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Phiz

Mr. Hablot K. Browne, better known as Phiz, was an artist of a departed school to whom we all owe a great deal of amusement. He was not so versatile nor so original as Cruickshank; he had not the genius, nor the geniality, still less the sense of beauty, of John Leech. In his later years his work became more and more unequal, till he was sometimes almost as apt to scribble hasty scrawls as Constantin Guys. M. Guys was an artist selected by M. Baudelaire as the fine flower of modern art, and the true, though hurried, designer of the fugitive modern beauty. It is recorded that M. Guys was once sent to draw a scene of triumph and certain illuminations in London, probably about the end of the Crimean War. His sketch did not reach the office of the paper for which he worked in time, and some one went to see what the man of genius was doing. He was found in bed, but he was equal to the occasion. Snatching a sheet of paper and a pencil he drew a curve. "There," said he, "is the triumphal arch, and here"--scribbling a number of scratches like eccentric comets--"here are the fireworks." Mr. Browne's drawings occasionally showed a tendency to approach the rudimentary sort of "pictograph" rather than give what a dramatic critic calls "a solid and studied rendering" of events. But many of Mr. Browne's illustrations of Dickens are immortal. They are closely bound up with our earliest and latest recollections of the work of the "incomparable Boz." Mr. Pickwick, we believe, was not wholly due to the fancy of Mr. Browne, but of the unfortunate Seymour, whom death prevented from continuing the series. Every one has heard how Mr. Thackeray, then an unknown man, wished to illustrate one of Mr. Dickens's early stories, and brought Mr. Dickens examples of his skill. Fortunately, his offer was not accepted. Mr. Thackeray's pencil was the proper ally of his pen. He saw and drew Costigan, Becky, Emmy, Lord Steyne, as no one else could have drawn them. But he had not beheld the creations of Boz in the same light of imaginative vision. Sometimes, too, it must be allowed that Mr. Thackeray drew very badly. His "Peg of Limavaddy," in the "Irish Sketch Book," is a most formless lady, and by no means justifies the enthusiasm of her poet. Thus the task of illustrating "Pickwick" fell to Mr. Browne, and he carried on the conceptions of his predecessor with extraordinary vigour. The old vein of exaggerated caricature he inherited from the taste of an elder generation. But making allowance for the exaggeration, what can be better than Mr. Pickwick sliding, or the awful punishment of Stiggins at the hands of the long-suffering Weller? We might wish that the young lady in fur-topped boots was prettier, and indeed more of a lady. But Mr. Browne never had much success, we think, in drawing pretty faces. He tried to improve in this respect, but either his girls had little character, or the standard of female beauty has altered. As to this latter change, there can be no doubt at all. Leech's girls are not like Thackeray's early pictures of women; and Mr. Du Maurier's are sometimes sicklied o'er with the pale cast of an aesthetic period.

It is probable that the influence of Mr. Browne's art reacted in some degree on Dickens. In the old times every one whom the author invented the artist was pretty certain to caricature. Thus the author may have felt the temptation to keep pace with the frolic humour of the artist. Mr. Browne cannot be blamed for a tendency to exaggerate noses and other features, which was almost universal in his time. None of us can say what conception would now be entertained of Dickens's characters if Mr. Browne had not drawn them. In the later works of Dickens (when they were illustrated) other artists were employed, as Mr. Stone and Mr. Fildes. These are accomplished painters of established reputation, and they of course avoided the old system of caricature, the old forced humour. But we doubt whether their designs are so intimately associated with the persons in the stories as are the designs of Mr. Browne. The later artists had this disadvantage, that the later novels (except "Great Expectations," which was not illustrated) were neither so good nor so popular as "Pickwick," "Nicholas Nickleby," "Martin Chuzzlewit," "David Copperfield," or even "Bleak House." We never can have any Mr. Micawber but Phiz's indescribably jaunty Micawber. His Mr. Pecksniff is not very like a human being, but his collars and his eye-glass redeem him, and after all Pecksniff is a transcendental and incredible Tartuffe. Tom Pinch is even less sympathetic in the drawings than in the novel. Jonas Chuzzlewit is also "too steep," as a modern critic has said in modern slang. But in the novel, too, Mr. Jonas is somewhat precipitous. Nicholas Nickleby is a colourless sort of young man in the illustrations, but then he is not very vividly presented in the text. Ralph Nickleby and Arthur Gride may pair off with Jonas Chuzzlewit, but who can disparage the immortal Mr. Squeers? From the first moment when we see him at his inn, with the starveling little boys, through all the story, Mr. Squeers is consistently exquisite. In spite of his cruelty, coarseness, hypocrisy, there is a kind of humour in Mr. Squeers which makes him not quite detestable. In "David Copperfield" Mr. Micawber is perhaps the only artistic creation of much permanent merit, unless it be the waiter who consumed David's dinner, and the landlady who gave him a pint of the Regular Stunning. In "Bleak House" Mr. Browne made some credible attempts to be tragic and pathetic. Jo is remembered, and the gateway of the churchyard where the rats were, and the Ghost's Walk in the gloomy domain of Lady Dedlock.

It is a singular and gloomy feature in the character of young ladies and gentlemen of a particular type that they have ceased to care for Dickens, as they have ceased to care for Scott. They say they cannot read Dickens. When Mr. Pickwick's adventures are presented to the modern maid, she behaves like the Cambridge freshman. "Euclide viso, cohorruit et evasit." When he was shown Euclid he evinced dismay, and sneaked off. Even so do most young people act when they are expected to read "Nicholas Nickleby" and "Martin Chuzzlewit." They call these masterpieces "too gutterly gutter;" they cannot sympathize with this honest humour and conscious pathos. Consequently the innumerable references to Sam Weller, and Mrs. Gamp, and Mr. Pecksniff, and Mr. Winkle which fill our ephemeral literature are written for these persons in an unknown tongue. The number of people who could take a good pass in Mr. Calverley's Pickwick Examination Paper is said to be diminishing. Pathetic questions are sometimes put. Are we not too much cultivated? Can this fastidiousness be anything but a casual passing phase of taste? Are all people over thirty who cling to their Dickens and their Scott old fogies? Are we wrong in preferring them to "Bootle's Baby," and "The Quick or the Dead," and the novels of M. Paul Bourget?


Andrew Lang