Sikes, Nancy, Bumble, Bolter, the whole grisly crew. But for Dickens's first readers, they were almost unacceptably horrifying images of contemporary life. They were particularly shocking as the next characters to come from the pen of the dashing young author who had just enchanted the world with the great comedians that comprise the cast of The Pickwick Papers. His sudden descent into the underworld seemed like a betrayal of his affirmation in the closing pages of Pickwick: "There are dark shadows on the earth, but its lights are stronger in the contrast. Some men, like bats or owls, have better eyes for the darkness than for the light. We, who have no such optical powers, are better pleased to take our last parting look at the visionary companions of many solitary hours, when the brief sunshine of the world is blazing full upon them."

Night came very suddenly. Dickens's readers needed to fasten their safety belts: it was going to be a bumpy ride. He was intent on deromanticising the criminal world, of which he had such vivid firsthand experience in his endless nocturnal wanderings through the city. The choice of illustrator was a crucial matter: George Cruikshank virtually chose himself. As the universally acknowledged heir to Hogarth, he was the supreme chronicler of the street life and, more importantly, the backstreet life, of the 1820s and 1830s. He later claimed to have invented the story of Twist: certainly his images for it are startling and unforgettable. The lantern-jawed, stubbled giant, Sikes; the simian Artful Dodger; the pleasantly plump, blowsy Nancy; and bearded, beak-nosed, staring-eyed Fagin indelibly fix the image of Dickens's people. The image of Oliver is surprising, but entirely faithful: a skinny, blond, woeful little adult. Interestingly, and no doubt significantly, his is the image that has changed most with time, becoming a bonny, moist-eyed waif with tumbling brown locks: Oliver has become the poster boy for his own book.

He was always conceived by Dickens as "the principle of Good, surviving through every adverse circumstance" – Oliver is, in an important sense, Dickens himself. He had been perilously close to immersion in that underworld as he wandered the streets of London at the age of 12, starving, lonely, bewildered, earning his six shillings a week working 10 hours a day in a shoe-polish factory, while his father repined in debtors' jail. He put all his understanding of the danger of the world into his lowlife characters, explicitly identifying them in his preface: Sikes is a thief, and Fagin a receiver of stolen goods; the boys are pickpockets, and the girl is a prostitute. The very use of the last word stopped Dickens's readers dead in their tracks – no wonder Lord Melbourne tried to dissuade the young Queen Victoria (who ascended the throne the year the book started to appear) from reading a book about "Workhouses and Coffinmakers and pickpockets … I don't like that low debasing style."

The all-important thing for Dickens in writing the book is that IT IS TRUE, as he wrote (in capitals) in the Preface. He is describing "the very scum and refuse of the land". He was particularly keen that no one should think a criminal life glamorous: "What charms has it for the young and ill-disposed, what allurements for the most jolter-headed of juveniles? Here are no canterings on moonlit heaths, no merry-makings in the snuggest of all possible caverns." No, this is the life of the urban underbelly: "The cold, wet, shelterless midnight streets of London; the foul and frowzy dens, where vice is closely packed and lacks the room to turn; the haunts of hunger and disease, the shabby rags that scarcely hold together." This all sounds very familiar, does it not? This is no merely Victorian dystopia: this is inner-city life today, across a world in which – as it was in Dickens's day – the steep price of capitalism is increasingly visible scarcely a millimetre beneath the surface.

It is perhaps here that Cruikshank's superb visualisations have become dated. They seem like so many wonderfully wrought theatrical backdrops. We need to be reminded of the dark realities of the book's topography. It is a world of desperation, of addiction, of degradation, of corruption: Lionel Bart's Disneyfied Fagin and his full-throated cavorting pickpockets utterly betray what was for Dickens an-all-too-probable vision of the horror that his own life might have sunk into. "But for the mercy of God, I might easily have been, for any care that was taken of me, a little robber or a little vagabond."

The most important words to bear in mind in creating a corresponding imagery to the scenes of the text are the last words of Dickens's Preface: "It needed to be told." This is not fantasy: it is real, it is harsh and it is a dreadful warning. "To paint them in all their deformity, in all their wretchedness, in all the squalid poverty of their lives; to show them as they really are, forever skulking uneasily through the dirtiest paths of life, with the great, black, ghastly gallows closing up their prospect, turn them where they may – it appeared to me that to do this would be to attempt a something which was greatly needed, and which would be a service to society. And therefore I did it as I best could."

