Celebrity Circulation I: Dickens in Photographs

By Susan Cook (Southern New Hampshire University, Manchester, NH)

Charles Dickens, 1858 George Watkins Photograph
Charles Dickens, 1858 George Watkins Photograph

As a photographic image, Charles Dickens circulated far and wide.  The man was photographed in excess of 120 times during his life [1], and was among all Victorians, as Joss Marsh recently put it, “the most photographically famous person in Britain outside the royal family” [2].  Ironically, however, Dickens disliked having his photographic image taken.  Not only was he concerned that these images gave viewers a lie—a false sense of possessing the author—he seemed anxious about the technological reproduction of his image.  Photographed constantly, Dickens was apparently displeased about…being photographed constantly.  Rather than a curious side-note in the biographical history of the author, this concurrent abundance and elusiveness is in fact essential to the construction of Dickens the celebrity author, past and present.

Dickens first sat for a photographer in 1841, a scant two years after the public announcements of the daguerreotype and calotype processes.  Sitting for a daguerreotype in Richard Beard’s studio, the first of its kind in England, Dickens found the lengthy process unpleasant and advised a friend in 1841: “If anybody should entreat you to go to the Polytechnic Institution and have a Photographic likeness done—don’t be prevailed upon, on any terms.  The Sun is a great fellow in his way, but portrait painting is not his line.  I speak from experience, having suffered dreadfully” [3].

Charles Dickens photograph taken from an 1849 John Mayall daguerreotype
Charles Dickens, photograph taken from an 1849 John Mayall daguerreotype

It seems the lengthy exposure time was not the only thing Dickens disliked.  Although he previously sat for the photographer John Mayall and found the experience unobjectionable, he declined Mayall’s subsequent request in 1853, citing his unwillingness to “multiply” his “counterfeit presentments” [4].

Here Dickens seems wary of the fact that his photographic image was a lie of sorts, and the source of his discomfort is the multiplication of that lie.  This may be read as symptomatic of Dickens’s well-documented oscillation between private person and public persona—he was, after all, a professional writer who, as Grahame Smith writes, had a “general hostility toward public life” [5].  Ultimately, it is symptomatic of a larger logic of celebrity in modernity.

Literary celebrity is a notoriety that becomes all the more pronounced in the age of photography, for “to be photographically famous was to be more familiar,” as Marsh writes.  The fiction of the celebrity photograph is that it promises to “put one in the presence of fame” [6].  And at the heart of its logic lies its failure to live up to that promise.  Alexis Easley explains that the discourse surrounding celebrity was “premised on what could be seen and known about popular authors” as well as “the mysterious and unknowable aspects of their lives and works” [7].  Dickens’s resistance to his own numerous photographic images cultivates just such a sense of mystery.

This idea of celebrity frames the controversies surrounding Dickens’s images.  The Gurney photograph controversy is a case in point: during his second visit to the United States in 1867-8, Dickens apparently promised the Gurneys that they would be the only American photographic studio to record his image during the trip.  They were scandalized by “allegations in the press” that Dickens had sat for Matthew Brady’s studio, and “To protect their reputation and investment,” they ran a notice in the papers:

Charles Dickens, 1867 Gurney and Son Daguerreotype
Charles Dickens, 1867 Gurney and Son Daguerreotype

“In justification of our mercantile honor, which has been assailed by the publication of editorial articles in different Metropolitan/ journals, which, if true, would tend to place us before the public as imposters, we beg to assert thus publicly that Mr. Charles Dickens has not, and will not sit for any other Photographers but ourselves in the United States; that any pictures of Mr. Dickens, either exposed to view or offered for sale, and not having our imprint, are copies of pictures taken in Europe, and that any attempt to advertise them, either by payment or by editorial notice ‘as originals’, is a fraud and imposition to the public.” [8]

The motivation for this notice makes perfect sense: a great deal of the value of the Gurney image is in its exclusivity.  The Gurney notice attempts to contain Dickens’s images in the name of mercantile honor, but it does so via an appeal to a desired authenticity and originality.  Our image of Dickens, the Gurneys declare, is the real image of Dickens in America; everything else you may see is actually just a copy, and as such, a lie.  Embedded in the notice is a desire to identify and contain the “real” Dickens image.

The Gurney controversy was one of several disputes surrounding Dickens’s image.  The Brady photographs, for instance, which apparently sparked the Gurney notice, were, according to Sidney Moss, intended to be made into a stereograph [9].  Malcolm Andrews, however, describes this as a hoax, the Brady images actually doctored versions of an earlier Watkins portrait [10].

The controversies are not limited to Dickens’s photographic portraits: as Andrew Bean and Catherine Griffey write, the Samuel Drummond portrait of Dickens has long been the subject of debate and skepticism [11].  One writer’s unexplained doubts that the portrait depicted Dickens became scholarly tradition for the better part of a century.  Even the relatively uncontroversial Samuel Laurence portrait has been the subject of some debate, the different versions of the portrait leading to some confusion: which image did Dickens like?  Which became the more famous and widely circulating lithograph?

