BLEAK HOUSE cover illustration

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes–gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.

Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.

The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

Sketches and comments

A fairly finished sketch

There were a number of different things I needed to capture with this image, and to a large degree it simply became a matter of scale as the picture developed. 

The “big picture” of depicting the scale of Chancery, the bloated, overarching and indifferent British court system was the main thing. But within that, the figure of Jo the ignorant street sweeper became key as well. His scale and distance in relation to the crowds underlines both his remoteness from their reality and his importance in the story. He, as much as Chancery, exists in a world of fog and mud.

With neither family nor parents, Jo knows nothing and understands nothing save for sweeping mud for tips to keep body and soul together. His ignorance is almost perfect. A mysterious, veiled woman gives him a gold sovereign to guide her to a diseased, rat-infested burying ground in a bad neighborhood, and before long, a ragged sweeping boy with a gold sovereign attracts the wrong kind of attention.

The buildings and their details needed to be convincing. My excellent reference book, IMAGES OF WORLD ARCHITECTURE, is an invaluable source for buildings from every era and every country. I found some buildings that would  work in the context, and actually mixed-and-matched a few different ones to achieve the desired effect.

The final and perhaps most challenging element was how to treat the sky. Here’s a video I made on this topic.

If you have any comments on this or any of my posts, you can email me at

Author: mooney2021

I am a commercial artist and illustrator from New York and now retired. I'm also a longtime Charles Dickens fan and I've embarked on a project to illustrate his great BLEAK HOUSE.

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