A modern take on backstreets and baddies

In Oliver Twist, Dickens revealed to his readers a world of street gangs, prostitutes and homeless children. He showed how life below the poverty line breeds intense loyalties and dangerous allegiances. In 2012, it will be 200 years since Dickens's birth, and 175 years since Oliver Twist was first published. The Guardian, in association with Vintage Classics, is asking photographers of all ages and skills to imagine how Oliver's world would look now, and will select the winning photograph to be the cover of a new edition of the novel published in March. The image should be a modern twist on the spirit of the original story.

What would the Artful Dodger look like in 2012? Or Bill Sikes and his dog? What atmosphere do the backstreets of our cities have today? It can be black and white or colour. It could be a portrait, a landscape, or just a telling detail from the novel subtly updated – and it must have been taken specifically for this competition.

See here for details of how to enter. The closing date is 13 January. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 11 2011

Watts gallery – review

Compton, Surrey

In recent weeks, several gleaming new galleries have opened to a predictable fanfare of stories about their budgets, the attitude of the local population, their size and appearance: Turner Contemporary in Margate, the Hepworth in Wakefield and the extension to the Holburne in Bath. One might reasonably have expected that our luck, not to mention our cash, would by now have run out. And yet the most thrilling opening of the year is still to come. Only this one involves no astonishing new construction, no (possibly) thin-skinned architect and no whiff of overspend. Nor, as the doors swing open, will any hot young artists be available for interview on the subject of their unfathomable installations; the painter whose work is gathered inside died a century ago. As for the locals, they could not be happier. It is the gallery's doting neighbours who have planted its flower beds with lavender and verbena, and they, too, who will bake the cakes for its tea room.

The Watts Gallery in the village of Compton, Surrey, is the loveliest of places. Lots of people, of course, thought it was lovely in the days when it was still on English Heritage's "At Risk" register, before it closed and began its £10m restoration. But it is even lovelier now. The original galleries, which first opened to the public in 1904, have been returned to their former glory, their walls ruby red and emerald green, their tiled dado rails, previously hidden beneath thick paint, shiny as new. In the sculpture studio, a judicious use of glass – the architects are Adam Zombory-Moldovan and Lucy Clark of ZMMA – has brought in light and drama.

Meanwhile, fresh spaces have been subtly created, carved from back rooms and corridors. There is a fine new learning studio, complete with working kiln, and a study room for truffling scholars, book-lined and soothing sage. Never before has the Watts collection, which comprises some 6,000 objects including 250 oil paintings, 800 drawings and watercolours and 200 sculptures, had a finer home, or a better chance of capturing the imagination of a new generation for whom the great GF Watts, and his wife, Mary, are still an unknown quantity.

In the Weston room, where some of Watts's most famous paintings hang (Found Drowned, which depicts the body of a suicide by the Thames; Under a Dry Arch, a study of a destitute), the gallery's director, Perdita Hunt, surveys the result of seven years' slog. Is she thrilled? "Oh, yes," she says. "We've created a centre of excellence, and I think it will mark the beginning of a reassessment of Watts's reputation."

In his day, Watts was extremely famous, as popular and acclaimed as his near contemporary Dickens (both used the distressing inequalities of Victorian life in their work, to stunning effect). His reputation was, moreover, international; Watts was the first living artist to be given a one-man show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Born in London in 1817, his artistic ambitions were encouraged by his father, a piano-maker, and in 1837 he exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition for the first time (his entry, A Wounded Heron, hangs in the room that was formerly known as the Green Gallery). Thereafter, it seemed there was nothing that Watts could not do: narrative painting, landscapes, portraits (his Hall of Fame, featuring the most famous figures of his age, among them Lillie Langtry and John Stuart Mill, is a Watts Gallery highlight), even sculpture (stand before his giant Gesso grosso model of his Monument to Lord Tennyson and feel your knees buckle).

His most famous painting is still Barack Obama's favourite: the allegorical Hope, that curled, blindfolded woman, perched atop a globe, caressing a broken lyre – and at the Watts, the finest version of it, on loan from a private collection, comprises the heart of a small exhibition about its amazing life (it has even appeared on a Jordanian stamp). But there is more to Watts than his adventures in symbolism. He is a Victorian who feels oddly modern, an enigma who also happens, sometimes, to be an open book.

And the life! In 1864 Watts married the actress, Ellen Terry, then just 16. But the relationship did not prosper, and they separated a year later. It was not until 1886 that Watts married again. For his new wife, Mary Seton Watts, who was 32 years his junior and his former pupil, this was the climax of a long campaign. She had admired him ever since their first meeting in 1870, and by 1880 her feelings were so clear to her, if not to him – he discouraged her affections – that she told him: "Signor, I think I have been looking for you my whole life."

