The earliest published image of the Greek Revival building by William Wilkins which stretches across the north side of Trafalgar Square is an engraving that shows it under construction in 1836, with the dignity of its architecture masked (as it so often is today) by hoardings covered with noisy advertising. In front of them some violent encounters of the sort familiar to Mr Jingle and Oliver Twist are being enacted. The print implies that cultural institutions, especially the new National Gallery, are detached from the sordid realities of urban life.

The Royal Academy moved into the east wing of Wilkins’s building in 1837 while the National Gallery occupied the west, opening to the public on 5 April 1838. In the same month the first instalment of Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens’s third novel, was published. Together with most of London’s fashionable society, Dickens visited the Royal Academy’s summer exhibitions in order to see ‘those beautiful shiny portraits of gentlemen in black velvet waistcoats, with their fists doubled up on round tables, or marble slabs … and all the ladies who are playing with little parasols, or little dogs, or little children’, in the words of Miss La Creevy in his novel. In 1839 he was able to admire his own glamorous portrait by Daniel Maclise, which was engraved for use as the frontispiece of Nicholas Nickleby when it appeared as a book in October that year. But there is no evidence that Dickens ever turned left on entering the portico and strolled around the National Gallery.

He would have known that as wall furniture in fashionable houses Old Master paintings were almost as popular as silk hangings and looking-glasses. The parody of high society romance that Kate Nickleby is obliged to read to the languid Mrs Witterly mentions Lady Flabella’s ‘mouchoir of finest cambric, edged with richest lace, and emblazoned at the four corners with the Flabella crest’, the ‘golden salver’ on which she receives a billet-doux and the ‘silken damask, the hue of Italy’s firmament’ concealing the door of her ladyship’s boudoir – but no pictures. Thackeray’s hyperbolic list in ‘Codlingsby’, his deadly parody of Disraeli’s Coningsby, would have been quite appropriate here: ‘Giorgione the gorgeous, Titian the golden, Rubens the ruddy and pulpy (the Pan of painting), some of Murillo’s beautiful shepherdesses, who smile on you out of darkness like a star, a few score first-class Leonardos.’

By 1847, when Thackeray’s parody appeared in Punch, Dickens had been to Italy and knew something of these artists. Pictures from Italy, which appeared in 1846, is impatient with the pretensions of connoisseurship and the mindless reverence of guidebooks but Dickens was impressed by certain masterpieces – notably Titian’s Assunta, then in the Accademia in Venice, and Tintoretto’s Paradiso, in the Doge’s Palace – and expressed conventional dismay before Correggio’s ‘heaps of foreshortened limbs, entangled and involved and jumbled together’ in the ceiling paintings in Parma. But no mention is made of the paintings by these artists that could be seen in Trafalgar Square, not even Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne, Correggio’s Madonna of the Basket or Tintoretto’s St George and the Dragon, which were among the National Gallery’s most remarkable recent acquisitions.

Dickens was certainly familiar with the paintings of Charles Eastlake, the keeper of the National Gallery between 1843 and 1847. Eastlake was the leading British painter of fierce brigands and distressed contadine – the latter more convincing than the former – and had sent many examples to London during his long residence in Rome. Dickens recognised the artist’s models loitering on the Spanish Steps: ‘The man in a brown cloak, who leans against a wall, with his arms folded in his mantle, and looks out of the corners of his eyes: which are just visible beneath his broad slouched hat. This is the assassin model.’

In August 1845, soon after his return to London, Dickens was persuaded to publish in the Shilling Magazine a puff for the Spirit of Chivalry, a cartoon for a fresco to be painted in the House of Lords that his friend Maclise was exhibiting. The subject was congenial to Maclise, who had been seduced by the medievalising of his friends and patrons in the Young England movement. As the creator of Sir Mulberry Hawk and Lord Frederick Verisopht, not to mention the Lady Flabella, Dickens must have had to swallow hard before praising this hymn to nobility. The next time Dickens tried his hand at art criticism was nearly five years later, on 15 June 1850, when he published a violent invective against the Pre-Raphaelites in his new twopenny weekly, Household Words. These two deplorable efforts, the former forgotten, the latter cited by everyone who writes about British art in this period, make it clear that Dickens had no knowledge of the growing appreciation of medieval or early Renaissance art across Europe, a precondition both for Maclise’s fresco and for the innovations of Millais and his friends. Dickens had failed to notice the exponents of Purismo in Italy or the work of the Nazarenes in Rome. More significantly, he had no idea of the influence exercised by two notable National Gallery acquisitions: Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, purchased in 1842 (displayed 1843), and the outer panels of Lorenzo Monaco’s Coronation of the Virgin, donated (as by Taddeo Gaddi) in 1848. The Van Eyck inspired the exhausting detail of Pre-Raphaelite painting and the Monaco the archaic stiffness which so offended the bland ideal of beauty and the decorous sentiment to which Dickens was attached.