These controversies share an investment in controlling some sense of truth or authenticity, concerns we learn (and re-learn) to treat with increasing cynicism in our own digital age.  Jay Clayton lists some of the uncountable, uncontainable, unknowable number of films, television episodes, songs, comics, fictions, nonfictions, web sites, stores, theme parks, and other allusions to Dickens and his novels that are alive and well in our contemporary culture.  An important subset of these proliferating allusions is the category featuring Dickens’s images.

Photographic portraits played a vital role in establishing Dickens’s celebrity as an author and continue to play a role in sustaining that celebrity today.  Photographic reproductions understandably adorn the covers of biographies of Dickens, but also coffee mugs, hats, t-shirts, and plates.  His image is sometimes featured on the covers of his novels, perhaps justifying his concern about mistaking photography’s truth claims for reality.

This Dickens, the Dickens of the coffee mug industry, is in one sense the “right” Dickens in spirit, a postmodern anachronism with just the right amount of “allusion, parody, irony, and hyperbole” to do Dickens—the man who “took pleasure in noting the spinoff products from his imagination”—proud, as Clayton suggests [12].  In another sense, this endlessly reappropriated face of Dickens holds “No depth—just surface” (102).  Dickens’s face is not hidden from us, but neither is it a face after all—”just an interface” [13].

People were and are obsessed with capturing Dickens via his image, but while you can collect his image, you can’t really possess him.  With his posture of hesitation, Dickens replicates the paradoxical logic of celebrity—that coy attitude that cultivates desire.  Dickens’s celebrity works thorough this combination of withholding and excess: withholding the self while displaying an excess of images.

I would suggest that today we cannot read Dickens without his endlessly reproduced celebrity image in mind, or without an awareness of our reading as a mediated experience.  The irony is that Dickens’s counterfeit experience has become our reality.

Susan Cook is Assistant Professor of English at Southern New Hampshire University, where she teaches nineteenth- and twentieth-century British literature.  When she is not collecting Victorian photography, she is writing about Victorian literature and visual culture.  Follow Susan @Susan_E_Cook.

For more images of Dickens, see David Simkin’s page.

[1] William Glyde Wilkins, Dickens in Cartoon and Caricature, ed. B. W. Matz (Boston: The Bibliophile Society, 1924).

[2] Joss Marsh, “The Rise of Celebrity Culture,” in Charles Dickens in Context, ed. Sally Ledger (New York: Cambridge UP, 2011), pp. 98-108 (p. 104).

[3] qtd in Claude Baillargeon, Dickensian London and the Photographic Imagination (Rochester, MI: Johnston Lithograph, 2003), p. 3.

[4] qtd. in Baillargeon, p. 4.

[5] Grahame Smith, “The Life and Times of Charles Dickens,” in The Cambridge Companion to Charles Dickens, ed. John O. Jordan (New York: Cambridge UP, 2001), pp. 1-15 (p. 12).

[6] Marsh, p. 106.

[7] Alexis Easley, Literary Celebrity, Gender, and Victorian Authorship, 1850-1914 (Newark: U of Delaware P, 2011 (p. 12).

[8] qtd. in Sidney P. Moss, “A New-Found Mathew Brady Photograph of Dickens,” The Dickensian 79.2 (1983), 105-7 (pp. 105-6).

[9] Moss, pp. 105-7.

[10] Malcolm Andrews, “Mathew Brady’s Portrait of Dickens: ‘a fraud and imposition on the public’?,” History of Photography. 28.4 (2004), 375-379.

[11] Andrew D. Bean and Catherine Griffey, “The Samuel Drummond Portrait of Charles Dickens,” The Dickensian 92.1 (1996), 25-30.

[12] Jay Clayton, Charles Dickens in Cyberspace: The Afterlife of the Nineteenth Century in Postmodern Culture (New York: Oxford UP, 2003), pp. 164, 4.

[13] Clayton, p. 102.

Related JVC Articles:

Kathryn Hughes’ “Dickens World and Dickens’s World.” JVC 15.3 (2010)

Simon Morgan’s “Material Culture and the Politics of Personality in Early Victorian England.”

JVC 17.2 (2012)

John Plunkett’s “Celebrity and Community: The poetics of the Carte-de-Visite.” JVC 8.1 (2003)

One comment

  1. What a pity that there aren’t more than two or three photographs of Dickens clean-shaven, and that the 1841 daguerreotype is lost. I’m surprised that no American daguerreotypist made an attempt when he visited, in 1842. The perception of a bearded Dickens is, to me anyway, less attractive, and more indicative of middle-age and old age, not the youthful vivacity that initially captivated the reading public. Dickens, worn with care, is not what springs to mind, but that’s all we see.

    A fine article. Even though I didn’t address any of the more profound points that you made, they were appreciated, and one can certainly relate to his dis-comfort, even though not a celebrity author.

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