Together they left London for Compton, where they built their house, Limnerslease, and commissioned Christopher Hatton Turner to create a nearby gallery in Arts & Crafts style, "a simple & rural type of building", to be constructed of rendered concrete and Surrey tiles. It opened in 1904, just three months before Watts died. Thereafter, it was Mary, his devoted amanuensis, who kept the flame alive, and it is her that we have to thank for the richness of the gallery's collection – something the refurbished Watts sweetly acknowledges with its display of her remarkable bronze triptych in memory of her nephew, Death Crowning Innocence.

Mary was, of course, a supremely talented artist in her right; the Compton Potters' Arts Guild she founded survived until the 1950s. And so, after you have wandered the galleries – after you have gazed on Watts's charmingly innocent self-portrait from 1834, on his exquisite busts of Clytie and Daphne, and on his almost Bloomsbury-esque double-headed study of his favourite model, Long Mary – stroll along the lane to see her masterpiece, the Watts Chapel. It astounds, every time. First, walk around the building – still a working mortuary chapel – examining the terracotta tiles that adorn it like some embroidered veil, each one made by the villagers, mostly unemployed agricultural workers, whom Mary trained. Then go inside and gaze on its painted blue-green-bronze panels. You will feel, perhaps, that you have walked into the Morte d'Arthur. Finally, step outside again and follow the path up to the loggia. Beside it is the grave where George and Mary, who died in 1938, lie together. The fact that down the hill their other legacy lives on, transcendent and amazing, seems only to add to the deep sense of peace.

The Watts Gallery reopens on Saturday (18 June) © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 10 2011

A thousand words

Both the story of William Powell Frith's life and his art had strong affinities with the literature of the day, and behind the realism of his paintings lies a moral undertone reminiscent of Dickens

Of all the Victorian artists, William Powell Frith (1819-1909) is the one who most resembles a character from a Victorian novel. Etty spent seven years as a printer's devil; Turner's early life with his wig-maker father in Maiden Lane sounds like a cancelled chapter from The Old Curiosity Shop, but somehow it is the creator of Ramsgate Sands in whom the twin streams of Victorian art and Victorian literature most narrowly converge. There is the (relatively) humble background – Frith senior was a Harrogate inn-keeper – and the unabashed delight in celebrity and the high-powered socialising that went with it. Above all – a vital component of the Victorian jigsaw – there is that sense of secretiveness. In time-honoured sensation-novel fashion, Frith maintained a second family, of whose existence his wife became aware only when she caught her husband – supposedly in Brighton – posting a letter three streets away.

One always expects a steely juvenile resolve from the biographies of Victorian painters. Frith, however, seems scarcely to have wanted to become an artist in the first place. His original scheme was to be an auctioneer, and it was only when his talent-spotting father dragged him off to London and advertised his sketches to a pair of Academicians that he got the bit between his teeth. There followed a somewhat tedious apprenticeship at the Charlotte Street art school run by Henry Sass ("Gandish's Academy" in Thackeray's The Newcomes), but by the early 1840s, still barely out of his teens, he was luxuriating in his first Academy success – a subject from The Vicar of Wakefield that went for 100 guineas – and an order from Dickens for portraits of Kate Nickleby and Barnaby Rudge's Dolly Varden. A sharp operator, even in his apprentice days, Frith recognised the symbolic significance of the Dickens commission: he and his mother are supposed to have burst into tears on receipt of the letter.

If the 1840s was a good time to be a novelist, then, in certain respects, it was an even better time to be a painter. From an early stage in his career, Frith was able to benefit from the two great professionalising tendencies of Victorian art. The first was the enormous sums of money that could now be made out of a vocation that had previously got by on shabby gentility. The Railway Station, from 1861, was sold to the celebrated London dealer Louis Victor Flatow for 8,800 guineas, with a 750 guinea bonus for keeping it out of the Royal Academy exhibition; 83,000 people subsequently trooped through Flatow's gallery to inspect it. The second – closely connected to the first – was the rising social status of the artist. "The Artists" of Thackeray's knowing sketch of 1840 are down-at-heel bohemians, the steps of whose Soho ateliers resound to the tread of duns and potboys – the greatest insult flung at Vanity Fair's Becky Sharp, after all, is that her father was a drawing-master. But the sanitising process that picked up Dickens and Thackeray and deposited them in noblemen's drawing- rooms, brought them to Holland House salons and the terraces of country estates quickly extended to the art world. Frith was taken up by royalty and invited to paint the marriage of the Prince of Wales, but not the least of his achievements was to marry one of his daughters off to the celebrated Victorian medic Sir George Hastings.

