Thursday 8 December 2011

Visiting Dickens' London

The much anticipated Dickens and London exhibition opens tomorrow, and I was lucky enough to have a sneak peak today - solo! - accompanied by Andrew Marcus from the Museum's publicity team, and Alex Werner, Head of History Collections, the exhibition's curator. My especial thanks to Alex - it was incredibly generous of him to spare me the time, the day before the big event. Cheers!

Here's my review ... with some comments on layout and design, multimedia, and that crucial element, the actual content; then some final thoughts.

Layout and Design

The layout of the exhibition is straightforward and easy to follow, themed into sections which relate to Dickens's life and his works. These include areas devoted to death, the Victorian worship of house and home, and Dickens enduring passion for the theatre (as a young man, he famously considered becoming an actor;  later in life, he would form his own highly regimented 'amateur' productions, both for pleasure and charitable purposes; and he spent his final years giving bravura 'readings' of dramatic scenes from his work to packed theatres and halls) . There are pieces of biography and Dickens's personal memorabilia scattered throughout, but the exhibition is more about showing the London which Dickens knew, through objects, printed material, art and video.



There are three video elements, none of which I had time to see at any length, but looked good:

1. giant projector screens at the entrance, showing 'dissolving views' (to use a Victorianism) of nineteenth century London photographs - ragged street sellers, London Bridge in rush hour &c.

2. an animation, using Buss's famous 'Dickens's Dream' as its source and inspiration

Dickens's Dream, by Robert William Buss, 1875
3. A film, The Houseless Shadow, tracing the paths of Dickens's famous Night Walks  essay, taking us through modern London in his footsteps.


The contents of the exhibition are simply fabulous, to be honest. I particularly enjoyed the larger objects taken from the museum's collections. For example, various London street signs taken from coaching inns and the like. These decorative '3D' signs were peculiar antiquarian oddities in Dickens's time, but you will find them frequently referenced in his works. You can still see some in the wild, too, albeit reproductions: the goldbeater's arm  referenced in A Tale of Two Cities, whose replica can  be spotted on Manette Street in Soho (I believe the original is in the Dickens Museum); or the signs of Lombard Street, (re)erected for the coronation of George V in 1910 (see this grasshopper, for instance).

An original sign at the exhibition, from the Bull and Mouth Coaching Inn, St. Martin's-le-Grand.
More gloomily, how about a door from Newgate Gaol?

A cell-door from Newgate.

Or this watchman's box from Furnival's Inn where Dickens had rooms in the 1830s?

A watchman's box - of the sort which 18th and 19th C. rakes loved to topple over.
You can also see two of Dickens's writing desks (one from Gad's Hill, and one - I think - from Doughty Street, although I may have got that wrong); several pages of original manuscript, replete with crossings-out and additions - in particular, the magnficent first page of Bleak House, with its unforgettable description of the London fog and dinosaurs on Holborn Hill.

The choice of artwork has great range and depth - from the grand but familiar Applicants for Admission to a casual ward, by Luke Fildes to the weird garish colours and distorted faces of Arthur Boyd Houghton's Itinerant Singers (try zooming on the image below, for a scare), as well as some rare London scenes relating to Dickens's life and work ...

Itinerant Singers, by Arthur Boyd Houghton
Hungerford Stairs, by John Harley, 1830, the site of the infamous blacking factory
in which the young author had to labour; now the site of Embankment Station.

A rare view of Buckingham Street, by John Niemann, 1854, where Dickens lived briefly in 1834. David Copperfield lived here too. Note the York Water Gate in the background, still visible today.
What else? Well, let's think - copies of the novels in the original part-work format in which they appeared - a great idea, given this was how most readers first consumed Dickens's works. You may also notice a lovely - original - penny theatre depicting The Miller and His Men, the childhood story beloved by the great author. Copies of the playbills for rip-offs of Dickens's works (often performed before the ending of the book was published); cartes de visites of his friends and colleagues, and his mistress, the actress Ellen Ternan ... it's a long list, I promise you.

Final Thoughts

Was there anything that let the exhibition down? Well, I'm not sure about the giant video screens ... they seemed a bit wasted on showing blown up photos; and I wondered if more could be done. I'm not sure I saw everything that will appear on them, but I yearned to see Dickens represented in modern film or theatre - for instance, the 1920s silent version of Oliver Twist (which is marvellous) or the early eighties RSC Nicholas Nickleby. On the other hand, I'll lay odds you will be able to catch those at the BFI or similar at some point. Equally, on the tour, Alex mentioned how a copy of one of Dickens's books, pirated into Russian, was found on a dead Russian soldier at Sebastopol in 1857 - and I wondered if we'd see anything about Dickens translated into other languages, in other cultures. This is, however, the purest nit-picking on my part; and - looking at the catalogue, having come home - I find there were two dozen fascinating things that totally escaped me on today's whirlwind tour. In short, I must go back; and I would heartily recommend you make the effort to pay this exhibition a visit - it's a brilliant, intriguing display of industry, ingenuity and affection on the part of the museum and its staff.

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