It has been said that Inspector Bucket, the police detective in BLEAK HOUSE, was the very first fictional detective, pre-dating Sherlock Holmes among others. I don’t know about that, but I do love this great Dickens character!
It’s tempting to compare him to others of the genre, and I often think of Columbo for some reason, but that’s not even close. Bucket is not rumpled and never feigns confusion, but the attribute they share is a totally disarming likability. Bucket’s greatest skill as an investigator is instantly being everyone’s best friend and confidante. He can speak to little children, Lords and Ladies, or street sweepers, and within a sentence or two bond with them like an old friend.
With all that he is a man of action. In planning for a defining illustration, I struggled to find the “hero shot”, because almost all of Inspector Bucket’s scenes are scenes of action and movement. I would read and re-read his scenes, and they are either action scenes, or instances where he is one among many, mostly because of his ability to blend perfectly in any social situation. He is constantly laser-focused on solving whatever mystery is before him.
The issue of his physical appearance was another matter. For better or worse, my mental image of Bucket has remained carved in stone for a long time. Before I ever began researching period costumes, I had a pretty specific idea of how he looks: the derby hat, the whiskers and the black coat.
Dickens describes him mainly as being a bit stocky and dressed all in black. I always envisioned him in a derby-style hat, but the iconic style of the Victorian Era was a top hat, much like Stetsons in cowboy stories or snap-brim fedoras in gritty 1940s film noir.
On research, of course it turns out there were a lot of different hat styles of the period, and so I was able to put him in the derby I had always envisioned. The hat seemed important, as Bucket’s need to blend in at every level of society made its equalizing quality important.
There was still the need to find the “hero shot”, the exact moment where the character is revealed at his or her truest self as some key conflict is revealed or resolved. Easy to do in a movie, a little trickier in an illustration.
I ultimately settled on the moment when he arrests Mr. George, the former trooper who owns a run-down shooting gallery, for murder.
With the moment chosen, it was time to start sketching. I wanted first of all to get a more developed feel for the two characters and their differences.
Next came the composition itself. The exact location is described: “The neighbouring streets being narrow and ill-paved, it is a little inconvenient to walk there two abreast and arm in arm. Mr. George therefore soon proposes to walk singly. But Mr. Bucket, who cannot make up his mind to relinquish his friendly hold, replies, ‘Wait half a minute, George. I should wish to speak to you first.’ Immediately afterwards, he twists him into a public-house and into a parlour, where he confronts him and claps his own back against the door.”
So I knew what I had to work with. It was important for Bucket, who is physically smaller, to be the dominant figure, which wasn’t a problem, but it was important to get the perspective right. I noodled several ideas. I did take one great liberty with the text because I wanted Bucket to have the shackles out while George was still seated, and sometimes it’s just necessary to make a change like that for dramatic effect.
“Mr. George has recovered himself and stands up like a soldier.
‘Come,’ he says; ‘I am ready.’
‘George,’ continues Mr. Bucket, ‘wait a bit!’ With his upholsterer manner, as if the trooper were a window to be fitted up, he takes from his pocket a pair of handcuffs. ‘This is a serious charge, George, and such is my duty.’”
The final stage is to combine all the elements in the final composition, and then of course the most difficult step in this entire process, transferring the pencil drawing to the linoleum. Sounds simple, but it’s not. Once the pencil drawing on tracing paper is complete, I’ve developed a system of drawing a grid over the sketch, then with a small burnisher, rubbing the back side of the drawing to press the pencil lines onto the linoleum. The grid helps insure I’ve rubbed every bit of the sketch.
Once the sketch is transferred, it’s then necessary to draw over the entire pencil transfer with markers so the final drawing resembles a pen and ink drawing as much as possible, to keep the cutting neat and to minimize having to make any decisions. In theory, at this point there should not be too much left to think about!
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