Art reviews weren’t a major feature of Household Words, but on 13 September 1856 the leading contribution was an anonymous article written by Dickens’s friend Wilkie Collins and entitled ‘To think, or be thought for’. The pretext for the piece was a controversy in the correspondence columns of the Times concerning a picture by ‘the old Venetian painter Bellini’ recently acquired for the National Gallery. The collector and connoisseur William Coningham (the donor of the panels by Lorenzo Monaco) claimed that the picture had been so ‘daubed over’ as to be worthless, whereas Gustav Waagen, director of the Berlin picture gallery and a friend of Eastlake (now the National Gallery’s director), defended it as an excellent example of Bellini’s work.

‘Surely the bewildered visitor,’ Collins wrote, ‘standing opposite the Bellini with Doctor Waagen on his right hand begging him to admire it, and Mr Coningham on his left entreating him to despise it, must end, in mere self-defence, in shaking both the critical gentlemen off, and judging for himself, not of the Bellini only, but of every other picture in the collection as well.’ There is a deliberate confusion between the assessment of the condition and authorship of a picture, which are obviously a matter for experts, and the assessment of its artistic success, which is reduced here to knowing what one likes. The common man, having thrown off the English connoisseur and the German doctor, is then invited to Rome in order to join the author in questioning the merits of the ‘confusion of naked knotty-bodied figures, sprawling up or tumbling down’ the walls of the Sistine Chapel.

Collins is especially offended by the idea of a sublime style as expounded by Joshua Reynolds, for whom Michelangelo’s figures represented a ‘superior order of being’. Instead he redefines the classic as the enduringly popular, that which can always be depended on to ‘fill the pit and gallery’ – not Milton or Poussin, but ‘the tragedy of Hamlet’ and ‘the Don Giovanni of Mozart’. His polemic concludes with an indignant glance at ‘authority standing drearily and persistently aloof from all popular sympathy’ – presumably a reference to Eastlake’s superior manner – when it purchases pictures ‘for the National Gallery of England, for which, in nine cases out of ten, the nation has no concern or care’.

Such an extreme attack, not only on the National Gallery’s acquisitions but on the idea of authority in matters of taste, requires an explanation. It owed nothing to Collins’s father, the painter William Collins. Judging by the pious memoirs published in 1848 by his son, the father was an ‘uncompromising’ supporter of the ‘high station’ assigned to the Old Masters, and felt that the Royal Academy needed to learn from the National Gallery. Presumably, then, the explanation is that Collins knew Dickens would like an article that repeated more loudly his own disappointment before the Last Judgment, his disdain for connoisseurs trembling with excitement over ‘minute details of expression’, and his conviction that it was wrong to admire ‘deviations from ordinary proportions in the body or natural expression … in spite of high critical advice’. Above all, Collins may well have been transferring to another art form his own indignation that many considered the novel merely a form of popular entertainment rather than great literature.

Collins’s aversion to connoisseurs and collectors found expression again four years later in The Woman in White, which Dickens published in All the Year Round, the successor to Household Words. Frederick Fairlie Esquire, of Limmeridge House, expects his Swiss valet to prevent daylight or family members disturbing his selfish, valetudinarian seclusion: ‘I was reclining, in my usual state, surrounded by the various objects of art which I have collected about me to improve the taste of the barbarous people in my neighbourhood. That is to say, I had the photographs of my pictures, and prints, and coins and so forth, all about me.’ Fairlie means to donate these photographs to the ‘Institution at Carlisle’, although for Collins such philanthropy was merely an act of vanity and condescension which did nothing to redeem the repellent practice of hoarding – and fondling in private – old prints and coins and paintings.