If all this sounds like a very minor variation on the standard Victorian principle of self-help, with easel and oil paint taking the place of railway shares or discounted bills, then Frith would have been the first to admit his materialism. His attitude to his art was straightforwardly mercenary. "I know very well that I never was, nor under any circumstances could have become, a great artist," he maintained, "but I am a very successful one." But if at one level he was an all-too-pliable opportunist, quite happy, during his reputation-forging 20s to churn out the historical panoramas or scenes from Goldsmith that the early-Victorian public – and the early-Victorian art critic – demanded, then, at another, he was profoundly irritated by some of the constraints that it placed on his imagination.

Here, too, he was helped by a development in the wider landscape. This was the art world's increasing tolerance of a straightforwardly representative treatment of contemporary subjects. Ramsgate Sands, a sensation at the Royal Academy summer show of 1854, laid the foundation stone of Frith's commercial success – it was sold to a London dealer for 1,000 guineas and later bought by Queen Victoria – but it also established him as a technical innovator. As the art historian Christopher Wood points out, his vista of Victorian ladies at the beach is the first attempt to paint large numbers of people in modern dress, predating Manet by 10 years and Degas, Renoir and Caillebotte by nearly 20.

To the novelist – as opposed to the art critic – Frith's fascination lies in his closeness to the literature of his day, the sense that what the viewer is examining is not so much a painting as a wide-angle illustration to a book that has not yet been written. In this he is thoroughly representative of one of the great aesthetic tendencies of his age. The boundary between early-Victorian art and early-Victorian literature is blurred to the point where it sometimes seems hardly to exist at all. It was not merely that most novels were issued in illustrated, serial form, but that a significant fraction of novelists were keen to maintain a presence in both camps. Thackeray, to take the most obvious example, originally fancied himself as an artist – his introduction to Dickens came when he offered himself as a replacement for Seymour, The Pickwick Papers' first illustrator – and much of his early work takes the form of "sketchbooks" in which the drawings are sometimes quite as important as the text that surrounds them. The original title of Vanity Fair was "Pen and Pencil Sketches of English Society", and even though the book soon turned into a conventional novel, there is a constant reminder of its visual dynamics in Thackeray's illustrations, many of which improve on the plot by adding odd bits of symbolism, choice allusions that bring out the significance of what may only be implicit in the prose itself.

If Thackeray uses his artistic skills to irradiate his literary work, then Frith, it might be said, plays the trick in reverse by carrying the techniques of literature over into his art. From one angle, this was simply a matter of ballast, and the wholesale importation from books and magazines of the kind of people with whom he populated his pictures. One of his great friends, for example, was the Punch artist John Leech, whose "social types" became a staple of his paintings. It involved both the use of interior narrative, and the well-worked profusion of his backdrops, which are as heroically cluttered and faithfully rendered as any Dickensian stage set: "I put no trust in fancy for the smallest detail of the picture," he once declared. All these tendencies come together in The Derby Day, sent to the Royal Academy at the end of April 1858 in time for its private view of 2 May. "Opening day of the Exhibition," the artist noted in his diary shortly afterwards. "Never was such a crowd seen around a picture. The secretary obliged to get a policeman to keep the people off."

Frith had first visited the Epsom turf two years previously, less interested in the race itself than the off-course antics of the acrobats and the fortune-tellers, nearly getting swindled by a thimble-rigging gang fronted by a bogus clergyman (all these figures appear on the canvas) and watching a ruined gambler attempting to cut his throat in one of the refreshment tents. Although he made rough drawings of the composition, he admitted that he "had difficulty in composing great numbers of figures into a more or less harmonious whole". The Derby Day, consequently, involves a number of different techniques. Its basis – something Victorian painters tended to keep quiet about – is a series of photographs taken by his friend Robert Howlett. Its figures – all 88 of them – are not the racegoers he had seen at Epsom two years before but models brought to his studio in Pembridge Villas and painted in threes, or even portraits of friends: the man in the fez standing behind the policeman is modelled on his deranged fellow artist Richard Dadd, already in prison for the murder of his father.

The picture is, in effect, a series of individual stories: the thimble-riggers clustered to the left of the pop-eyed boy who has clearly just been fleeced by them; the aristocratic roué lounging by his mistress's carriage; the two gentlemanly exquisites paying languid court to a brace of racecard-toting young ladies. Frith's genius lies in what he sees, but also in what he does not, or chooses not to see, in what he puts in and also what he leaves out, and the result is both an impossibly detailed panorama and also an impression, where the viewer, apparently shown everything, still wants to know more.

