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Old Lamps for New Ones

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Author Charles Dickens
Genres Prose: Essay i
Prose: Leading Article i
Subject Art; Design; Painting; Sculpture; Photography; Interior Decoration;
Other Details
Printed : 15/6/1850
Journal : Household Words
Volume : Volume I
Magazine : No. 12
Office Book Notes
MemoPre-raphaelite paintings
Views : 7691

John Everett Millais was one of the founder-members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood with Holman Hunt and D. G. Rossetti. His first major religious painting, titled only by a Biblical text but know as 'Christ in the House of His Parents' (see The Pre-Raphaelites, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery/Penguin Books [1984], no. 26), caused immense controversy because of its determined realism when it was shown in the Royal Academy exhibition ('In all the papers...the attack on Millais had been most virulent and audacious,' wrote W. M. Rossetti, quoted by Leonée Ormond in 'Dickens and Painting: Contemporary Art', The Dickensian, Vol. 80 [1984], p. 21; this article contains an excellent analysis of Dickens's reaction to Millais's painting). Dickens was a fervent admirer of Raphael and, as Ormond observes, felt that the Brotherhood's name 'implied a deliberate attack' on the great Renaissance artist.

His strong hostility towards the Oxford Movement would also have influenced his attitude towards Pre-Raphaelitism, which had clear links with it (see Tate Gallery catalogue entry; also Pilgrim, Vol. VI, p. 107, no. 2). This is clear from his letter to Maclise of 30 May sending him a proof of the article and saying 'I feel perfectly sure that you will see nothing in it but what is fair public satire on a point that opens very serious social considerations. If such things were allowed to sweep on, without some vigorous protest, three fourths of this Nation would be under the feet of Priests, in ten years' (Pilgrim, Vol. VI, p. 106f.). Dickens later met Millais socially and liked him, but did not change his mind about this picture. Sending the artist a copy of the first volume of HW five years later (it contained an article about fire-fighting which Dickens had mentioned to Millais, who was working on his picture on this subject, 'The Rescue'), Dickens wrote: 

If you have in your mind any previous association with the pages in which it appears...it may be a rather disagreeable one. In that case I hope a word frankly said may make it pleasanter. Objecting very strongly to what I believe to be an unworthy use of your great powers, I once expressed the objection in this same journal. My opinion on that point is not in the least changed, but it has never dashed my admiration of your progress in what I suppose are higher and better things... (Pilgrim, Vol. VII, p. 517)

      Writing in 1903, however, Dickens's artist-daughter Kate Perugini said that it was simply the shock of seeing a scared subject so misrepresented, as it seemed to him, that led him in his 'surprise and pain', to write 'a very harsh and hasty criticism upon it, a criticism that I have reason to believe he regretted having published in later years' (quoted in Ormond, op. cit., p. 23). 
      The phrase about 'the Young England Hallucination' refers to a tiny and short-lived splinter-group of aristocratic young Tories who rallied round Disraeli in opposition to Peel in the early 1840s, advocating a return to feudalism as a remedy for the distress of the working classes (or 'Order of the Peasantry', as they preferred to call them). The phrase 'to "put it down"' echoes Sir Peter Lurie's notorious campaign against suicide. For the reference to 'desecration' in connection with the Post Office, see next article ['The Sunday Screw', HW, Vol. I, 22 June 1850]. 

Literary and pictorial allusions

  • the story of Aladdin in The Arabian Nights
  • 'lay that flattering unction...': Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 3, Sc. 4; 
  • 'Hogarth's idea of a man on a mountain...': the reference here is to a print called 'Satire on False Perspective' published by [the artist William] Hogarth in 1754. 
MS. Corrected proof, Forster Collection, Victoria and Albert Museum. There are, as the Pilgrim editors note, 'many small alterations...a few making the satire less coarse', but these are unlikely to have been the result of 'tinkering' by Maclise, who would have disagreed altogether with the article. The substitution of 'some bold aspirants' (end of para.3) for 'a mere bucket-full of young blood' is an example of the toning-down found in the proof-corrections; on the other hand, the clause in paragraph 6 'who appears...the contemplation' is elaborated from 'who appears to have lost a game at cards and to be holding up the ace of diamonds for the contemplation'. 

Michael Slater; © J. M. Dent/Orion Publishing Group, Dickens' Journalism Volume II: 'The Amusements of the People' and Other Papers: Reports, Essays and Reviews, 1834-51 (1996). DJO gratefully acknowledges permission to reproduce this material.

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