On October 3, I got an email from Ellen Gamerman, an arts writer for the Wall Street Journal. Elon Musk was in the process of being sued by Twitter for backing out of his offer to purchase the social media giant. No news there, right? So I get this email:
Hi Gerry, I’m an arts writer with the WSJ, and I’m working on a story about Bleak House and the chancery court, pegged to the start of Elon Musk’s trial in a (very different) chancery court. I hoped to talk with you because I saw on the Dickens Society site that you were interested in illustrating that novel. It would be great to hear your thoughts about the visuals in Dickens’s chancery court. If you’re free, I’m on a tight deadline and hoped to reach you today if possible, or tomorrow. Thank you! Best, Ellen
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.
You may know that I was extremely honored earlier this year to be asked to write a blog post for the prestigious Dickens Society in London. It was well-received and there is a standing invitation to write more for them in the future.
The Dickens Society is an academic group dedicated to exploring all facets of Charles Dickens’s* life and work, but it is not an exclusive club at all. In fact I was surprised to learn how easy it is to join: by subscribing to their journal The Dickens Quarterly, you are automatically enrolled as a member.
It is The Dickens Quarterly that I would like to write about. I’ve been a member for a year now, and I am by no means either a Dickens completist, or an academic of any kind. Some of the material is a little over my head, but I’m comfortable with that. What is great is the breadth of subject matter, and how it makes you think differently not only about Dickens but also about nineteenth-century fiction, Victorian England, and much more.
As an artist I’m always looking for ways to keep my skills sharp, and regular life-drawing classes are a must if you’re drawing the human figure. Nude models, of every size, shape and age, are the rule, but let’s face it, in the practice of our art we’re almost never drawing naked people, we’re drawing people with clothes on.
As you probably know, the internets contain everything known to humankind, and Charles Dickens is no exception. In my research over the years on this particular project, I keep finding websites and blogs devoted to the man and his works, and I would like to share just a few that I find myself visiting over and over.
I’m not opining on any of them, as they each have their strengths and they are all worth visiting. Some, like the Charles Dickens Museum, are websites for particular places in the real world, while others are compendiums in and of themselves. For the most part I’ve picked up text from their “About” pages, and some I have invited to submit a paragraph or two to expand on their mission statements.
So in doing magazine and book illustration for a few decades, I picked up a couple of technical terms. For example, an illustration is called an “illo”, a sketch is called a “ruff”, and a deadline is called a “#!!@! deadline”.
Illos done for print are termed by their size, and from biggest to smallest are called a spread, full-page, half-page, quarter page, and spot. Spots are fun because they are usually simple, a quick visual read, and they don’t necessarily have to carry as much narrative weight as a full-page does.
Research sketching is one of the most important steps in doing any historical illustration work, and that requires good reference materials. In the years B.C. (Before Computers), any illustrator worth his or her salt had a “morgue”, or a collection of photos filed in boxes or file cabinets, usually alphabetically, of any or all things in creation because you never knew what you would be called on to draw.
My four-drawer file cabinet is long gone, but I saved various reference books, including a couple of books of old wood engravings. For the most part pre-dating photography, these books are amazing for the sheer breadth of their content.
Richard’s high spirits carrying everything before them, we all went out together to the top of the hill above the village, where he had ordered a gig to wait and where we found a man with a lantern standing at the head of the gaunt pale horse that had been harnessed to it.
My favorite part of doing any kind of historical or genre art is researching the appropriate costumes. In my magazine illustration days it didn’t come up much; mostly I was drawing doctors, nurses, businessmen and contemporary kids and grownups of all kinds.
With subject matter like Dickens, costuming the characters not only correctly, but in a way that tells us about their personalities, is part of the job description!