Critics diagnosed works of scrupulous realism: "just the right classes which may be seen at our chief railway stations," the Era observed of The Railway Station, "and every one of them extraordinarily true to life." But Frith was never a realist in the strict sense: ultimately his approach is as devious and selective as any 1880s aesthetician. One sees this most obviously in his cast of characters, who, however sharply drawn, are always carefully calibrated to the public's expectations of them. The Victorian art fanciers who stood in front of The Derby Day saw, in the end, what they thought they ought to see. As a piece of art, the painting is a gigantic paradox: full of individual life and vigour, oddly static when seen in the round. But Ruskin, who reckoned it "a kind of cross between John Leech and Wilkie, with a dash of daguerreotype here and there, and some pretty seasoning with Dickens' sentiment", was absolutely right. No Victorian artist quite so successfully incorporated the tricks of narrative into his paintings, or knew what his audience wanted from both art and the life they saw reflected in it.

DJ Taylor's novel Derby Day is published by Chatto & Windus. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 27 2010

Memorial to Pickwick Papers artist resurrected to 'right a moral wrong'

London museum unveils gravestone of Robert Seymour, the artist who killed himself after 'being dropped' by Charles Dickens

The scene on 20 April 1836 was horrific: the artist lay in a welter of gore on the floor of the summerhouse at his London home, his coat and waistcoat burning from the ferocity of the shotgun blast which had killed him.

Now, a century after Robert Seymour's memorial disappeared, the stone commemorating him is to be unveiled at a ceremony in the back garden of 48 Doughty Street, the museum in Charles Dickens' only surviving London home.

Seymour had taken his own life within 24 hours of a last meeting with the author Dickens, after completing the final illustration – named Death of a Clown – for the writer's first novel, the Pickwick Papers. Almost certainly Dickens had told Seymour he was being dropped as the artist for the serial, which when bound together would become his first runaway best seller and launch his career.

The gravestone, which had been missing for more than a century, was tracked down by Stephen Jarvis, a scholar, and rescued from the damp crypt of a London church. Its re-dedication will be some reparation for a grave injustice which some blame on Dickens.

A number of admirers of Seymour certainly believe that morally Dickens was responsible for his death. The wretched artist is thought to have believed his genius had been stolen and that the book would make another man rich and famous.

Seymour died literally heartbroken: the inquest found that the blast from the fowling weapon, an early type of sporting gun, which he turned on himself, disintegrated his heart.

David Parker, a former curator of the Dickens House Museum, in north London, and an expert on the Pickwick Papers, said: "I don't think Dickens can be blamed for Seymour's suicide. That's not to say that he handled his transactions with Seymour perfectly, but blame is another thing … If there is any truth in the hypothesis that the distinguished illustrator couldn't bear to be bossed around by the scribbling whippersnapper, then it has to be said that Seymour had failed to grow up and come to terms with realities."

Seymour took his own life within 24 hours of that last meeting with Dickens. Before he killed himself he destroyed his private papers, just as Dickens would 34 years later.

Seymour was replaced as Dickens' artist by Robert W Buss, but he too was quickly replaced by the illustrator most famously associated with the author, one who would work with him for decades – Hablot Knight Browne, nicknamed Phiz.

When the publishers Chapman and Hall brought Dickens and Seymour together in 1836, the latter, whose work had been compared to that of Hogarth and who had been dubbed "the Shakespeare of caricature", was certainly better known than the young journalist and author.

Within the year that changed forever: Dickens and Pickwick, when the serial was bound together into his first novel, became a sensation.

But the idea for the book was Seymour's. The illustrator was known for comic sporting prints, and he dreamed up the idea of The Nimrod Club, the adventures of sporting friends, which would have his pictures linked by texts supplied by a hack writer. Dickens protested he knew little of sports – and took control of the whole project. Seymour's title was dropped in favour of the Pickwick Papers, and though in two of the best-loved passages Mr Pickwick and his friends go ice skating and play cricket, most of their adventures occur in coffee houses and inns.

After a couple of the stories were published, disagreements between the artist and author became insoluble, and it was clear which rising star the publishers would back.

The clash and then the death of Seymour is still a sensitive subject for Dickens scholars.

Dickens and his publishers had been at pains to play down Seymour. In a later edition Dickens wrote: "Mr Seymour never originated or suggested an incident, a phrase, or a word, to be found in the book."

Jarvis, who hunted down the gravestone, is a member of the Dickens Fellowship, and is working on a biography of Seymour. He traced an 1889 magazine report noting "the painfully neglected condition" of the grave at St Mary Magdalene in Islington, London. Gravestones were later removed to the church crypt, where Jarvis found Seymour's by torchlight.

The stone's three-line inscription just records Seymour's name, age and date of death. Jarvis believes Seymour's family fell into poverty, and could not afford to add later deaths to the stone. The suicide blighted their lives, he says, leading indirectly to the suicide by drowning of his son, whose landlady recorded the piteous remark that he was so lonely he thought he would go insane.

Jarvis felt he owed it to Seymour not to abandon this single memorial to another century in darkness. It took him five years to get permission to move the stone to Doughty Street, a move which he sees as both honouring Seymour and righting a historic wrong.