The volumes of All the Year Round that contained The Woman in White also held a series of sprightly satirical pieces by ‘Our Eye Witness’, the pseudonym of Collins’s younger brother, Charles Allston Collins, who had previously enjoyed some success as a Pre-Raphaelite painter. When these articles appeared he was engaged to Dickens’s daughter Kate, whom he married in July 1860. Dickens wasn’t happy about the marriage, although he did think highly of the pieces. The younger Collins, having ridiculed London’s public statues, especially those in Trafalgar Square, including the ‘inconceivably foolish’ column for Nelson, turned his attention to the National Gallery. Perplexed by its huge popularity with the uneducated, he facetiously suggested that an irresistible force of suction drew whole families, ‘children, babies and all, from distances even as remote as Hoxton or Camberwell’. He even noticed a ‘weary old labourer in a white smock frock who must have come from Kingston or Watford’.

The great altarpiece of The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian by Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo had recently arrived in the gallery and Collins claims to have heard ‘a charwoman and her little girl, the child asking who was St Sebastian, and the charwoman replying that she didn’t know’. He also met a man in a ‘greasy coat and cap’ directing his friend’s attention to a Dutch painting of a girl scraping parsnips (the fine painting by Nicolaes Maes): ‘This here, George, is a picture of a old woman mending a pen.’ What did Dickens think of this? He was in favour of the poor being allowed into parks and museums on Sundays and, in his puff for Maclise’s Spirit of Chivalry, had claimed that he had seen ‘ignorant, unlettered, drudging men, mere hewers and drawers’ marvelling at its beauty – although the adoption of biblical language, then as now, betrays a false claim. In Pictures from Italy he describes a party ‘brought over from London, fifteen or twenty strong, by contract’ (an early example of the package holiday), which includes a Mr Davies, who, tracing ancient Roman inscriptions with the ferrule of his umbrella, says ‘with intense thoughtfulness: “Here’s a B you see, and there’s a R, and this is the way we goes on in.”’ This is the sort of humour in which Punch specialised, which enabled the half-educated or half-cultivated to feel superior to the uneducated or uncultivated, but also, often enough, to half-sympathise with them.

For the most part the Eye Witness’s account of the National Gallery takes the form of an imaginary tribunal presided over by Professor Waghorn (obviously intended to be taken for Gustav Waagen, who was so closely associated with Eastlake) and the ghost of Sir George Beaumont. Beaumont (who had been a generous patron of Collins’s father, as he must have known) stands for the taste of the connoisseurs who first supported the gallery and whose influence was responsible for the acquisition in the 1840s of a ‘Susanna assaulted by two mahogany elders’ and other specimens of the Bolognese School. Waghorn, meanwhile, is held responsible for filling the gallery with specimens, as if it were a natural history museum. According to Collins, such specimens include most paintings made before 1500, hardly any of which he thinks of any value. He had, however, ‘that very morning, in walking down St James’s Street, seen a pair of photographs from two pictures by a living French painter which gave him greater pleasure than nine-tenths of the works of the Old Masters’. The photographs, one depicting gladiators and the other the assassination of Caesar, must have been of popular paintings by Gérôme – they were published by the great art dealer Goupil. Dickens may have shared Collins’s enthusiasm for them, but perhaps of more significance than the paintings Dickens liked or owned is the attitude towards the visual arts that can be detected in his novels.

Mr Carker in Dombey and Son is a keen observer of beauty, and his urge to possess it is an urge to humiliate and destroy.

He turned the white-legged horse round the street corner, and sought one shining window from among those at the back of the house. Associated with it was a certain stately presence, a gloved hand, the remembrance how the feathers of a beautiful bird’s wing had been showered down upon the floor, and how the light white down upon a robe had stirred and rustled, as in the rising of a distant storm. These were the things he carried with him as he turned away again, and rode through the darkening and deserted parks at a quick rate.

