Dickens and London at the Museum of London

A new exhibition entitled ‘Dickens and London’ opens at the Museum of London. It will  reveal how Charles Dickens and London are bound together. The Dickens family moved to Camden Town in London in 1822, John Dickens, the father and head of the household continually lived beyond his means and was eventually imprisoned in the Marshalsea debtor’s prison in Southwark London in 1824 for owing £40. This left the young Charles to earn some money.

The blacking-warehouse was the last house on the left-hand side of the way, at old Hungerford Stairs. It was a crazy, tumble-down old house, abutting of course on the river, and literally overrun with rats. Its wainscoted rooms, and its rotten floors and staircase, and the old grey rats swarming down in the cellars, and the sound of their squeaking and scuffling coming up the stairs at all times, and the dirt and decay of the place, rise up visibly before me, as if I were there again. The counting-house was on the first floor, looking over the coal-barges and the river. There was a recess in it, in which I was to sit and work. My work was to cover the pots of paste-blacking; first with a piece of oil-paper, and then with a piece of blue paper; to tie them round with a string; and then to clip the paper close and neat, all round, until it looked as smart as a pot of ointment from an apothecary’s shop. When a certain number of grosses of pots had attained this pitch of perfection, I was to paste on each a printed label, and then go on again with more pots. Two or three other boys were kept at similar duty down-stairs on similar wages. One of them came up, in a ragged apron and a paper cap, on the first Monday morning, to show me the trick of using the string and tying the knot. His name was Bob Fagin; and I took the liberty of using his name, long afterwards, in Oliver Twist. Charles Dickens

I think Charles dickens brought the grime and hardship of London in the Victorian Era alive for all who read his works. Indeed Walter Bagehot in 1858 observed how Dickens’s ‘genius’ was ‘suited to the delineation of city life’ and noted how he described London ‘like a special correspondent for posterity’ and so he did.

The ‘Dickens and London’ exhibition is arranged thematically.

William Powell Frith’s famous and arresting portrait of the author, painted in 1859 and commissioned by Dickens’s close friend and biographer John Forster, is given pride of place at the entrance to the show. Describing the work, the artist felt that he had depicted a man “who had reached the topmost rung of a very high ladder, and was perfectly aware of his position”. Alongside it, small ‘carte de visite’ photographs bring one face-to-face with Dickens’s family, friends and acquaintances.

The central display space builds a city of the imagination through projections and subtle lighting. Dickens called London his ‘magic lantern’ and visitors glimpse the world that the author might have seen or imagined as he walked the streets at night. Dickens described his mind as a “sort of capitally prepared and highly sensitive [photographic] plate”. As he walked he mapped out the intricate storylines of his novels. Just as his fictional characters make their way from one place to another, so he followed in their footsteps across the real city. On the walls, coloured to reflect the dirt and grime of the Victorian city, paintings and drawings capture the appearance of London and Londoners. A few key objects inhabit this space including a watchman’s box from Furnival’s Inn, one of the old Inns of Court where Dickens had chambers as a young man, and a door from Newgate Prison associated with the Gordon Riots. Floating above are signs from London shops and taverns and alphabet letters that are beginning to shape themselves into words and phrases. They lead towards the manuscript of Bleak House, open at the very first page with its evocative description of the fog that has enveloped London. The exhibition includes other manuscripts including Great Expectations, Dombey and Son and David Copperfield which give a fascinating insight into how Dickens worked creatively. Alex Werner, Head of History Collections at the Museum of London.

There have been some good reviews:

“The Museum of London’s new exhibition will enthrall.” The Times

Items being exhibited will include paintings, photographs, costume and objects will illustrate themes that Dickens wove into his works, while rarely seen manuscripts including Bleak House and David Copperfield.

Sound like a must and in on until 12 Jan.


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