At the museum, which is planning celebrations for the bicentenary of Dickens' birth in 1812, the director, Florian Schweizer, said: "We welcome the monument as an important addition to our collections – but I don't think one can blame Dickens for his death at all." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 04 2010

Steve Bell on The Worship of Bacchus by George Cruikshank

Cruikshank's painting still has the power to shock, says Steve Bell. It fits seamlessly into Tate Britain's exhibition 'Rude Britannia: British Comic Art'

The Worship of Bacchus still has the power to shock, even after 148 years. The underside of Victorian Britain is here anatomised and laid out for all to see, without a shred of sentimentality. This fact alone makes it almost unique in the art of the Victorian era. George Cruikshank's vision is stark and penetrating, yet completely sympathetic. He painted the world, refracted through a wine glass, as he knew and experienced it for the first 55 years of his very long and fruitful life, and his own experiences are here laid bare.

Born in 1792, the son of a successful caricaturist (Isaac) and the brother of another (Robert), Cruikshank's artistic career spans most of the 19th century. An astonishingly gifted draughtsman, he took over the great tradition of scabrous graphic satire bequeathed by his father, who died in a drinking contest in 1811, and the mighty James Gillray, who at the same time was descending into (quite possibly drink-related) madness and an early death in 1815. Cruikshank's satirical etchings of the Prince Regent were some of the rudest ever drawn, and some of his wood engravings illustrating satires such as The Political House That Jack Built, in collaboration with the radical publisher William Hone, must have been seen and read by millions.

So successful was he that he was actually paid money to desist by agents of the increasingly grotesque King George IV. Which the young man duly did, turning his attentions away from politics towards comic illustration packed with incident, observation and flights of fantasy, at which he excelled. We often use the word "Dickensian" to sum up this period when what we really mean is "Cruikshankian". Though they fell out in later years, the young Charles Dickens was delighted to have his early work, such as Oliver Twist, illustrated by such a distinguished talent.

Cruikshank was never a painter by trade or repute, but by the time The Worship of Bacchus was painted in 1862, he was widely acknowledged as the greatest comic artist of his time. This work, however, is not intended to elicit laughter. It is didactic in the extreme, motivated by an overwhelming desire to stop people drinking, and to rescue mankind from its own, basest urges.

This, to a more modern sensibility, could in itself be a source of great and profound amusement, but one should never doubt the painting's sincerity. The breadth and scope of its ambition, the frenzy of its execution and, above all, its sheer size command attention. It challenges the viewer in many ways and looking at it is by no means a comfortable experience.

Cruikshank's vision is very different from that of his hugely successful contemporary William Powell Frith. Where Frith's panoramas, such as Derby Day, which, unlike Bacchus, people actually paid to go and see, are smooth and elegantly ordered, Cruikshank's is chaotic, contradictory, packed with intentionally jarring contrasts, utterly impolite and thus essentially comic, despite the manifest lack of laughs.

It even caused embarrassment because it showed his contemporaries what they didn't really wish to see, and told them things they didn't, frankly, wish to know. The message was clear and unambiguous: don't drink, even in moderation, as, no matter how high or exalted one's station in life, it will lead inexorably to ruin.

All classes are depicted across this vast panorama, and all classes get it in the neck from Cruikshank. What makes his view distinctive is that all participants are to some degree victims of their addiction, and the greatest victims of all commit the worst atrocities.

Such a humane view is still controversial today. This is not to resurrect him as a hero of liberalism, for he was by this late stage of his life an avowed reactionary conservative, having been very much a radical in his youth. After his death in 1878 his will revealed that he had a second, secret partner and family of 10 children, to whom he bequeathed "all such furniture books wines and household effects belonging to me" at an address very near his childless marital home.

A hypocrite he may have been, but he was never a humbug. His expert depiction of credible human characters in all kinds of desperate situations is always sympathetic, rarely patronising and clearly born of bitter experience. His skill and his draughtsmanship are unsurpassed. The flushed cheeks, the glazed expressions, the desperate necking of a bottle, are as accurate today as they were in 1862. It may have a less than subtle ulterior motive but it is a truly wonderful work of art. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 28 2009

Excellent Points

Rosemary Hill on an intriguing exhibition at the British Library

The early Victorians were the first generation to see themselves through the camera lens, but the idea of photography, the possibility of making an exact reproduction of visual experience, was one – like flight and the philosophers' stone – that had haunted the imagination of inventors for centuries. The "camera obscura" or "dark room" that could project images on to a blank surface was known in antiquity, but a long hiatus followed. Then, at the end of the 18th century it was found that paper coated in silver nitrate would retain the image of an object placed on it for a tantalising moment before it faded. As the Georgian age came to an end, the enthusiasm for light shows and spectacles of all sorts reached fever pitch – as if photography were being willed into existence by sheer popular demand. London and Paris were full of novel experiences with enticing names – panoramas, cycloramas and, in Leicester Square, Philip de Loutherbourg's Eidophusikon, in which pulleys, mirrors and sound effects conjured up a plausible storm at sea.

