When Charles Dickens visited Brighton 175 years ago he probably didn’t imagine that his touching of a doorbell would transform the simple object into a museum piece.
It has been well documented that Charles Dickens made several visits to Brighton: he gave public readings of his works, including A Christmas Carol at the Royal Pavilion, and stayed at the Old Ship and the Bedford Hotel, where he wrote Dombey and Son. He also mentioned the town in novels such as Bleak House and Nicholas Nickelby.
What is more surprising is that the Royal Pavilion & Museums has over 50 Charles Dickens-related objects in its collections – of great variety. There are theatre programmes, periodicals, postcards; ceramic, wax and papier-mâché figurines of characters, magic-lantern slides, etchings, paintings, jugs, plates, mugs and teapot stands. There is a brass handle from an old visitor’s bell, apparently used by both Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, when it was attached to a house in Arundel Terrace. Intriguingly we have also acquired a cutlery set and picnic box said to have belonged to Charles Dickens.
One of my favourite pieces is this oil painting in the Fine Art collection Little Nell and her Grandfather Leaving London, 1857 by the Victorian painter, John Ritchie (1828-1905). The two characters from The Old Curiosity Shop rest by an ivy-entwined tree, after fleeing London. The natural world is depicted in sharp detail in the foreground – the blades of grass, the stony path, the moss – and is in contrast to Nell and her grandfather’s rather flat features and the smoky smudgy London, dominated by St Paul’s Cathedral, in the background far away from the green countryside where they sit.
The exaggerated, distinctive features of Dickens’s characters, familiar from illustrations of his works, have been used to decorate all manner of ceramics. We have many examples in the Decorative Art collection.
St Paul’s and Little Nell make an appearance again in this earthenware memorial plate to Charles Dickens, the central figure. He is encircled by a host of his most famous characters, such as Fagin and Bill Sykes from Oliver Twist, Little Nell, Little Dorrit and Mr Pickwick from the Pickwick Papers. Made by Doulton & Co. 1902-1930.
The collection also has 24 earthenware miniature figurines of popular characters such as the Artful Dodger, Scrooge, David Copperfield and Sairey Gamp which were designed by Leslie Harradine at Royal Doulton. Their Dickensware range was one of their most popular ranges, produced between 1922 and 1983. Harradine copied their poses and idiosyncrasies from illustrations by Joseph Clayton Clarke which accompanied serialisations of Dickens’s works.
Henry Willett (1823-1905) was one of the founders of Brighton Museum and he donated his vast collection of popular pottery, which included many examples of Charles Dickens memorabilia. Here, for example, is a colourful pair of enamelled earthenware and Prattware Staffordshire teapots, c1840. The two characters were considered by Willett to represent ‘Mr and Mrs Weller Snr’ from The Pickwick Papers’. (A Potted History: Henry Willett’s Ceramic Chronicle of Britain by Stella Beddoe (ISBN: 9781851498116)
These two earlier hard-paste porcelain figurines from Germany, c.1880, depict The Fat Boy and Mrs Bardell, biting her apron, from The Pickwick Papers. This novel seems to have inspired much ceramic creativity for these two Staffordshire earthenware teapot stands and mug, both c.1840, are printed with illustrations by Phiz from the same work. (A Potted History: Henry Willett’s Ceramic Chronicle of Britain by Stella Beddoe (ISBN: 9781851498116)
The Fine Art print collection, not to be outdone, can also lay claim to objects with a Dickens theme. Charles Dickens wrote Dombey and Son while staying at the Bedford Hotel in Brighton. This engraving, Bedford Hotel & Esplanade, Brighton (Looking East) by T. Jeavons, was made c.1845, around the time that Dickens wrote the novel. The print shows the hotel as it would have looked at the time with the Chain Pier in the distance. By the middle of the 1800s it was one of Brighton’s most fashionable hotels (possibly helped by Dickens’s patronage) but unfortunately the hotel was destroyed by fire in 1964.
A closer reference to Charles Dickens can be found in this coloured lithograph What are the Wild Waves Saying?, c.1855, attributed to C.W. Nicholls, Letts Son & Co. It apparently depicts characters from Dombey & Son on the esplanade with the Chain Pier this time behind. A fisherman is pulling Paul Dombey in the cart with Florence Dombey, holding the parasol, at his side. Intriguingly it is written below the print that the figures are Prince Edward (3½ years) in the cart, Princess Royal (7½ years) with the parasol and Queen Victoria (aged 26) behind. It is also dated June 1845, which is a year before Dombey and Son was first serialised. Other versions of the print are dated 1855 so perhaps the additions were added later, a fancy maybe of a royalist.
Memorialised in many different forms in the Royal Pavilion and Museums collections, it won’t be forgotten that Charles Dickens came to town.
Lucy Faithful, Collections Assistant
With thanks to Kate Elms, Lavender Jones and Stella Beddoe