He is no idle dilettante, like Eugene Wrayburn in Our Mutual Friend, who is possessed by a similarly destructive obsession, but as industrious as Dickens. Carker is riding through the ‘darkening and deserted parks’ to his villa in the ‘green and wooded country near Norwood’, a house with ‘no pretensions as to size … beautifully arranged and tastefully kept … a house of refinement and luxury’. A long, slow, silent tracking shot begins with the smooth slopes of the lawn, ‘the graceful forms of ash and willow’, the conservatory and the rustic veranda, then takes us inside, noting the rich colours of walls and carpets, the ‘choice prints and pictures too; in quaint nooks and recesses there is no want of books; and there are games of skill and chance set forth on tables – fantastic chessmen, dice, backgammon, cards and billiards.’ We should here imagine those laboriously intricate white and pink-stained ivory chess pieces imported to Britain from India in the first decades of the 19th century:

And yet amidst this opulence of comfort, there is something in the general air that is not well. Is it that the carpets and the cushions are too soft and noiseless, so that those who move or repose among them seem to act by stealth? Is it that the prints and pictures do not commemorate great thoughts or deeds, or render nature in the poetry of landscape, hall, or hut, but are of one voluptuous cast – mere shows of form and colour – and no more? Is it that the books have all their gold outside, and that the titles of the greater part qualify them to be companions of the prints and pictures? Is it that the completeness and the beauty of the place are here and there belied by an affectation of humility, in some unimportant and inexpensive regard, which is as false as the face of the too truly painted portrait hanging yonder, or its original at breakfast in his easy chair below it? Or is it that, with the daily breath of that original and master of all here, there issues forth some subtle portion of himself, which gives a vague expression of himself to everything about him?

It is Mr Carker the Manager who sits in the easy chair. A gaudy parrot in a burnished cage upon the table tears at the wires with her beak, and goes walking, upside down, in its dome-top, shaking her house and screeching; but Mr Carker is indifferent to the bird, and looks with a musing smile at a picture on the opposite wall.

‘A most extraordinary accidental likeness, certainly,’ says he.

Perhaps it is a Juno; perhaps a Potiphar’s Wife; perhaps some scornful Nymph – according as the picture dealers found the market, when they christened it. It is the figure of a woman, supremely handsome, who, turning away, but with her face addressed to the spectator, flashes her proud glance upon him.

It is like Edith.

With a passing gesture of his hand at the picture – what! a menace? No; yet something like it. A wave as of triumph? No; yet more like that. An insolent salute wafted from his lips? No; yet like that too – he resumes his breakfast, and calls to the chafing and imprisoned bird, who coming down into a pendant gilded hoop within the cage, like a great wedding-ring, swings in it, for his delight.

No dwelling place in any novel by Dickens is so emphatically a work of art. Yet it is also the den of an anatomist and voluptuary who, whether ‘dissecting’ office accounts late at night or relishing the recollection of female haberdashery, is an enemy of the human heart. We are to link good taste with ‘canker’, ‘carcass’ and ‘incarceration’. It is not hard to imagine the paintings of a ‘voluptuous cast’ – William Etty’s female nudes in rich Venetian settings come most easily to mind. Dickens’s attachment to popular melodrama and his increasing interest in complex poetic meaning are both clear in this passage. The use of the portrait as a surrogate (and prospective) trophy is familiar to us from fairy stories and horror films. But Dickens also expects his readers to know the absurd variety of titles assigned to pictures by dealers and auctioneers, as well as something he must have noticed in Italian palaces: similar paintings of women could be portraits, historical figures or allegories, or even a combination – a portrait of a woman as Cleopatra, say, or as a saint, or as a virtue. The three identities here – Juno, Potiphar’s wife and a nymph – correspond to the socially exalted generally, Carker’s employer’s wife, and a woman who disdains his advances. Parrots had been a common enough prop in female portraiture for several centuries and were still in favour (Maclise exhibited a portrait of a woman with a parrot at the Royal Academy in 1844). But here woman and parrot are separate and parallel: one in a cage; the other an effigy in captivity. Carker’s brief soliloquy is about as subtle as the subtitles which spell out the villain’s thoughts in a silent film, but the ominous and metaphorical status accorded the gilded hoop more than makes up for that crude redundancy.