The building that housed one of the most successful of the light shows, the Diorama, still exists in Regent's Park. In a kind of early Imax, the audience sat in a rotating drum to watch clouds, apparently, pass over the moonlit ruins of Holyrood. Its inventor was the artist Louis Daguerre, who was first across the line with a true photographic process in 1839, in France. The sensation caused by his breakthrough prompted William Henry Fox Talbot, who had been working quietly in Wiltshire at his home, Lacock Abbey, to unveil his own version, which he called the calotype. In his early prints, the Gothic tracery of Lacock shimmers, ghostly, into being, fragile and mysterious beside the pin-sharp immediacy of the daguerreotype. From the beginning, photography could be many things.

One thing it always was, was popular. It never entirely left the show business world from which it had emerged. By October 1839 the Adelaide Galleries in Pall Mall were already offering daily demonstrations of the daguerreotype process. These had to compete for attention with the galleries' famous – and ear-splitting – steam gun, which went off every hour, as well as a 40in electric eel from South America out of which Michael Faraday was able to get a "most intense" spark. By the mid-century, technical improvements had made photography cheap enough for a mass market. The 1861 census recorded 2,879 professional photographers in England and there were many more keen amateurs.

While the movement of Victorian society as a whole tended to make class divisions ever more rigid, photography managed to be classless. Cumbersome puns in Punch about dustmen having their "cart de visite" photographed reflected the speed with which the "lower orders" seized on a chance to sit for the sort of portrait the middle and upper classes had been commissioning for centuries. Photography was also, from the beginning, considered a suitably genteel pastime for women, who produced some of the most enduring portrait studies of the 19th century. The camera at times perhaps allowed them to express ideas that a lady might hesitate to put into words. Julia Margaret Cameron's study of Tennyson made the laureate look, he thought, like a "dirty monk", and he was pleased with it. Lady Alice Mary Kerr's darkly glamorous vision of the poet and serial seducer Wilfrid Scawen Blunt transports his erotic appeal in full force across a century and a half.

Questions were asked, of course, the same questions that are usually asked about new technologies – notably "is it art" and "is it a threat to society as we know it" – and as usual many of the answers were wrong. The history painter Paul Delaroche's immediate response, "from today painting is dead", turned out to be premature, while the Times's confidence that photography would never replace the "completeness" of the painted panorama was also misplaced. But the popularity of photography did not, at first, alienate those who saw themselves as guardians of high culture. Ruskin, as an architectural artist, reassured his elderly father that "photography is a noble invention, say what they will of it. Anyone who has worked, blundered and stammered as I have done [for] four days, and then sees the thing he has been trying to do so long in vain, done perfectly and faultlessly in half a minute, won't abuse it afterwards."

Charlotte Brontë, who seems to have been the first novelist to use "daguerreotype" as a verb, was also an enthusiast. In Shirley, published in 1849, Caroline Helstone, encountering her would-be lover unexpectedly, finds his image is "struck on her vision with painful brightness . . . as vividly as if daguerreotyped". The implication is that somehow the photographic image would be even more real, more intense, than his physical presence. It was this truthfulness, the potential of "nature's own transcript of herself", to offer a moral purity beyond human fallibility that appealed to the more thoughtful early Victorians.

Of its social effects, the art critic Elizabeth Eastlake spoke for many in heralding it as an invention "made for the present age". The age was one of railways and expanding empire, and it wanted, she believed, a supply of "cheap, prompt and correct facts" to aid its steam-driven progress. This was what, to some extent, it got. Journalism was transformed as engravings of photographic images and then photographs themselves were used in magazines and newspapers. The Crimea soon provided an occasion for the first war photographs. Photographic images show Nelson's Column going up in the 1840s and the Vendome Column coming down under the Paris commune. But news pictures were not the most popular, and it was decades before anyone thought seriously of using a camera to document social conditions. Landscapes, historic sites, celebrities, especially Dickens, and endless pictures of themselves were what the Victorians liked best.

