King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences
From woodcut to photograph: techniques of book illustration

Dickens and 'Phiz'

Plate depicting a gloomy London street running through a slum, with a church towering over the buildingsPlate depicting the slum of Tom all Alone'sNowadays it is rare for a literary work to be first published in illustrated form but in the mid-19th century the pairing of literature and illustration was common;  works by novelists such as Dickens, Trollope and Thackeray and poets such as Tennyson and Christina Rossetti were all published in illustrated editions, and many made their first appearance in print in an illustrated version.

Probably the best known literary illustrations of the period are those of Hablot K Browne (‘Phiz’) for the novels of Charles Dickens; their combination of comic exaggeration and dark romanticism perfectly reflect these contrasting strands of the Dickensian genius.

Browne (1815-82) first worked for Dickens in 1836, following the suicide of Robert Seymour, who had produced the early plates for The Pickwick Papers. Browne completed the illustration of this work, whose phenomenal success was largely responsible for the vogue in literary illustration, and his ensuing partnership with Dickens lasted 23 years, generating a total of 740 illustrations, with 570 steel etchings and 170 wood engravings.

Most of Dickens’s novels were published in serial form, appearing in monthly parts, each part illustrated with two full-page etchings.This mode of publication led to a close and collaborative relationship between author and illustrator; Dickens had the illustrations for early parts before him as he wrote the later ones, and Browne’s work thus had a direct influence on his writing.

Browne’s development as an illustrator mirrored that of Dickens as an author, youthful whimsicality gradually giving place to an often dark satire.  In 1847 he began to experiment with the etching of ‘dark plates’, scored with closely set parallel lines;  these printed in shades of grey to convey scenes of evening, night or gloomy interiors.

The plate on display, depicting the slum of Tom- all-Alone’s, demonstrates Browne’s mastery of this technique to evoke the atmosphere of this sinister and squalid place.

Our copy of this book is from the library collection of Sion College, transferred to King’s in 1996.

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