Bleak House describes the London house of ‘Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet’. It is as comfortable within as it is dreary – that is, plain and Georgian – without:

As warm and bright as so much state may be, as delicately redolent of pleasant scents that bear no trace of winter as hothouse flowers can make it; soft and hushed, so that the ticking of the clocks and the crisp burning of the fires alone disturb the stillness in the rooms; it seems to wrap those chilled bones of Sir Leicester’s in rainbow-coloured wool. And Sir Leicester is glad to repose in dignified contentment before the great fire in the library, condescendingly perusing the backs of his books, or honouring the fine arts with a glance of approbation. For he has his pictures, ancient and modern. Some, of the Fancy Ball School in which Art occasionally condescends to become a master, which would be best catalogued like the miscellaneous articles in a sale. As, ‘Three high-backed chairs, a table and cover, long-necked bottle (containing wine), one flask, one Spanish female’s costume, three-quarter face portrait of Miss Jogg the model, and a suit of armour containing Don Quixote.’ Or, ‘One stone terrace (cracked), one gondola in distance, one Venetian senator’s dress complete, richly embroidered white satin costume with profile portrait of Miss Jogg the model, one Scimitar superbly mounted in gold with jewelled handle, elaborate Moorish dress (very rare), and Othello.’

Mr Tulkinghorn comes and goes pretty often; there being estate business to do, leases to be renewed, and so on. He sees my Lady pretty often, too; and he and she are as composed, and as indifferent, and take as little heed of one another, as ever. Yet it may be that my Lady fears this Mr Tulkinghorn, and that he knows it. It may be that he pursues her doggedly and steadily, with no touch of compunction, remorse, or pity. It may be that her beauty, and all the state and brilliancy surrounding her, only gives him the greater zest for what he is set upon, and makes him the more inflexible in it. Whether he be cold and cruel, whether immovable in what he has made his duty, whether absorbed in love of power, whether determined to have nothing hidden from him in ground where he has burrowed among secrets all his life, whether he in his heart despises the splendour of which he is a distant beam, whether he is always treasuring up slights and offences in the affability of his gorgeous clients – whether he be any of this, or all of this, it may be that my Lady had better have five thousand pairs of fashionable eyes upon her, in distrustful vigilance, than the two eyes of this rusty lawyer with his wisp of neckcloth and his dull black breeches tied with ribbons at the knees.

The description of Sir Leicester’s paintings may seem like a gratuitous diversion, and one wonders how well it was received by Dickens’s friends – by Maclise, for example, who would soon paint Othello and Desdemona, and especially by Charles Robert Leslie (who had supplied the frontispiece for a cheap edition of The Pickwick Papers in 1847). Leslie had on several occasions taken subjects from Cervantes (one example had found its way into the National Gallery). But the subjects of the paintings (like those of the paintings within Hogarth’s paintings) have been carefully selected: Sir Leicester is a man of antiquated ideals, a Don Quixote of sorts, and blind, as Othello was blind, to the fact that his subordinate is working to destroy his marriage.

Dickens slows down the narrative pace of the passage by enumerating the comforts accessible to Sir Leicester, before moving rapidly elsewhere in the house and tracing his lawyer, Mr Tulkinghorn, the villain of a real modern tragedy, whose attire – ‘dull black breeches tied with ribbons at the knees’ – is misleadingly old-fashioned. The author’s urgent, repetitive probing of Tulkinghorn’s motives contrasts sharply with the superficial priorities of the painters. He punctures their pretensions by describing their work mainly in terms of the props that littered their studios, and by suggesting that paintings themselves are furniture – wall ornaments for the affluent – which, like finely bound books, can be contemplated with complacency. And of course it is true that paintings, even great paintings, are made with a consumer like Sir Leicester in mind. The pleasures they provide are less consistently exalted than those available from poetry or music, which cannot be possessed.

Bleak House itself, home of the virtuous Mr Jarndyce, is described in the words of his ward, Esther Summerson, with laborious syntax mimicking her first exploration of it:

It was one of those delightfully irregular houses where you go up and down steps out of one room into another, and where you come upon more rooms when you think you have seen all there are, and where there is a bountiful provision of little halls and passages, and where you find still older cottage rooms in unexpected places, with lattice windows and green growth pressing through them. Mine, which we entered first, was of this kind, with an up-and-down roof, that had more corners in it than I ever counted afterwards, and a chimney (there was a wood fire on the hearth) paved all around with pure white tiles, in every one of which a bright miniature of the fire was blazing. Out of this room, you went down two steps, into a charming little sitting-room, looking down upon a flower-garden, which room was henceforth to belong to Ada and me. Out of this you went up three steps, into Ada’s bedroom, which had a fine broad window, commanding a beautiful view (we saw a great expanse of darkness lying underneath the stars), to which there was a hollow window-seat, in which, with a spring-lock, three dear Adas might have been lost at once. Out of this room, you passed into a little gallery, with which the other best rooms (only two) communicated, and so, by a little staircase of shallow steps, with a number of corner stairs in it, considering its length, down into the hall. But if, instead of going out at Ada’s door; you came back into my room, and went out at the door by which you had entered it, and turned up a few crooked steps that branched off in an unexpected manner from the stairs, you lost yourself in passages, with mangles in them, and three-cornered tables, and a Native-Hindoo chair, which was also a sofa, a box, and a bedstead, and looked, in every form, something between a bamboo skeleton and a great bird-cage, and had been brought from India nobody knew by whom or when.

Scale, distance and time are almost as confused here as in Alice in Wonderland: the window seat which might swallow a girl, the puzzling exotic object stranded among the mangles, the multiplied miniature reflections of a fire, the great expanse of starlit sky. As for the art:

Our sitting-room was green; and had, framed and glazed, upon the walls, numbers of surprising and surprised birds, staring out of pictures at a real trout in a case, as brown and shining as if it had been served with gravy; at the death of Captain Cook; and at the whole process of preparing tea in China, as depicted by Chinese artists. In my room there were oval engravings of the months – ladies haymaking in short waists, and large hats tied under the chin, for June – smooth-legged noblemen, pointing, with cocked-hats, to village steeples, for October. Half-length portraits, in crayons, abounded all through the house; but were so dispersed that I found the brother of a youthful officer of mine in the china-closet, and the grey old age of my pretty young bride, with a flower in her bodice, in the breakfast room. As substitutes, I had four angels, of Queen Anne’s reign, taking a complacent gentleman to heaven, in festoons, with some difficulty; and a composition in needle-work, representing fruit, a kettle, and an alphabet.

Dickens delighted in incongruous medleys of objects of the sort that might be found in salerooms or antique shops, as well as in the often banal if poignant décor of the fairly recent past (the home of Mrs Whimple in Great Expectations is an example, and Captain Cook can be found dying there too). This passage gives a plausible inventory of relics of ‘olden times’ mingled with the cast-offs of the previous generation or so, which would have been found in a country house.

Half a century later prints of pastoral subjects after Stubbs and pastel portraits by John Russell became collectors’ items, as did, soon after, quaint 17th-century samplers and, in due course, Chinese paintings made for export. The ‘surprising and surprised birds’ may even have been plates by Audubon, whose work was then regarded primarily as providing a record of natural history, like the stuffed fish, although that was also a trophy. What is important to notice is that the charitable, lovable and emphatically chaste Mr Jarndyce, who sleeps in a very simple bedroom with the window open all the year round (and a cold bath at the ready), owns no art which has a strong aesthetic appeal, but possesses only charming, quaint, curious things, acquired by others and retained out of family sentiment or genial indifference.

Bella Rokesmith, towards the end of Our Mutual Friend, is taken by her husband to the magically transformed Boffin mansion where she finds the whole staircase ‘tastefully ornamented’ with flowers and then enters an indoor garden with an aviary full of exotic birds ‘more gorgeous in colour than the flowers’. There are also ‘gold and silver fish, and mosses, and water lilies and a fountain’. When Our Mutual Friend was published, between 1864 and 1865, textile patterns were highly horticultural; ferns, real and carved and cast, proliferated inside as well as outside; and glass domes protecting stuffed hummingbirds had become popular. It’s striking that no work of art is mentioned in this passage, except an ivory jewel casket. Eventually, Bella reaches the nursery. The original illustration by Marcus Stone of this sacred place shows a Parian Ware statuette reclining on a slender rococo chimneypiece with an exotic landscape behind it. But the text merely describes the nursery as ‘garnished as with rainbows’ – the focus is softened so that this too seems like nature rather than art. In the novels of Dickens, the fine arts, including contemporary painting, are associated with heartless sensuality or complacent affluence, and nature alone is worthy of supplying a setting for virtue.

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