It was not long before the supposed objectivity of the camera came into question. As a sceptical Mark Twain pointed out: "You can't depend on your eyes if your imagination is out of focus." Besides Eastlake's vision of ever expanding truth and Charlotte Brontë's endorsement of the emotional force of the image, there was always another, more shadowy, reality. Fakes, mistakes, tricks and lies were endemic in photography from the beginning, and grew in number and variety as photographic techniques improved. EP Loftus Brock was an early, if inadvertent, demonstrator of its limits as a scientific method when he used it at Stonehenge to further his investigations of the alignment of the stones. Having engaged a photographer to observe with him the sunrise at midsummer in order to test the popular belief that the sun rose directly over the Heel Stone, he reported back to the British Archaeological Association that this fact was now "verified beyond all question". Since the sun actually rises slightly to the north, either Brock's camera or his imagination must have been out of focus.

Nor was moral purity guaranteed. It was not a coincidence that the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 followed shortly in the wake of new developments in photography. The wet collodion process, which introduced glass instead of paper negatives, was published without patent protection in 1851. Shorter exposure times and cheaper prints were achieved soon afterwards and a booming market for pornographic pictures was one immediate unintended consequence. In response, the Society for the Suppression of Vice campaigned effectively for the new law. It was less effective, however, in defining obscenity. It was over dirty pictures, rather than more elevated questions about craftsmanship and intention, that the debate about whether or not photography was art became interestingly heated.

It first came to a head at the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition, where OG Rejlander showed his enormous photographic composition The Two Ways of Life. Printed from 30 separate negatives, it featured groups of allegorical figures, among whom the vices were portrayed by naked women. Despite Rejlander's robust defence of his work as art – the groups, he argued, were entirely based on classical sources – the picture caused a scandal. When the Scottish Photographic Society later put it on display, it was forced to take it down on "moral grounds" – though the objectors had the wind taken out of their sails by Queen Victoria, who clearly thought The Two Ways was art and bought a print for Prince Albert. He hung it in his private suite at Windsor.

Victorian erotica today looks for the most part as monumental and unexciting as Victorian furniture. The 19thcentury pictures that give us most pause, like Lewis Carroll's studies of young girls, were in their day quite unexceptionable. Perhaps still more disturbing are the documentary images of "natives", "lunatics" and criminals by which it was hoped that science, first as physiognomy and later as eugenics would open the way to a systematic understanding of human nature. The shudder of hindsight shouldn't blind us to the sincerity or the nobility of the 19th century's belief in the power of its new medium to scan the soul. Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals used images of mental patients taken by the neurologist Guillaume Duchenne de Boulogne at the Salpêtrière hospital. Yet even at the time there were those who noticed that studies of "hysteria" and "megalomania" mainly serve to underline how little of the mind the face reveals.

As the century wore on, a certain disillusionment set in. Trollope thought the photograph much less useful to the novelist than Charlotte Brontë had. "Let daguerreotypers do what they will," he wrote in Barchester Towers, "they will never achieve a portrait of the human face divine." Ever the pessimist, Thomas Hardy, who thought that Darwin's discoveries had destroyed all hope of happiness for the over-evolved species that was mankind, saw in photography the potential for positive malevolence. In his A Laodicean, of 1880, Paula Powers loses faith in her lover, Somerset, when shown a picture of him apparently exhibiting "the wild attitude of a man advanced in intoxication". This kind of manipulation of the image, achieved in Hardy's story by Somerset's enemy William Dare, was already, Hardy noted, a popular jape with "certain facetious persons of society". Joke pictures of the German emperor in a screaming rage or of the pope dead drunk did a brisk trade.

A more calculated manipulation of images towards the end of Victoria's reign was responsible for the rash of cloudy spirit photographs, veils of ectoplasm and hovering hands that convinced Conan Doyle and many others that the camera could record the dead as truthfully as the living. As embarrassing in their way as the erotica, the faked images of seances make a telling counterpart to the hundreds of images taken over the same period to celebrate the queen's diamond jubilee in 1897. The jubilee saw photography reach its apogee as an instrument of imperial triumphalism. It would record, people believed, for "after years" Great Britain's work of "civilising, of governing, of protecting life and property, and of extending the benefits of trade and commerce" across the world.

What the images reveal now, as they settle back into the lengthening history of photography, is the extent to which every Victorian certainty was shadowed by an equally profound doubt. For each confidently posed picture of a tiger hunter or the royal family there is a joke in dubious taste, a stocky nude or a fragile hope of life after death. As photography found its place in culture and society, no longer a technical novelty or a lever to prise open the moral truths of humanity, it gave back to the Victorians what they brought to it. Now it passes them on to us in ways that would have surprised them. "A photograph is a most important document," said Mark Twain, "and there is nothing more damning to go down to posterity." The Victorians are not damned by their photographs, but they are revealed, in ways that would surprise them, telling truths they hardly knew themselves.

Points of View: Capturing the 19th Century in Photographs is at the British Library until 7 March 2010 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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