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The Ghost of Art

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Author Charles Dickens
Genres Prose: Leading Article i
Prose: Short Fiction i
Subjects Art; Design; Painting; Sculpture; Photography; Interior Decoration;
Law; Lawyers; Justice; Courts; Trials
Literature; Writing; Authorship; Reading; Books; Poetry; Storytelling; Letter Writing
Supernatural; Superstition; Spiritualism; Clairvoyance; Mesmerism; Ghosts; Fairies; Witches; Magic; Occultism
Other Details
Printed : 20/7/1850
Journal : Household Words
Volume : Volume I
Magazine : No. 17
Office Book Notes
Views : 5276

For a discussion of Dickens's objection to conventionality in art and to the use of stereotyped models by contemporary painters, an objection frequently expressed in his novels, see L. Ormond, 'Dickens and Painting: Contemporary Art', The Dickensian, Vol. 80 (1984), pp. 12–16. He had already mocked this practice in Pictures from Italy (1846), when describing models waiting to be hired on the Spanish Steps in Rome: 

I could not conceive why the faces seemed familiar to me; why they appeared to have beset me, for years, in every possible variety of action and costume; and how it came to pass that they start up before me, in Rome, in the broad day, like so many saddled and bridled nightmares. I soon found that we had made acquaintance, and improved it, for several years, on the walls of various Exhibition Galleries. There is one old gentleman, with long white hair and an immense beard, who, to my knowledge, has gone through half of the catalogue of the Royal Academy. This is the venerable, or patriarchal model. He carries a long staff; and every knot and twist in that staff I have seen, faithfully delineated, innumerable times....

      Ormond comments that Dickens's objection was 'more moral than aesthetic' and quotes his letter to Angela Burdett-Coutts (18 March 1845; Pilgrim, Vol. IV, p. 281) in which, having described the models as 'one and all the falsest Rascals in Rome or out of it', he says, 'It is a good illustration of the Student life as it is, that young men should go on copying these people elaborately time after time out of mind, and find nothing fresh or suggestive in the actual world about them.'
      Dickens mocks hackneyed subjects as well as hackneyed models in his list [in this article]. This begins with Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield [1766], a novel always close to his heart, which perhaps accounts for the more elaborate return to it at the end of the list. Its immense popularity at this time as a source for Academy paintings is attested by R. D. Altick (Paintings from Books [1985], p. 405f.): 'during the 1840s as many pictures from [the novel] were exhibited (some thirty) as had been seen in the entire proceeding sixty years'; Altick also quotes Punch's humorous suggestion in 1845 that in future exhibitions a large room should be set aside solely for Vicar paintings.  
      In connection with Dickens's reference to 'the German taste' becoming popular in British art, we might note Will Vaughan's comment on p. 54 of The Romantic Spirit in German Art 1790–1990 (ed. Vaughan [1994]): 'The 1840s was probably the only time in the history of British art when contemporary German art was imitated in a wholesale manner.... The "German manner", as it came to be known...' This manner was particularly associated with the so-called 'Nazarene' painters established in Rome since 1810. They wore long hair, beards, and loose-flowing, quasi-medieval costume. 
      Dickens seems always to have associated chambers (bachelor apartments inhabited by lawyers and others in the Inns of Court) with gloom, loneliness and startling visitations, and this essay is a comic, mock-gothic variation on the theme. In Great Expectations Pip and Herbert have a 'top set' in the Temple and it is there that Magwitch suddenly appears from the past one stormy night (Ch. 39). See also the Uncommercial Traveller [xiii] essay 'Chambers' [AYR, Vol. III, 18 August 1860]. The 'tempestuous sea of chaff' image for the law in paragraph 3 looks forward to Bleak House

Literary allusions

  • 'the little man in the nursery story': allusion to a nursery rhyme first found in Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book (c. 1744), the first verse of which runs: 'When I was a little boy I lived by myself, / And all the bread and cheese I got I laid upon the shelf; / The rats and the mice they made such a strife, / I had to go to London town and buy me a wife.'; 
  • 'the Spectator...Coverley': Addison and Steele's periodical (1711–12, 1714) supposedly written by a 'Mr Spectator' and conducted by a small club including Sir Roger de Coverley.
Author: 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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